The four-year-old boy tore off the paper and pushed the sweet into his mouth. The toffee stuck to his baby teeth. He tried to extract it with a finger. The toffee stuck to his fingers and he began to cry. The slap of the ruler across his knuckles caught him by surprise and momentarily stopped his whimpering. But once he felt the pain shoot up his hand, he screamed. ‘I want to go home!’ ‘Shut up. Not another word. You’re upsetting the other children. Look around you. You’re a mean little boy, and if you don’t stop, I’ll stand you outside the door in the rain. You know there are bad people out there and the bad people come to take away naughty little children. Do you want that to happen to you?’ He sniffed away his tears and bit his lip, feeling the toffee still stuck to his front tooth. ‘I asked you a question. Answer me.
’ Another crack of the ruler, this time on the desk. ‘No.’ He nodded vigorously. He did not want to feel that ruler on his hand or anywhere else again. He would be a good boy. ‘Put that wrapper in the bin and open your spelling book.’ He had no idea which one was his spelling book. ‘Come up here!’ Making his way to the front of the classroom, he tried fruitlessly to tear the sweet wrapper from his hand. ‘It’s stuck.’ With the piece of paper sticking fast to his throbbing fingers, he faced the teacher.
The ruler came down hard and sharp on his hand once more. ‘Get back to your seat.’ His first day at school was turning out to be even worse than life at home. As he walked back to his desk, he felt the warmth trickle down his leg and settle inside his white ankle sock. The ruler would surely visit him again many times, today and in days to come. He didn’t think he wanted to wait around for that. But where else could he go? He spent the morning sitting in his wet shorts; he didn’t even go out to the playground when the other children left for their break. He stayed at his desk, opened his lunch box and munched on the bruised banana. The teacher sat at her desk at the head of the classroom, her eyes blinking with every movement of his jaw. ‘Come here,’ she said when the other children returned.
He looked up fearfully and the banana lodged in his throat. Not wanting to feel the timber of the ruler again, he put down the fruit and made his way forward. When he reached her desk, barely able to see over the edge, she leaned forward and grabbed his hair. He shrieked when he saw the long-bladed scissors in her hand. ‘Your hair is much too long. You can hardly see out through it. You need a trim.’ He tried to say no, but the words stuck to the roof of his mouth like the toffee had stuck to his fingers. He loved his hair. Shoulder length.
It reminded him of the photo of his mother. He had her hair. The teacher waved the scissors in front of him before tugging his fringe. She looked at him triumphantly, a lock of his hair clasped in her hand. ‘Now I can see your horrible little face.’ Silently, he wished for the day to end. NOVEMBER * Is there ever a good day to die? The man didn’t think so as he silently answered his own question. The sky was a greyish blue. Murky. The clouds on the horizon forewarned of a touch of rain to come.
Otherwise, the day wasn’t too bad. He moved slowly into the forest of trees that skirted the narrow road around the lake. He wanted to see the lake before he did what he had to do. It was late evening and he was sure the fishermen would have departed. Not that there were many fish to be caught in November, he thought wryly. The forest floor foliage was green and lush, and smelly. The branches above his head, winter bare. Broken twigs and ferns crunched beneath his feet. Had someone walked this exact same way recently? His brain was crowded with so many unanswered questions, it was like a bubble waiting to be pricked with a spike. And he knew that there was no one in the world to care; to really care for him.
He was totally alone. Desolate as the branches, at peace with himself. Almost. A knotted branch tangled in his hair as he delved further through the dense forest to where it was dark and more than a little bit damp. He paused and listened to the sounds of animals he could not see scurrying through the long grass. I’m not afraid any more, he thought. Not afraid of any living thing. He crouched down and, virtually crawling, scrabbled his way through thorns and briars. The sound of water reached his ears. The trumpet of winter swans pierced the air.
Pausing once again, he listened. Followed the sound. Reaching a clearing, he found the source of the water. Not the lake, but a stone mound spewing a fresh spring from a crevice between the rocks. He leaned over. Scooped some water into his mouth and relished the taste. He made up his mind. He was going to fight back. That was when he heard another sound. As he turned his head, a hand circled his mouth and another clenched tightly on his throat.
His last thought was: it is a good day to die. DECEMBER CHAPTER ONE WEDNESDAY Ragmullin in December presented itself as a beautiful place. From a distance. Lottie stared out through the window at the early-morning sky. No hint of blue, just flat grey. Even the snow looked like gunmetal. The snowman her son Sean had built for her fifteen-month-old grandson Louis, stood rock solid in the garden. It was too early to go to work. She forced herself to load the washing machine and then the dishwasher. Moving to the hall, she listened at the foot of the stairs.
No sound came from above, so she returned to the kitchen and switched on the kettle. Tea, rather than coffee, was her choice of drink at the moment. Too much coffee gave her the jitters. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she absently folded a stack of clean clothes, separating them into bundles for her three children. The girls were officially adults now. A few weeks ago, they’d celebrated Chloe’s eighteenth birthday. The party had been organised by twenty-one-year-old Katie and fifteen-year-old Sean. Sean was already taller than Lottie and possessed the same startling blue eyes as his father had. She was momentarily catapulted back to a time before Adam had died. Five years ago.
Cancer. Too young. Too quick. Too hard to believe. Too long grieving until Mark Boyd had proposed to her. She’d dithered for a while, unsure what to do, but she knew she loved him. The night of Chloe’s party, she’d said yes to him, though they had yet to sort out the details, like setting a date and telling people. So far, it was their secret. Her choice. The kettle purred.
She fetched a mug and popped a slice of out-of-date bread into the toaster. Added bread to the whiteboard list attached to the refrigerator. Hopefully Katie would run to the shops later. Some hope, she told herself, and snapped a quick photo of the list in case she had to do it herself after work. When the toaster popped, she took out the bread and chewed. It was dry. The tea tasted like sawdust. Feck it. She decided to stop on the way for a McDonald’s coffee, jitters be damned. Pulling on her jacket, she tied a bobbin around her straggly hair and shoved it under her hood.
As she left the house, she wondered what kind of humour Boyd would be in today. Mark Boyd tightened the knot on his tie and appraised the effect in his tiny bathroom mirror. He wasn’t impressed with the image reflected back at him. His tightly cut hair was now more salt than pepper and his eyes betrayed last night’s heavy drinking. Sunken hollows emphasised his cheekbones. At his age, he knew he shouldn’t have sagging skin around his throat. He should get out on his bike for a cycle. But the weather was too cold and icy for cycling, he thought, ignoring the fact that he had a turbo bike folded up in the corner of his kitchenette. No, he needed to deal with the tangible issues in his life. For that he had requested a half-day off work.
He hoped Lottie approved it, otherwise he’d have to go AWOL. In the living area of his one-bedroom apartment he heard his friend Larry Kirby snoring loudly, his torso sprawled across the couch and feet plonked on the overflowing coffee table. Beer cans and bottles littered all available space. Boyd felt his bones creak and his skin prickle. He hated mess. Quickly he gathered up the cans and bottles, placing them in a sack for recycling. Kirby stirred. Struggled to sit upright. ‘Where the hell am I?’ He glanced around, bleary-eyed, and ran a hand through his mop of busy hair. ‘Oh, Boyd, it’s you.
That was some session last night. Where’s McKeown?’ Boyd shrugged and thought for a moment. They’d abandoned Sam McKeown, the newest member of their team, in Cafferty’s Pub when they’d left at … shit, he had no idea what time it’d been. ‘God only knows where he ended up.’ He placed the recycling sack on the floor beside his turbo bike. ‘Fancy a coffee? There’s a clean towel in the airing cupboard if you want to take a shower.’ He found a packet of paracetamol and swallowed two. Kirby sniffed his armpits. ‘Don’t suppose you have a shirt I could wear?’ Boyd smirked. Kirby was twice his width.
‘What do you think?’ ‘I’ll have that coffee, so.’ As Boyd busied himself making the coffee, Kirby said, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Despite a thundering hangover, I’m grand.’ ‘You were pretty intense last night. All maudlin and depressed.’ ‘I’m always like that, according to you.’ Boyd wondered what he’d been saying towards the latter part of the night. Kirby yawned loudly. ‘Every second word out of your mouth was Lottie this and Lottie that. God, I don’t know what McKeown must have thought of you.’ Boyd brought two mugs of coffee to the living area and sat down opposite Kirby.
‘Was I that bad?’ ‘Worse.’ ‘Shit.’ ‘Why don’t you put a ring on her finger? Anyone with one eye can see you two are meant for each other.’ Boyd felt the blush work its way up his cheeks. He’d been thrilled when Lottie had agreed to marry him, but they’d decided – no, he thought, she’d decided to tell no one yet, as it was too awkward with them both working in the same garda station. But all that was before everything else. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ‘I still have an engagement ring if you want it.’ Kirby laughed, then grimaced. ‘I can buy my own, thank you very much.
When and if I need one.’ Boyd closed his eyes and ran a hand over his throbbing forehead. The paracetamol was taking its time to do the job. ‘Suit yourself.’ Kirby put his mug down on the table. Clutching his hands between his knees, he stared glassy-eyed. ‘I’ve no use for it now that Gilly’s … you know …’ ‘I know, it’s bloody tough. Give yourself time to grieve.’ Boyd thought of Garda Gilly O’Donoghue, who had been murdered during the summer. Gilly was the first woman Larry Kirby had fallen for since his divorce years previously.
‘That’s what everyone says.’ With creaking knees and a raspy cough from too many cigars, Kirby stood. ‘Jesus, I stink. I’ll see you at the office. What the hell time is it now?’ ‘Half past six.’ ‘Ah, for Christ’s sake. Why’d you wake me at such an ungodly hour? I’ve time for a snooze before work. I’m off. See you later.’ As Boyd sipped his coffee, he spied a whiskey bottle lying on its side under the couch.
He got down on his knees and picked it up; shook his head and went to fetch his Dyson. CHAPTER TWO The pigs were making an unmerciful noise in the sheds. Wind rattled the windows violently as another blizzard spun snow diagonally across the yard. Beth Clarke took a mug from the cupboard and turned on the tap. Nothing. She tried again. Still nothing. ‘Dad!’ She shouted into the living room, where her father was furiously banging the keys of an old-fashioned calculator. ‘What’s wrong with the water?’ ‘Frozen pipes, no doubt.’ His voice sounded faint against the thump of his fingers.
‘What are you going to do about it?’ She clattered the mug into the sink and checked to see if there was enough water in the kettle for him to make his tea later. Probably. Just. ‘For pity’s sake,’ he growled. She turned round to find him standing in the doorway, one hand holding a calculator and the other clutching a sheaf of pages bleeding handwritten figures into crooked columns. He was dressed in yesterday’s clothes. ‘Were you up all night?’ ‘Yeah, more’s the pity. I can’t balance this VAT return. Don’t suppose you could put this lot onto your laptop, could you?’ His voice cut in two with a cough and he doubled over, wheezing. ‘You suppose correctly.
’ Bending down, Beth picked up her rucksack from beneath the table and hauled it onto her back. She smoothed her black skinny jeans down to her ankles and tied up a lace on her shiny red boots. ‘I’m off to work. ‘Work? Surely they won’t be expecting you in this weather.’ ‘I’ve to attend the switching-on of the Christmas lights this afternoon. First, though, I have to visit the festive markets in town.’ She felt a rush of excitement. She loved writing features for the local newspaper. ‘You can’t drive that road in this weather. It’s nearly fifteen kilometres.
’ ‘As if I didn’t know,’ she said under her breath. ‘Give me a minute to throw on a coat. I’ll drop you into town.’ ‘I’ll be fine.’ She picked up her black puffa jacket from the back of a chair and dragged it on before realising she’d put it on over her rucksack. ‘Damn.’ As she rearranged herself, she heard the pad of her father’s bare feet trek to his makeshift office in the corner of the living room. He’s a lost cause, she thought. Opening the back door, she was immediately assaulted by the high-pitched squeal of the pigs. ‘Don’t forget to feed the stock,’ she shouted, her words sucked from her mouth by the wind.
Carefully she made her way across the yard to her Volkswagen Golf. Bright blue. Her mother had bought it not long before she’d hightailed it off to somewhere it never snowed. Five years ago, when Beth was just nineteen. She paused. She’d heard that her mother had returned to Ragmullin, but she had no desire to seek her out. The car door was frozen stiff. She breathed on the handle, hoping to defrost the lock. No such luck. She’d have to use the last drop of water from the kettle.
Perhaps, when her father found it impossible to make himself a mug of tea, he might motivate himself to fix a few things around the farm. God, but she hated living in the village of Ballydoon. She firmly believed it was the absolute arsehole of nowhere. It was a full seven minutes before Christy heard Beth drive slowly away down the frozen road. ‘That girl definitely has a streak of her mother in her,’ he mumbled to himself, and he didn’t think it was a good streak either. His wife – or ex-wife if he wanted to be pedantic – had always carried a devilish look in her eye, and did whatever she wanted whenever the whim took hold of her. He prayed to God that Beth wouldn’t leave him too. A glance at the ledger told him there wasn’t a hope in hell of balancing the figures. Trying to keep the farm going was proving too much for him. He’d closed down the garage in the village, even though that hadn’t been of his own free will.
He cursed the deal he’d done, but it had been necessary. He still couldn’t manage. Throwing down the invoices, he went to the kitchen to make breakfast. He shook the kettle. Empty. He turned on the tap. Nothing. The pipes had frozen in the night. ‘Blast it all to hell and back,’ he said. Fetching a carton from the fridge, he poured milk into a glass.
Gulping down the cool liquid, he scanned the yard through the window. The pigs were unusually loud this morning. Feeling the weight of the world settling on his fifty-six-year-old shoulders, Christy Clarke tugged on his wellingtons, dragged his coat from the hook on the back of the door and went to investigate the frozen pipes. ‘Shut up, you fuckers,’ he yelled at the pigs as he passed the shed door. The stairs got her every time. Not the number of them; there were twenty-one. No, it was their narrowness and lack of depth. Her toes stubbed every second step, and on a couple of occasions, while perfectly sober, she’d climbed the last three on her hands and knees. Today, because the lift was out of order yet again, she took them slowly, the weight of her life settling into the soles of her feet. At her apartment, Cara Dunne inserted her key in the lock.
Inside, she leaned against the door and watched her breath hang in the air. She slipped off her damp shoes and shook out her coat before hanging it up, then walked past the bathroom to the open-plan living area. It was bright on one side and dark on the other, where there was no window; just a green wall with one drab painting. Putting her hat on the radiator, she found it was freezing. Damn. She checked the thermostat; it was on the highest setting. Something wasn’t working. What a day for it to happen. She sat in her armchair and switched on her phone to locate the caretaker’s number. She couldn’t remember his name.
Mills or Wills or something like that. Her brain was dulled from the pain she’d suffered in the last few months. Most of that pain, she had to admit, was in her heart, but it metamorphosed into her physiology like a metastatic cancer, racking her with spasms without warning. She’d taken time off work. She was due to return next week. But she couldn’t. Not yet. Nothing had been resolved. And he was still out there, laughing his head off and telling lies about her. Another pain shot up her chest and she tried to control her breathing.
Her eye was drawn to the old brown suitcase nestled on the shelf beneath the television. A suitcase of someone else’s memories. A suitcase that had travelled everywhere with her in the years since she’d headed to Dublin to study to become a teacher. A suitcase battered and broken. Like herself. Gosh, she thought, I’m such a cliché. She made her way into the bedroom, stripped off her damp jeans and placed them on the radiator. Cold. Ah, the caretaker. Opening the wardrobe, she caught sight of the dress.
Hanging under clear plastic at the end of the rail. Mocking her. A dress she would never wear. Why had she kept it? She had no idea of anything any more. He had stolen every last original thought from her brain and then abandoned her with a laugh. She felt acid lodge in her throat and thought she might throw up. But she swallowed it back down, like she’d have to swallow her pride and face her friends and colleagues. One day. Soon. Or never? She shrugged away the thought and took out the hanger with the plastic-covered dress.
She would try it on one last time, then it was headed for eBay. A creak. Somewhere in the apartment. She paused with the gown weighing heavy on her arm. What had she heard? She listened. Nothing. Must be the radiators. ‘I’m really going mad now,’ she said aloud. She laid out the gown on the bed and whipped off her shirt. She undid the zipper on the cover and lifted out the diamond-studded satin garment.
Her eyes filled with tears for a day that would never arrive. Holding out the dress, she stepped into it. The cool material sheathed her body like a second skin as she gently tugged it up to her shoulders, breathing in as she stretched to pull up the side zip. There it was again. The creak. A door. Opening. She’d locked the front door, hadn’t she? Apart from her bedroom, the only other door in the open-plan apartment was the bathroom. In the wardrobe mirror she watched her face turn pale and her mouth open, an unuttered yell lodged in her throat. With the dress hampering her feet, she crept into the living room.
‘Anyone here?’ she said, hoping no one answered her. Nothing. No one. She looked in the small kitchen. Empty. Another creak, and the bathroom door opened. She backed up against the cold radiator. There was someone in her apartment.