Authors: Anybody Out There
There was no return address on the envelope, which was a little weird. Already I was slightly
uneasy. Even more so when I saw my name and address...
The sensible woman would not open this. The sensible woman would throw it in the bin and walk
away. But apart from a short period between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty, when had I ever
So I opened it.
It was a card, a watercolor of a bowl of droopy-looking flowers. And flimsy enough that I could
feel something inside. Money? I thought. A check? But I was just being sarcastic, even though
there was no one there to hear me, and anyway, I was only saying it in my own head.
And indeed, there was something inside: a photograph...Why was I being sent this? I already
had loads...Then I saw that I was wrong. It wasn't him at all. And suddenly I understood
M um flung open the sitting-room door and announced, "Morning, Anna, time for your
She tried to march briskly, like nurses she'd seen on hospital dramas, but there was so much
furniture in the room that instead she had to wrestle her way toward me.
When I'd arrived in Ireland eight weeks earlier, I couldn't climb the stairs, because of my
dislocated kneecap, so my parents had moved a bed downstairs into the Good Front Room.
Make no mistake, this was a huge honor: under normal circumstances we were only let into this
room at Christmastime. The rest of the year, all familial leisure activities--television watching,
chocolate eating, bickering--took place in the cramped converted garage, which went by the
grand title of Television Room.
But when my bed was installed in the GFR there was nowhere for the other fixtures--tasseled
couches, tasseled armchairs--to go. The room now looked like a discount furniture store, where
millions of couches are squashed in together, so that you almost have to clamber over them like
boulders along the seafront.
"Right, missy." Mum consulted a sheet of paper, an hour-by-hour schedule of all my medication
--antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, sleeping pills, high-impact vitamins,
painkillers that induced a very pleasant floaty feeling, and a member of the Valium family, which
she had ferried away to a secret location.
All the different packets and jars stood on a small, elaborately carved table--several china dogs
of unparalleled hideousness had been shifted to make way for them and now sat on the floor
looking reproachfully at me--and Mum began sorting through them, popping out capsules and
shaking pills from bottles.
My bed had been thoughtfully placed in the window bay so that I could look out at passing life.
Except that I couldn't: there was a net curtain in place that was as immovable as a metal wall.
Not physically immovable, you understand, but socially immovable: in Dublin suburbia brazenly
lifting your nets to have a good look at "passing life" is a social gaffe akin to painting the front of
your house Schiaparelli pink.
Besides, there was no passing life. Except...actually, through the gauzy barrier, I'd begun to
notice that most days an elderly woman stopped to let her dog wee at our gatepost--sometimes I
thought the dog, a cute black-and-white terrier, didn't even want to wee, but it was looking as if
the woman was insisting.
"Okay, missy." Mum had never called me "missy" before all of this. "Take these." She tipped a
handful of pills into my mouth and passed me a glass of water. She was very kind really, even if I
suspected she was just acting out a part.
"Dear Jesus," a voice said. It was my sister Helen, home from a night's work. She stood in the
doorway of the sitting room, looked around at all the tassels, and asked, "How can you stand it?"
Helen is the youngest of the five of us and still lives in the parental home, even though she's
twenty-nine. But why would she move out, she often asks, when she's got a rent-free gig, cable
telly, and a built-in chauffeur (Dad). The food, of course, she admits, is a problem, but there are
ways around everything.
"Hi, honey, you're home," Mum said. "How was work?"
After several career changes, Helen--and I'm not making this up, I wish I was--is a private
investigator. Mind you, it sounds far more dangerous and exciting than it is; she mostly does
white-collar crime and "domestics"--where she has to get proof of men having affairs. I would
find it terribly depressing but she says it doesn't bother her because she's always known that men
were total scumbags.
She spends a lot of time sitting in wet hedges with a long-range lens, trying to get photographic
evidence of the adulterers leaving their love nest. She could stay in her nice, warm, dry car but
then she tends to fall asleep and miss her mark.
"Mum, I'm very stressed," she said, "Any chance of a Valium?"
"My throat is killing me. War-crime sore. I'm going to bed."
Helen, on account of all the time she spends in damp hedges, gets a lot of sore throats.
"I'll bring you up some ice cream in a minute, pet," Mum said. "Tell me, I'm dying to know, did
you get your mark?"
Mum loves Helen's job, nearly more than she loves mine, and that's saying a lot. (Apparently, I
have the Best Job in the WorldTM.) Occasionally, when Helen is very bored or scared, Mum even
goes to work with her; the Case of the Missing Woman comes to mind. Helen had to go to the
woman's apartment, looking for clues (air tickets to Rio, etc. As if...) and Mum went along
because she loves seeing inside other people's houses. She says it's amazing how dirty people's
homes are when they're not expecting visitors. This gives her great relief, making it easier to live
in her own less-than-pristine crib. However, because her life had begun to resemble, however
briefly, a crime drama, Mum got carried away and tried to break down the locked apartment door
by running at it with her shoulder--even though, and I can't stress this enough, Helen had a key.
And Mum knew she had it. It had been given to her by the missing woman's sister and all Mum
got for her trouble was a badly mashed shoulder.
"It's not like on the telly," she complained afterward, kneading the top of her arm.
Then, earlier this year, someone tried to kill Helen. The general consensus was not so much
shock that such a dreadful thing would happen as amazement that it hadn't come to pass much
sooner. Of course, it wasn't really an attempt on her life. Someone threw a stone through the
television-room window during an episode of EastEnders--probably just one of the local
teenagers expressing his feelings of youthful alienation, but the next thing Mum was on the
phone to everyone, saying that someone was trying to "put the frighteners" on Helen, that they
"wanted her off the case." As "the case" was a small office fraud inquiry where an employer had
Helen install a hidden camera to see if his employees were nicking printer cartridges, this seemed
a little unlikely. But who was I to rain on their parade--and that's what I would have been doing:
they're such drama queens they actually thought this was exciting. Except for Dad and only
because he was the one who had to sweep up all the broken glass and sellotape a plastic bag over
the hole until the glazier arrived, approximately six months later. (I suspect Mum and Helen live
in a fantasy world where they think someone's going to come along and turn their lives into a
massively successful TV series. In which they will, it goes without saying, play themselves.)
"Yes, I got him. Ding-dong! Right, I'm off to bed." Instead she stretched out on one of the many
couches. "The man spotted me in the hedge, taking his picture."
Mum's hand went to her mouth, the way a person would on telly if they wanted to indicate
"Nothing to worry about," Helen said. "We had a little chat. He asked for my phone number.
Cack-head," she added with blistering scorn.
That's the thing about Helen: she's very beautiful. Men, even those she's spying on for their
wives, fall for her. Despite me being three years older than her, she and I look extremely similar:
we're short with long dark hair and almost identical faces. Mum sometimes confuses us with
each other, especially when she's not wearing her glasses. But, unlike me, Helen's got some
magic pull. She operates on an entirely unique frequency, which mesmerizes men; perhaps on the
same principle of the whistle that only dogs can hear. When men meet the two of us, you can see
their confusion. You can actually see them thinking, They look the same, but this Helen has
bewitched me like a drug, whereas that Anna is just so what...
Not that it does the men in question any good. Helen boasts that she's never been in love and I
believe her. She's unbothered by sentimentality and has contempt for everyone and everything.
Even Luke, Rachel's boyfriend--well, fianc� now. Luke is so dark and sexy and testosteroney
that I dread being alone with him. I mean, he's a lovely person, really really lovely, but just, you
know...all man. I both fancy him and am repelled by him, if that makes any sense, and everyone
--even Mum; I'd say even Dad--is sexually attracted to him. Not Helen, though.
All of a sudden Mum seized my arm--luckily, my unbroken one--and hissed, in a voice
throbbing with excitement, "Look! It's Jolly Girl, Angela Kilfeather. With her Jolly Girl
girlfriend! She must be home visiting!"
Angela Kilfeather was the most exotic creature that ever came out of our road. Well, that's not
really true, my family is far more dramatic, what with broken marriages and suicide attempts and
drug addiction and Helen, but Mum uses Angela Kilfeather as the gold standard: bad and all as
her daughers are, at least they're not lesbians who French-kiss their girlfriends beside suburban
(Helen once worked with an Indian man who mistranslated gays as "Jolly Boys." It caught on so
much that nearly everyone I knew--including all my gay friends--now referred to gay men as
Jolly Boys. And always said in an Indian accent. The logical conclusion was that lesbians were
"Jolly Girls," also said in an Indian accent.)
Mum placed one eye up against the gap between the wall and the net curtain. "I can't see, give
me your binoculars," she ordered Helen, who produced them from her rucksack with alacrity--
but only for her own personal use. A small but fierce struggle ensued. "She'll be GONE," Mum
begged. "Let me see."
"Promise you'll give me a Valium and the gift of long vision is yours."
It was a dilemma for Mum but she did the right thing.
"You know I can't do that," she said primly. "I'm your mother and it would be irresponsible."
"Please yourself," Helen said, then gazed through the binoculars and murmured, "Good Christ,
would you look at that!" Then: "Buh-loody hell! Ding-dong! What are they trying to do? A Jolly
Then Mum had sprung off the couch and was trying to grab the binoculars from Helen and they
wrestled like children, only stopping when they bumped against my hand, the one with the
missing fingernails, and my shriek of pain restored them to decorum.
A fter she'd washed me, Mum took the bandages off my face, like she did every day, then
bundled me up in a blanket. I sat in the matchbox of a back garden, watching the grass grow--
the painkillers made me superdopey and serene--and airing my cuts.
But the doctor had said that exposure to direct sunlight was strictly verboten, so even though
there was scant chance of that in Ireland in April, I wore a stupid-looking wide-brimmed hat that
Mum had worn to my sister Claire's wedding; luckily there was no one there to see me.
The sky was blue, the day was quite warm, and all was pleasant. I listened to Helen coughing
intermittently in an upstairs bedroom and dreamily watched the pretty flowers sway to the left in
the light breeze, then back to the right, then to the left again...There were late daffodils and
tulips and other pinkish ones whose name I didn't know. Funny, I remembered floatily, we used
to have a horrible garden, the worst on the whole road, perhaps in the whole of Blackrock. For
years it was just a dumping ground for rusty bicycles (ours) and empty Johnnie Walker bottles
(also ours) and that was because, unlike other, more decent, hardworking families, we had a
gardener: Michael, a bad-tempered, gnarled old man who used to do nothing except make Mum
stand in the freezing cold while he explained why he couldn't cut the grass ("The germs get in
through the cut bits, then it just ups and dies on you"). Or why he couldn't trim the hedge ("The
wall needs it for support, missus"). Instead of telling him to get lost, Mum used to buy him top-
of-the-range biscuits, then Dad used to cut the grass in the middle of the night rather than
confront him. But when Dad retired they finally had the perfect excuse to get rid of Michael. Not
that he took it graciously. Amid much mutterings about amateurs who'd have the place destroyed
within minutes, he left in high dudgeon and found employment with the O'Mahoneys, where he
rained shame down on our entire family by telling Mrs. O'Mahoney that he'd once seen Mum
drying lettuce with a dirty tea towel.
Never mind, he's gone and the flowers, courtesy of Dad, are far nicer now. My only complaint is
that the caliber of biscuits in the house has dropped dramatically since Michael's departure. But
you can't have things every way, and that realization set me off on an entirely different train of
thought, and it was only when the salt water of my tears ran into my cuts and made them sting
that I discovered I was crying.
I wanted to go back to New York. For the last few days I'd been thinking about it. Not just
considering it, but gripped by a powerful compulsion and unable to understand why I hadn't
gone before now. The problem was, though, that Mum and the rest of them would go mad when I
told them. I could already hear their arguments--I must stay in Dublin, where my roots were,
where I was loved, where they could "take care of me."
But my family's version of "caretaking" isn't like other, more normal families'. They think the
solution to everything lies in chocolate.
At the thought of how long and loud they'd protest, I was grabbed by another panicky seizure: I
had to return to New York. I had to get back to my job. I had to get back to my friends. And
although there was no way I could tell anyone this, because they would have sent for the men in
the white coats, I had to get back to Aidan.
I closed my eyes and started to drift, but suddenly, like a grinding of gears in my head, I was
plunged into a memory of noise and pain and darkness. I snapped my eyes open: the flowers
were still pretty, the grass was still green, but my heart was pounding and I was struggling for
This had started over the past few days: the painkillers weren't working as nicely as they had in
the beginning. They were wearing off faster and ragged little chinks were appearing in the
blanket of mellowness they dropped on me and the horror would rush in, like water from a burst
I struggled to my feet and went inside, where I watched Home and Away and had lunch (half a
cheese scone, five satsuma segments, two Maltesers, eight pills), then Mum dressed my
bandages again before my walk.
She loved this bit, busying about with her surgical scissors, briskly cutting lengths of cotton wool
and white sticky tape, like the doctor had shown her. Nurse Walsh tending to the sick. Matron
I closed my eyes. The touch of her fingertips on my face was soothing.
"The smaller ones on my forehead have started to itch; that's a good sign, isn't it?"
"Let's see." She moved my fringe aside to take a closer look. "These really are healing well," she
said, like she knew what she was talking about. "I think we can probably leave the bandages off
these. And maybe the one on your chin." (A perfect circle of flesh had been removed from the
very center of my chin. It will come in handy when I want to do Kirk Douglas impersonations.)
"But no scratching, missy! Of course, facial wounds are handled so well these days," she said
knowledgeably, parroting what the doctor had told us. "These sutures are far better than stitches.
It's only this one, really," she said, gently stroking antiseptic gel onto the deep, puckered gash
that ran the length of my right cheek, then pausing to let me flinch with pain. This wound wasn't
held together with sutures; instead it had dramatic Frankenstein-style stitches that looked like