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Authors: Léan Cullinan

The Living

BOOK: The Living
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THE LIVING

First published in trade paperback in Great Britain in 2014
by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © Léan Cullinan, 2014

The moral right of Léan Cullinan to be identified as the author
of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or
by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording,
or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright
owner and the above publisher of this book.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and
incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities,
is entirely coincidental.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library.

Trade Paperback ISBN: 9781782391678
E-book ISBN: 9781782391685

Printed in Great Britain
Atlantic Books
An Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
Ormond House
26–27 Boswell Street
London
WCIN
3
JZ

www.atlantic-books.co.uk

For Niall

Contents

Part One: Holding the Line

Part Two: Modulations

Part Three: A Song of Ireland

Part Four: The Living

Acknowlegements

T
HIS IS WHAT
it feels like: I have been unzipped, yanked open with grubby fingers. They are rummaging through my contents. My heart clenches in the unlooked-for light. I'm unable to pull back from the search, pinned as I am to this chair.

In reality, of course, they have not gone so far as to pin me. No need. I am seated at a plain table of the institutional sort, one leg of which is slightly askew. When I lean on the surface with my bare forearms, it rocks, making my drink of water slosh in its plastic cup. My throat hurts. The room has been painted recently. It has that smooth, echoey smell and no dirt in the corners. Little runnels of emulsion have dripped and dried below the ledge of the high, barred window.

The questions come like waves, or like the statements and developments of a sonata – themes elaborated, contrasted, juxtaposed. I am a poor participant in this performance. I don't have adequate answers.

I feel sick. My mind spins wildly, spiralling out in all the nightmare directions. I look down at the tabletop and try to breathe deeply. I finish my water. I have no idea why I'm here. Not really.
I'm cold and sore and stupid, no doubt, and possibly in great danger. I'm trying not to follow the spiral that leads to the real pain of the night, the agony of discovering that I've been duped, led on, lied to, used as a pawn in this filthy game by someone I believed I could trust.

I'm trying not to think about the gun.

Part One

Holding the Line

I
WAS DEEP IN
the dream that dogged me – endless variations on a theme: trying to find a place to have sex. This time it was at a party in a strange chaotic house, trailing from room to room, beds heaped with slippy coats, and I was half-undressed, cold and tense, and none of the doors would lock, and people kept peering in at the two of us through windows I hadn't noticed, and the boy I was with had spotty shoulders, and someone in the distance was singing trills …

When I opened my eyes I didn't immediately remember where I was. The window was too big and too close. Sunlight surged in around the edges of the curtains. I killed the alarm on my phone and sat up in this too-narrow bed as the day drifted into focus. The bed's owner, an ex of mine – although apparently not ex enough – was nowhere in evidence. For a minute I was still, enjoying the cool air on my naked back, taking long breaths and feeling my way around the hangover. I looked at my phone again: I'd had less than three hours' sleep. Probably still slightly drunk. I yawned, and there crept over me a sort of glossy alertness that I knew would let me down later on.

I heaved myself out of bed and dressed slowly, trying not to think too hard about the day ahead. This would be my first hangover at work since I'd started there. I breathed a fervent wish that no one would notice.

It dawned on me only as I fished in my handbag for a comb that the little rat must've left without saying goodbye. That was all askew, this being his place, not mine. Presumably, he felt Denise could entertain me well enough. I called that taking liberties. He'd never have done it while we were still going out.

I went slowly downstairs, feeling off balance, precarious. When I got to the kitchen I found Denise sitting at the table, painting her fingernails and reading something on her phone. She looked up. ‘Oh, there you are. Come here, are you guys back together or what?' Always the diplomat. The Louth flavour was completely gone from her accent.
Our Dee from Ardee
, she'd been called when she and I had arrived up in Trinity College five years ago, all fresh-faced and ready for action. She'd worked hard to shed the monicker. To hear her now, you'd have sworn she was born and bred in Dublin 4.

I ventured a grin. ‘No, we just … had a relapse. We probably shouldn't have.'

Denise had been going out with a nice tidy boy since third year. She had no patience with my messier approach. She lowered her chin in a combative sort of way, which for a dizzying second flashed her resemblance to her rat of a cousin. ‘Well. Do you want tea?'

‘Stay where you are – I'll make it.' I moved across to the counter and switched on the kettle.

Denise swiped at her screen, careful not to smudge her nails. I made tea in the big orange pot I'd given her for Christmas a few years ago. My hands were cold now, and my guts had begun to stir upsettingly. That bottle of take-out wine had been a mistake. So had drinking midweek in the first place – I should've held firmer.

‘Have a yoghurt or something,' Denise said as I opened the fridge for milk.

I sat down and poured the tea.

Denise said, ‘So, any scandal? You've got a real job now, haven't you? How's life, workin' for the Man?' She punctuated her last question with a theatrical wiggle.

‘It's going pretty well.' I told her a bit about Bell Books, the tiny, old-fashioned publisher where I'd recently started working, and my attempts to crank its clunky, steam-powered website into the twenty-first century. I realized as I spoke that I really did like this job, which was a novel sensation. I'd temped for a year before getting it, and had been lucky to escape with my soul.

‘Didn't what's-her-face think you should work in publishing? Career guidance woman?'

I recalled our career guidance teacher – bottle-end glasses, fluffy jumpers, permanently anxious expression. ‘O'Connell? Yeah, I think she said that.'

‘Well, there you are.'

Denise talked about her research group, her supervisor's deadpan sense of humour, the frustration of contaminated lab samples. She was trying to get hold of a fresh batch before some atomic deadline incomprehensible to me. As she talked I remembered her at the age of eight: so excited by life, bucktoothed and purposeful, so certain about her future. ‘I'm going to be a scientist.' And here she was.

Not for the first time, I felt wistful for the student life, the freedom of it, the elastic pace. There was a distance between me and Denise now that had never been there before.

I stayed until it was clear I'd be late for work. ‘What are you up to today, anyway?' I asked as I put on my jacket.

‘I'm going in to college in a while. Oh, I'm meeting the lads tonight in town. O'Neill's, I think. If you felt like joining us?'

Joining us?
What was that about? Did they think I'd become a different person? The only one of our gang who hadn't gone straight into a postgrad degree. I quelled my irritation and said I'd probably be along.

Outside, July was making a late bid to redeem itself. Clear sunshine and exactly enough breeze. Good augury, I thought, as I hurried out of Denise's estate and down the road towards the tram stop. The light, the liquid air, the crisp shadows, made even Dundrum look picturesque.

Despite the breeze, I quickly broke out in a sour, hungover sweat, dampening yesterday's shirt. I wasn't going to pull off today, was I? Even if I managed to keep it more or less together, they
were bound to notice the smell. My mood darkened. Last night hadn't been worth this. Not even close.

A tram arrived soon after I reached the stop. I sat at the window, leaning my temple against the glass and hating everything. Stupid trees. Stupid birds. Stupid sky.

When I thought about the prospect of meeting the others in O'Neill's tonight, the energy drained from me still further. Oh … I could go for a bit, couldn't I? It would be good to see everyone. Catch up on all their news. They'd be talking about their research woes and swapping tall stories. Drinking till closing time, then back to Denise's house for more drink, leading seamlessly into the political ranting and rebel songs. That was the drill. I was tired of it.

I began to spot registration numbers to sing, a habit I'd picked up from my first proper boyfriend in college. Each number represented a note of the scale, with zero being a rest. Ignoring year and county, the game was to find a number corresponding to a tune. It passed the time.

A white hatchback at Windy Arbour had 11566, which was almost ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', but not quite.

Not quite didn't count. You had to play by the rules. Stupid numbers.

A
T LEAST LET
me slip into work without George noticing. Bell Books was on the top floor of a big, shabby Victorian house in Rathmines. George, who owned the lot, lived in the basement, and the middle floor had for decades been occupied by a dressmaker,
now deceased. I opened the cast-iron gate, wincing at its screaming hinges, and walked up the garden path past the wicked old tree that overshadowed it. George's office window looked on to the front garden. Maybe he'd be away at a meeting, or something. Fingers crossed.

I crept up the uncarpeted stairs, but I was out of luck: before I rounded the return I heard George's guffaw booming from the open door of the main office. His voice carried clearly down the stairwell. ‘Of course, our friend was having none of it, and muggins here – standing there like a big eejit – and did he say one word to your man? Not at all!'

Another man gave the response – ‘Not at all! Nottattall!' His voice was a peculiar combination of breathy and shrill.

When I entered the office I found George talking to a man I hadn't seen before. They stood in the middle of the room, and seemed to occupy the entire space. Paula, the editor, was at her desk by the window, working on some proofs.

Our visitor was not as tall as George, but nearly twice as wide. His head sat squarely on massive, sloping shoulders. He was dressed in cords and tweed, with a pale check shirt buttoned up tightly under his chin. Fine, dark hair covered the top of his freckled scalp and made a little frill at his collar.

George wiped a tear of mirth from the corner of one eye with a thumb knuckle. The gesture flowed into a gracious acknowledgement of my arrival. ‘Ah, here she is, our new recruit.'

The stranger beamed at me.

‘Hello,' I said. As George seemed to expect me to go on, I added, ‘I'm Cate Houlihan.'

‘John Lawless,' said the man, extending a well-upholstered hand for me to shake.

‘Pro-
fessor
John Lawless, no less,' corrected George, ‘of UCD. The professor here is going to write us a preface for one of our forthcoming books.' He turned to Lawless with a meaningful look. ‘John, this is Fintan Sullivan's niece, would you believe.'

John Lawless opened his mouth, widened his eyes and drew his head slowly back in an exaggerated pantomime of comprehension. ‘Ah, yes,' he said, and I thought I detected a hint of a Northern accent. ‘You have the look of your uncle, all right.'

BOOK: The Living
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ads

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