Danielle McLaughlin lives in County Cork. Her stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, Southword, Long Story, Short, The Irish Times, Boyne Berries, Crannóg, The Burning Bush 2, Inktears, and Hollybough. They have also been published in various anthologies, most recently Willesden Herald New Short Stories 7 (2013), The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, Scraps - the NFFD Anthology 2013 and have been broadcast on RTE Radio. She has won a number of prizes for short fiction including the Writing Spirit Award for Fiction 2010, the From the Well Short Story Competition 2012, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition 2012, The Willesden Herald Short Story Competition 2012-2013, the Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Festival Short Story Competition 2013. She was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013.
Winner of second prize in the 2013 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
It began in her flat on a Saturday when he discovered, at the back of a shelf, a jar containing a number of small, oddly-shaped figures. ‘What are they?’ he said, lifting down the jar and peering at them through the glass.
She took the jar from him and unscrewed the lid. ‘They’re beads,’ she said, and she shook some into her hand. ‘I got them in Vietnam. They used to be on a necklace but the string broke.’ The beads were carved from wood, each figure about an inch long with a hole running through its head, just above the ears. They were fierce, angry little men with jutting barrels of bellies, tufts of sharp-edged hair rising from rosewood temples.
He poked one with his finger and it sprang from his touch like a jumping bean. ‘Ugly critters, aren’t they?’ he said.
She held up a bead between finger and thumb. ‘They were carved by a boatman on the Mekong Delta. Want to know what they’re for?’
In a less beautiful woman, the Vietnam stories might have begun to irritate, but he nodded encouragingly, waited for her to begin.
‘The first time I sleep with a new lover, I leave one behind.’
He frowned. It wasn’t her usual sort of Vietnam story. ‘That’s a bit odd.’
‘No odder than cutting a notch in the bed-post.’
‘I don’t think anyone actually does that. It’s a figure of speech.’
She rolled the beads around in her hand. They knocked and rattled against each other and made clacking sounds, engaged in their own unintelligible chatter.
‘How come I never got one?’ he said.
‘You did get one. I hide them, mostly under beds or beneath carpets.’
‘So there’s one of these little guys under my bed?’
She began to drop the beads one by one back into the jar. ‘Our first time wasn’t at your place,’ she said. ‘Our first time was at the Royal Hotel, remember?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
There was silence for a moment before she returned the jar to its place on the shelf.
‘I’d like to have one,’ he said.
‘You do have one. Yours is back at the Royal.’
‘I’d like to have one that I could look at. A sort of...’ He was about to say souvenir, but knew that was the wrong word. ‘Prize’ didn’t sound right either. ‘Love token,’ he said eventually.
‘Oh come on,’ he said, ‘you’ve got loads left. And it’s not like you’re going to need them anymore.’
She took down the jar again – grudgingly, he thought – and taking out a single bead, she placed it on his palm. It stood upright on its flat, over-sized feet, brandishing what looked like a club but on closer inspection turned out to be an entirely disproportionate penis. He stared at the bead and it seemed to stare back, fierce and naked, the twist of its mouth unmistakeably malicious.
He found himself mentally estimating the average length of a woman’s necklace, then the dimensions of the little beads, and, finally, how many a jar that size might contain. He hoped, by a process of advanced mathematics, to arrive at the number that had been dispensed. It reminded him of those unsolvable algebraic problems from his schooldays and he quickly abandoned it.
‘Was it an actual necklace?’ he said, ‘or more of a bracelet?’
‘You’re being silly about this,’ she said. She slung her bag over her shoulder and left for her photography class.
Back at his own place, he put the bead in a drawer. Later, he took it out again and placed it on a prominent shelf in the living-room, where she would see it on her next visit, and would realise that he was not the sort of man to be unnerved by so small a thing. But that night, as he tried to sleep, a battalion of tiny figures marched behind his eyelids. Vicious, piggy-eyed men, a whole army of them, spilling out of upstairs bijou flats, from hostels in Vietnam, from plush hotel rooms and dark, poky bedsits. They clambered over rocks on wind-swept shores, leering and spitting and laughing, bits of seaweed stuck to their wiry hair.
In the evenings of the week that followed, as he sat in front of the television or lay on the couch with a book, he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched. Silly, he knew, but he felt better once he turned the bead around so that the little man faced the wall. Even so, there was a sourness in the air that he couldn’t identify, something heavy and rancid that gathered in the corners of the room, hinting at calamity.
‘That’s so sweet,’ she said at the weekend when she spotted the bead, ‘Oh, hang on, he’s wrong way round.’ She faced the little man out again, positioning him closer to the front of the shelf. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I was afraid you might have had a problem with the whole... bead thing.’
‘Problem?’ he said, ‘why would I have a problem?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘I just thought you might, but I’m glad you don’t.’ She kissed him and he knew he should feel happy but, over her shoulder, he saw a pair of wooden eyes fixed on him, wide with spite and malevolence.
It was a week later, in the town of Mullingar, that he first sighted one of The Others. He was returning to his car after a meeting when he spotted a bead in the window of a charity shop. It was after six, the shop lights switched off, but in the dim of the interior he could see a woman behind the counter, putting on her coat. He banged on the glass and the woman glanced up, then disappeared into a back room. He pressed his face to the window and stared at the surly little man balanced on a tower of second-hand books. To his astonishment, he saw that what he had taken for a shadow was in fact a second bead positioned directly behind the first. Two of them! How had that played out, he wondered? What had the good people of this town made of that? And what on earth had she been doing in Mullingar? Besides the obvious.
He waited on the pavement for the shop assistant to emerge, rehearsed how he might persuade her to go back inside, sell him the beads. The street grew dim as one by one the shops brought down their shutters. After half an hour, it began to rain and he gave up. He got in his car and drove home, defeated in a way he could not explain, the swish of the windscreen wipers a subtle but relentless jeering. That night, as he tossed and turned in bed, marauding hordes of little men came charging across hills and valleys, massing on the borders of his sleep, a high-pitched whistling emanating from the holes in their heads.
‘Were you ever in Mullingar?’ he asked the following Saturday, as they sat together on a bench in the park.
‘I must have passed through once or twice,’ she said, ‘Why?’
‘No reason,’ he said, and he got up, pretending to inspect a line of rose bushes, in case he might say more.
Sunday morning, he was cooking breakfast when her phone rang. ‘Oh hello, Ian,’ she said.
He grimaced as he fluffed up the scrambled egg. Ian was one of her work colleagues, a broad-faced, chirpy man, whom he had met a few times and hadn’t liked.
‘I’m not at my flat,’ he heard her say, ‘but hang on a minute.’ She took the phone away from her ear and called across the kitchen: ‘Do you have a ladder?’ When he said he had, she gave Ian directions to the house and told him to drop by in twenty minutes.
He carried the ladder in from the shed and had it ready in the hall when the doorbell rang. He hoped to keep the transaction as brief as possible but Ian walked past the ladder without a glance and carried on into the living room. He picked up the bead from the shelf and rolled it between his fingers. Then he raised an eyebrow and smiled. It was a peculiar, knowing sort of smile, and for a moment, it looked as if he might say something, but he just shrugged and put the bead down again.
Later, after Ian had left with the ladder, he went over to where she sat reading in an armchair. ‘Did you and Ian ever....?’
‘I don’t know. What?’
‘Did you ever sleep with him?’
She slammed her book shut. ‘I don’t know what’s got into you lately,’ she said, and she got up and went out of the room.
He didn’t know where Ian lived exactly, only the general area, and a quick leaf through her address book while she was in the shower yielded nothing.
‘Why do you need to know?’ she said when he asked. These days, her tone was often sharp.
‘I need my ladder back.’
‘He’s only had it a week.’
‘I thought I might do the gutters this weekend.’
She sighed. ‘I’ll come with you then.’
‘There’s no need, I’ll go on my own. Just tell me where he lives.’
‘It’s too difficult to explain. We’ll go together.’
Ian’s house was a two-storey red brick at the end of a pleasant cul-de-sac. They walked up a gravelled path bounded by blue-flowering shrubs.
‘Sorry about this,’ she said, when Ian answered the door, ‘but he wants his ladder back.’
He didn’t know why she was being so apologetic, it was his ladder, but he said nothing, just followed Ian inside. A door led from a bright hallway to a room furnished in dark walnut furniture and tasteful rugs. They sat down side-by-side on a leather sofa.
‘Coffee?’ Ian said.
‘Coffee would be lovely,’ she said.
He waited until Ian went out of the room, then got up from the sofa and went over to a display cabinet in the corner. He began to inspect its contents, picking up ornaments and photo frames, peering behind them before setting them down again. Then he moved on to the mantelpiece and did the same.
‘What are you doing?’ she said.
When he turned to look, she was hunched over with her head in her hands. ‘Nothing,’ he said, but he didn’t sit down. He considered the TV unit and wondered if he should take a look in the drawers underneath.
‘I’m going to help Ian in the kitchen,’ she said, and she got and went down the hall.
He found nothing in the TV unit either. She had slept with Ian, he was sure of it. It was simply a question of finding the bead. What he would do with it when he found it, he was not entirely sure. Neither did he understand why he needed so very badly to have it, to hold it tight in his fist and squeeze. He gazed about the room and wondered where he might search next. It occurred to him then that Ian might never have found the bead, and in fact knew nothing of its existence; that perhaps the look he had mistaken for recognition that day in his own house when Ian held the carved figure in his hand, had been nothing more than admiration. Oh, she had slept with him all right, that he did not doubt. But the more he thought about it, the more certain he became that Ian’s bead had never seen the light of day, that it languished still in cobwebbed darkness under Ian’s bed.
He went to the door and glanced down the hall. Snatches of conversation drifted up from the kitchen and he could hear the hiss and splutter of a coffee machine. He crept upstairs. Ian’s bedroom was at the front of the house, a clean, uncluttered room: bed, wardrobe, small wooden locker. The only nod to ornamentation was a tall floor lamp shaped like a tree with a dozen or more leaf-like, tiny bulbs attached to metal branches.
Dropping to his knees on the carpet, he felt about under the bed. He pictured the angry, wooden man positioned just beyond his grasp, mocking and scowling. He decided that when he found the bead, he would not be angry. He would not bury it, burn it or throw it in the bin. On no account would he tell her that he had discovered it. Instead, he would slip it unnoticed back into the jar, thus unwinding time, undoing a small part of her past, a part that whistled at him, taunted him, kept him from his sleep. His hand touched something small and hard. It turned out to be a mint, sprouting a mixture of hair and carpet fabric, and he flung it to the far corner of the room.
In an effort to reach further under the bed, he stretched full length on the floor. His foot caught the lamp and brought it crashing down, leaf-like bulbs shattering, metal twigs buckling and snapping. Tiny shards of glass peppered his clothes like shrapnel, but still he hunted the little, wooden man, his hands sweeping in frantic arcs beneath the bed, not stopping even when he heard feet on the stairs, even when he glimpsed, in the gap between floor and valance, the tips of Ian’s brown shoes. And as he heard a second set of footsteps approach, and knew she must be standing beside Ian in the doorway, still he thrust his hand ever further into the darkness, his fingers closing upon nothing but dust.
©2013 Danielle McLaughlin
'A Different Country' shortlisted for Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2013 Award
'The Governor's Gin': fiction at Long Story, Short
'Fields with Asterisks are Mandatory': fiction in Burning Bush 2
'All About Danielle McLaughlin': a guest post by Ethel Rohan
'To the Tea Rooms' by Danielle McLaughlin on RTE Radio 1
'Midnight at Ali's King Kebab Takeaway': a short story in Southword (Issue 22)
Purchase The Stinging Fly with fiction by McLaughlin (Issues 21, 23, and 26)