She hates this beach. Why he suggested it, and why she even agreed to meet him there, she cannot say. He must think, it’s a beach, therefore it’ll make for a nice romantic meeting-point. Pick a beach, any beach will do. It just so happens to be this one. Gold Haven. It stirs up certain memories for her. Memories she’d rather not re-visit.
She makes a point of never going near it, not in the summer when the holiday-makers take it over, nor in the winter, when the crowds are gone and there are only the waves for company. She wishes he’d suggested somewhere else; wishes she hadn’t agreed to come. Only the possibility of seeing him brings her there.
“I need you to look me dead in the eyes, and put your hands in mine. Can you do that?”
“Good. Now try and clear your mind and concentrate on the sound of your heartbeat.”
“Yes, just that. Relax. Just focus on me, keep looking into my eyes. You’ll feel a strange tingle working its way up from the base of your spine.”
“Why is your voice changing? You sound… different.”
“Don’t worry about that. Try to relax for me.”
“Why… why are you whispering?”
“Never mind why. Do you feel the tinge now? Good. Don’t fight it. This will all be over in a minute.”
There is only the cannibal moon, and black-star friction. The dreams will come, inevitable as the sleep cocooning them. I won’t be fully awake, as long as I remember them. The swiping of rain. Flashes of colour, autumnal blue or wintry red, like sordid warnings. Patches of greenish flame, plain as pollution. A ruby among pebbles. Tattooed streets and unlit fields. Tears of petroleum. Noises without sources. Faces devoid of names. The cry of a priest, bellowing his deity’s decree, splicing through eardrum and heart. The hazy fever of it all, before seeping back to wakefulness. And then nothing: just the the cannibal moon, and black-star friction.
She remembers the day she first met him. Walking home from work after a particularly tedious shift, she decided on a whim to see a photography exhibition on South William Street. The upstairs art gallery where the exhibition was held was tomblike, dimly-lit; the few people there milled about, taking in the artwork and sipping glasses of free wine. She hadn’t gone because she particularly liked the artwork; the gallery specialized in figurative sculptures, macabre installation pieces and garish, surrealist paintings intended to intrigue and shock the viewer. But everything the curator, with whom she was somewhat acquainted, insisted on displaying was always too ridiculous to be intrigued or shocked by. After the day she’d had, she just needed a laugh, and the free wine.
She stood under a series of several very imposing black-and-white photographs, all a metre wide and mounted on a black velvet screen, each frame encircling the face of a pale, wraithlike young woman. In every picture, the woman was being gagged, blindfolded, chained or otherwise threatened by an unseen presence, her face gnarled in varying expressions of agony, or orgasm, or fright. In one, her head was shaved; in another her face was tattooed beyond recognition in a mass of coiled, raw tracings that resembled welts or third-degree burns. Sometimes, her eyes were clenched shut; in others, she gazed out at the viewer in gimlet, steely-eyed judgement. The lighting in each photo was brutally rendered; the shading cut across the girl’s face and shoulder-blades like groping hands. Her gaping mouth resembled a wound; her closed eye seemed to be sewn shut.
But it was the photograph of the woman on fire that held her attention the most. This is the only photograph with any colour in it. She was standing impassive, her limbs cloaked in a morass of red-gold flame, the first signs of third-degree burns already starting to sprout on her naked torso like carbuncles. Like the others, it was set to a black background, but here the blackness served to throw the image into a far more explicit relief.
She’d stared at it for a long time, mesmerized by its violence and fervent dimensions, until she sensed someone standing beside her, just out of her field of vision. She turned to see a man, silver-haired and thin-jowelled and easily her da’s age, avoiding her eye while making a show of staring raptly at the photograph and holding his wineglass by the stem. She’d already noticed him, moments after walking into the gallery, honed in on him as a workable target. He’d been overdoing it: thumbs hooked in his belt buckle, he shot a smug, too-wide grin at every woman he saw. As he stood next to her, she could hear him breathing, slightly heavier than normal. Finally, she rolled her eyes and put him out of his misery.
“Quite a sight, aren’t they?”
He simpered, thrilled to have her attention. “Yes. Do you like this one the most?” She picked up the slight trace of a London accent.
“It’s the only one to grab my eye so far.”
“Really? Why just this one?”
“It’s like the photographer is just trying to shock with the others. This is the only one that actually seems genuine.”
He looked back at it. “Well, he’s certainly not a World of Interiors kind of guy. His colourants are far too harsh… They grab the eyeballs, but there’s very little else to see. You’re right, he’s too reliant on novelty, I think, but he knows how to get our attention, at least.” He noticed her grinning slightly. “Evidently you don’t agree.”
She didn’t take the bait. “You’re the photographer, I take it?”
He squinted at her, as if thinking. “Not of these, no, but I do a bit of photography myself.”
“Really? And what are your photos of?”
“Oh, I have my specialities,” he said, lowering his voice to a soft murmur which, she imagined, he meant to sound seductive.
“Oh? Do tell.”
“Well, I specialise in erotic photography. I like to explore the beauty of the female body in all its variations. But the work can be very difficult for me. I’m rarely able to find models who are game enough to help me with the sort of thing I want to accomplish.”
She looked down and sipped her wine so he couldn’t see the wry smile hooking the corners of her mouth.
“It’s all in the lighting,” he continued. “I try to make unbearable realities look more exquisite.” At this point he turned back to the image. “So. How interested are you in photography?”
“Tell me, did you worry about getting caught? Did you think you’d planned it out so methodically, covered your tracks with such fixated vigilance, that the guards wouldn’t have a hope of tracking you down?”
“No. I have been living in fear the entire time. I haven’t slept properly in weeks. I’ve lost weight. I know it is only a matter of time before the trail leads back to me.”
“And yet they have found nothing. You covered your footsteps well.”
“But now you have found me.”
Knees planted in the sand, the blindfold is fastened tight around his cranium. The blade of the scimitar catches the sunlight as it is raised in the air. He knows by heart the prayer his killers will chant to the sky.
She doesn’t have to be here. She could come back here a thousand times and still be a stranger. Then again, anybody could be, with the beach, each other and themselves. When he’d suggested they go there, she bit back the sudden surge of disquiet brimming to her throat, and said it would be fine. All that day she’s told herself to get a grip, everything will be fine, her imagination is overheated again.
Because she knows all about him. Since meeting him at the gallery, she’s hypnotized him twice, commanded him to spill his secrets. She is privy to details that the police, along with the dead girl’s family, would very much like to know. She is gathering data, archiving it all for when she will hand it in. Until such time, she is having her fun and picking up some very useful tips. Given how sloppy he actually was in keeping the guards off his tail, she’s amazed he is still a free man.
She’ll fuck him if necessary, allow him to tie her down and come in her mouth if that is what the moment requires. On the night in the galley, when they first met, she let him put his hand, gently but firmly, on her waist while they spoke, run his fingertip up the base of her spine, let the icy tingle swell through her; she forces herself to endure his smarm and oily compliments, laughs on cue at his jokes; generally makes him feel like the situation was his to control. It isn’t always easy; he kisses like a fish.
Whenever she hypnotizes someone, a pattern always emerges, no matter who the person is, routine and predictable as clockwork. She sits them down opposite her and imparts the mesmeric sequence of orders. They shut their eyes, and speak in an increasingly-more faraway manner as she tells them what to do. Their eyes flutter rapidly, as if they have poured eye-drops between their lids and are trying to absorb them. Their mouths hang open, as if about to receive communion. She then lights a candle, or chimes a bell, or swings her timepiece before their shut eyes, the brass glint skimming over their flesh. She whispers a designated word of lulling in their ear. They think they have fallen asleep, and will remember nothing of what they say or what she makes them do. Afterward, when they resurface, they’ll carry on as they always have, blissfully unaware of what had happened while the trance gripped them. No bone-juddering flashbacks, no sudden darts of conscience or hideous realisations — she alone will know what they have done or said.
It isn’t magic, she has decided. It is an unheeded science.
And he is no different than the others, she has found. In fact, he’s the most fruitful subject she’s imperiled with the science. There could be any number of men like him floating through the city like plankton, quietly going about whatever deviancy they fancy and confident of not being caught. Since meeting him, she’s managed to mine enough everyday, but nonetheless useful, information about him to use, as she has with the others.
He’d been living in Ireland for over ten years, having come over from London, and used to spend his childhood summers with relatives in Wicklow. He lied about his age, claiming he was thirty-six, until a quick rummage through his wallet revealed that he was, in fact, forty-eight. His heroes are Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo, Henry Miller, Gustav Dore, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Irving Klaw, Stanley Kubrick and Steve McCurry. He is on the dole, but, “that was to change soon”, according to him. He’s planning his own photography exhibition, to be held in the gallery where they met, under the provisional title ‘After the Afterglow: Orgasms and Rapture’. He enjoys BDSM and role-playing, has a profile on several kink websites; he is a Dom, and prefers to punish his Subs with a cane. On his laptop at home is a hard drive loaded with four gigabytes’ worth of pictures and video clips of underage girls being tied up, mutilated, strangled or stabbed, all downloaded from various child-porn websites in Russia and the States. He’s skint through not having a job, smokes Amber Leaf rollies; his most recent relationship ended two years ago. He is fascinated with a recent, as yet-unsolved murder case, wherein the body of a young girl was found stabbed and eviscerated among the sand dunes of Gold Haven. She knows the case well; it’s been flooding her newsfeed for the last month now, a continual flurry of live updates, op-ed pieces and lengthy Facebook screeds.
Some of this information, she knows, is more useful than others.
She realises how exhilerating to have such unbridled power over another human being. He sinks down into the darkness she’s woven for him and resurface just as quickly at the mere snap of her fingers. Any demand she makes of him he will carry out, no matter how reckless or impossible. The private thrills she could have from it. But she is disciplined — she won’t go any further than she must.
But when she senses that salty tang and steps onto the dank, squashy sand, the old dread comes swirling back. Now that she was there, she wanted to get this over and done with as quickly as possible.
I lit a fire for warmth on the beach. All things lead back to it. The flames sprinkled such eager light, their golden hunger thrashing in a sea-wind’s upsurge. I am the only recipient of the crackled, ashy tears that spill and blacken the sand at my feet. I wait until the flames smoke themselves out to a rosy seethe. Then I pull a handful of soot out the rim, and start rubbing it into my face. Rub it in as if it’s warpaint or moisturizer, until my jaw and cheeks are thoroughly coated in its charcoal. But there is a design to what I am doing. Under my eyelids I daub two black stretches, and the same over my nose and under my cheekbones. Over my lips I smear the whiter flakes. Gaping hole of an eye socket, bared fangs and ashy fingers, smile stiffened and steeled by death, flames writhing in the blue light: my face is a sooty veil, the human skull.
Gold Haven is a four-mile stretch of pebbly sand, tawny and sickle-shaped, flanked on the far end by the sea-wall where the lifeguard’s hut is perched. A bald drumlin hunkers at the far end, capped with dead marram grass. The sand is ruffled, still damp from the rain, strewn with burnt-out cigarettes and flint. Waves belch all manner of toxic slurry up on the shore, frayed lifejackets, gutted fishing nets, shards of crushed shells. Levelled plastic bottles and cider cans, along with an ash-laden patch where a campfire had been lit, speckle the dunes. The tideline, at an ebb, is rimmed by a foamy surplus of bladderwrack. The reek stings her nostrils.
Ever since the girl’s body was found there, people rarely go near it anymore, even in the summer. It’s got a haunted feel to it now. Despite the relatively calm water, she sees a red flag, flapping wildly from its pole in the sharp breeze. There’ll be a high tide tonight. She zips her jacket up to her chin and keeps walking, kicking up sand as she goes. She is wearing her old Converse sneakers — not the best, she realises too late, for walking in sand.
This is their second date. She has insisted that they do something that didn’t involve alcohol or loud music throbbing in their ears or whips. She thinks he is secretly relieved by the suggestion. The last two times they’d been together, on the night they’d first met and later on their first date, he’d drunk too much, and the hypnosis didn’t work as well. He doesn’t seem like much of a drinker, though; she knows she just makes him nervous. Even so, she’s brought along a naggin of vodka in her bag. She knows she’ll need it after today.
She gave him her number for a reason. Giving her number out to anyone is a habit she quickly dropped after her first year of college, surrendering it out of politeness to any dancefloor Romeo — or horny, pleasure-seeking fuckwits, as she likes to think of them — who tried getting off with her on a night out. Invariably, they thought it gave them a look-in with her, and so she got bombarded with sexts and dick pics until she’d block their number. He doesn’t seem like that, though. He’s much more subtle in his momenta.
It is early September. Sea-breeze hustles in a cool murmur against her throat. She wonders, for the umpteenth time, why it’s called Gold Haven. It isn’t a typical name, not for an Irish beach, anyway; it sounds more like the given moniker of a gated holiday home, or a particularly seedy boulevard in downtown Miami or Los Angeles, swarming with prostitutes and the lurid neon of porn cinemas. And of course, the sand isn’t golden, but the colour of diluted mud. The rank whiff of seaweed tumbles off the rocks. The low grumble of a trawler, several miles out to sea and returning back to port, echoes cheerlessly across the bay. The quiet of the place is deceptive; town is only a few miles away.
She is only there for him, as he is for her. She knows.
“You’re going to tell me everything. Every detail. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“You have no history of violence or mental illness, you don’t ordinarily engage in destructive or harmful behavior (at least, none you have owned to or were caught indulging in), you have no previous criminal convictions. No overdue tax payments, or even a parking fine. You come from a good family — that is, a family that can afford to keep its dirty laundry out of sight — and you did well in school and college. Hell, for a while you were independently wealthy and making a good living with a PR firm before things went bust and you ended up taking pocket money from the dole office. For all intents and purposes, you’re a model citizen. So, the only question is, why did you do what you did?”
“I wanted to see what it would be like.”
He’s texted to say that he’s already at the beach, a good ten minutes before she arrived. If he was late, then she wouldn’t bother waiting for him. She had better things to do than skulk around on this gloomy strip of sand while he took his sweet old time. But now that she knows he’s here, she can’t help darting her eyes about for him, among the scattered few walkers who have decided the place is worth burying their heels in: two teenage lads sharing a spliff near the wall, a couple turning back to the carpark, an old man letting his dog off its leash so it could run freely for a while.
She wants a sign of him, some signal of his presence: the stencilled imprint of his army-surplus boots in the sand, a discarded cigarette butt, still weakly smoking amid the marram grass, scorched leftovers of a campfire, his deoderant’s sour tang. She pushes away the idea of his trying to light a campfire, though. Why would he, chilly as it was? He doesn’t seem like he’d know the first thing about making fires.
If it were up to her, they’d be under the covers in her bedroom by now. Or else they’d be sitting in one of the pubs in the nearby village. He’d already be on his second pint, she’d be sipping Bulmers, pretending to snuggle gamely up to him and take in his smell. And she’d be paying, she knows. He’s usually low on cash.
She wonders what he is up to, at that precise moment. She imagines him at the beach’s far end, windblown and twitchy, pacing up and down, restively checking his phone every two minutes. So it surprises her when she sees him exactly where she expected to, perched on a reef barrier, hands in his jacket pockets, staring pensively out at the tide. She can’t help but roll her eyes. It is a contrived stance, typical of him, made purely for effect; he seems to be posing while his statue was being chiselled. He must have seen her coming, because he turns to her before she can call his name, and winks at her.
He bounds down from the rock, lips curled back into a keen grin, and kisses her. He tastes of Amber Leaf. They hold each other for a while, taking each other in. She isn’t one for romantic gestures — they invariably come off as stale and contrived to her, and this time is no different. But a flurry of relief spills through her. The excitement, the kinetic urgency of seeing him again and knowing he’s in her sights, is still there. He kisses her neck; she feels his erection against her thigh. Already she knows that this moment, in all its sensation, the wind ruffling his hair, the waves rustling around them, the flint-coloured sea just within her field of vision over his shoulder, the gulls calling to one another as if in warning or argument, the warmth of his arms, and the way he smiles at her, so full of trust and welcome and anticipation, will be the way she’ll remember him forever, come whatever may.
“I was getting worried you wouldn’t show up,” he says. “Expected a text from you calling today off any minute.”
“I’m here now,” she says. “I make plans, I stick to them.”
“Good to know. You look great.”
She ignores the flattery; she hadn’t dressed for him. She’s wearing her plaid-leather jacket and check shirt from H&M, tucked into her jeans. Like a lad. He might’ve hoped she’d dress more daintily, but it’s too cold for that. They stand there for a while and kiss; for a while she’s able to forget the beach and the cold. Then he takes her by the hand and tries leading her away. She gently loosens his grip. He gives her a confused look.
“I’m fine. It’s just a bit early for that, don’t you think?”
“For holding hands?”
“Yeah. I’ve said to you before, I’m not mad about public displays of affection.”
She winces at him saying her name. She doesn’t know what it is; it just sounds weird, him snarling the spiked syllables on his tongue, whether with exasperation or desire she cannot tell. Since she first met him, she thought he’d only said it aloud to her once. She can’t help it; it needles at some shadowy and uncharted zone of her mind which she’d rather not confront right now, striking at it with all the precision of a gun hammer striking the firing pin when a shot is discharged, the sound and shape of her name sounding as ugly and baleful as a hex when he speaks it. She braces herself for what she says next.
“Please don’t say my name,” she murmurs.
“What? Why not?” he asks, looking at her dead-on, as if expecting her to attack him at any second.
“Please, just… don’t.” She finds herself looking down. “It just sounds odd. And I know how weird I’m being, but, just… don’t say it. I don’t like hearing my own name.”
He raises a suspicious eyebrow, and says nothing for a while. He isn’t quite glaring, but he seems to be searching her face. She wouldn’t blame him if, in that moment, he decides that asking her out had been a mistake and makes himself scarce. He glances abruptly at the sea, sighing to himself; the pebbly whisper of inbound waves whirs continually in the distance. He looks back at her and nods, resigned.
“I hear you,” he says. “You also haven’t a problem with me kissing you, but holding your hand is a deal- breaker?”
“I’m not sure if I know you well enough to hold your hand.”
She sees him rein in his breath before nodding jadedly. “Ok, so. Whatever makes you happy.”
And with that, they walk on together, their pace slow. She lets the silence build for a while. She never knows what to say on a date anyway; is starting to get the feeling he doesn’t either, despite the years he has on her. Not unless drink seems to be involved. But this is good; at the very least, he wants to see where this is going. Or maybe it’s just what she brings out in people. She doesn’t expect him to start baring his soul or plaintively gush about how he feels toward her. Not that it would do him much good. Her aversion to sentimentality runs deep; emotions aren’t something she does very well. If she ever finds herself getting flatlined by panic or grief or rage, she has to chew it over for a good while before deciding whether it’s real or not. He seems happy enough staying quiet; no boasting or talking at her, or getting too distracted by his phone, the way lads half his age usually do. It’s a relief; she knows he’s too intrigued to turn away now.
“Shhh. Relax for me. Be a good girl for me now.”
“These cuffs are digging into me.”
“I told you to be quiet. It’ll be far easier for you if you stay quiet.”
“Get them of me now. You’re hurting me!”
“I’ll put my hand over your mouth if you don’t stop.This is your last warning.”
“Oh, fuck! Fuck! Fucking hell, fuck me! Stop! Please stop! Please! I can’t take anymore. Take these cuffs off me now now!”
“Alright, alright. I’m stopping. I’ve stopped. Now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Not for you, maybe. I hated that. You know that isn’t what I like.”
“Alright, then. What do you like?”
What she really likes is chaos. She’s an unrepentant gawker of big, ruinous disasters that obliterate countless lives and leave countless more in a state of inveterate trauma. Mass death excites her, kindles her brain and heart. Carnage and calamity will always offer up greater thrills her than books or sex. Due to the amount of time she spends in her own company, this isn’t a fact she is very eager to share with the rest of the world.
Bombings, shootings, stabbings, beheadings, throat-slashings, terror attacks, floods, riots, and the rippling dome of a nuclear flash detonating over the horizon, staggering and severe like the brilliance of the sun — all of it intrigues her to no end. She has no time for horror films drenched in gore and viscera — she knows these are fake, carefully edited and manufactured mirages designed to elicit a rush of terror or repulsion. No, what she wants is the real thing, the actual moment of slaughter, the actual howls of agony and alarm rattling in her headphones, the crimson sluice of carnage trickling over the screen in real-time.
The media coverage for it all is never-ending, and she is ever-thankful for it. She will follow obsessively the tragic unfolding of trials for murder and grievous acts of bodily assault to that clog up Ireland’s criminal courts. She devours nightly news reports on gangland shootings and military atrocities in the Middle East like a Jesuit scholar poring over sacred texts; she will watch granular, scratchy camera-footage of a Russian jet fighter being shot down at the Iraqi border to shouts of jihadist triumph, on repeat. Her computer hard drive brims with hundreds of thousands of such shaky, pixelated images.
Nestling at the back of her mind is the vague-but-persistent fear that someday soon, her internet history will be leaked out to the world in its blood-soaked entirety, when the security codes are finally cracked open and the networks collapse. Then again, she’s not too perturbed by this. When such a day of fated, global reckoning arrives, it will not just be her sordid documents that are unleashed, but the rest of the world’s as well; hers, she reckons, will be fairly tame in comparison to most. Until then, she knows full well that, in order to foster and indulge an obsession in this increasingly linked-up world, she must be discreet.
She sits in the darkness of her bedroom and stare at her laptop screen, her pulse throbbing busily; the sensation of risk spills through her bones like a drug. Her brow is usually sweat-soaked and her clit fizzes with arousal, as a bomb guts the streets of some major American city in a fireball of rubble and dust, or two masked men flank a kneeling, blindfolded infidel, both bellowing scriptural excerpts from the Qu’ran before one of them draws out a scimitar and proceeds to chop at the man’s neck until his head falls off.
She relishes that movement in particular, the snap and sound, the blood spewing from the man’s neck like a geyser and his body crumpled to the floor and was still. The firing squad’s salvo or the executioner’s clout; these were her aphrodisiacs. Her gaze sifts through the oozing blood, always prowling for an unseen corpse or strewn limb, and she never finds herself wanting. A primeval shiver races down her spine whenever she watches a flood wash over a village in real-time, or drone footage of a burning apartment building in the Bronx on YouTube. When she does this, she feels like a witness to creation.
She’d masturbate then, repeatedly and furiously, before finally lying back on her bed exhausted, her breath gusting sharply from her mouth. A numb serenity washes over her, engulfs her in sleep. She’d wake several hours later to find her laptop screen blank, and small ring of light surrounding the power button still blinking.
She knows there is nothing baleful or unnerving in her obsession. The human talent for brutality was well-documented before her. Why wouldn’t it hold such a steely grip on her mind? Humanity is seeking its own expungement from existence by whatever means it can muster, she has come to reason. The reasons for bloodshed are as myriad as the instruments used to carry it out: financial gain, the maintenance or acquisition of status, the staking of land and resources, ascension to the ranks of the political or corporate elite, the implementation of ideology, a defect in one’s very sanity, a worm of madness gnawing away at the brain’s rotting interior. Here the true face and nature of man was revealed. So far as she was concerned, the higher the death toll, the better.
Anyone who expressed outrage or sorrow (or affected to, as she often suspected) at this hellish liturgy of war and waste, hijack and holocaust, couldn’t possibly mean it. They flaunted their supposed virtue like freshly-formed scabs. She found it hard to believe that even a dart of elation didn’t ripple through their hearts when they saw the fighting in Syria on the evening news. It remains a solace and blessing to her that she was able to view such things from the safety and privacy of her bedroom, away from the prying eyes of her housemates.
She doesn’t care for the aftermaths — only for the events themselves as they unfold before her.
“This is your last chance.”
“Look, I’m not a murderer. I’m no saint, either, but who is? Ask anyone.”
“Yet several people are dead because of you. Your actions have led to a great deal of suffering in this world.”
“I got no thrill out of it, if that’s what you’re thinking. The second I saw the blood I knew I was a dead man. I knew I’d pay for what happened.”
“You knew you’d pay for what you did. Big difference.”
“I’d no intention of doing it!”
“The papers paid particular attention to your case because you don’t fit the accepted societal idea of a murderer or a deviant. You’re certainly not a good person by any stretch, but nor are you on any kind of par with Hitler or Jack the Ripper. Yet culpability for this crime rests with you. And that is why people are far more curious, as they so often are, about you than they should be about the victim.”
“Who are you?”
“Isn’t that correct?”
“What do you want from me? There’s nothing you can take from me!”
“Why was the need so great to do it?”
“I can’t explain! I know it’s sick, I…”
“Do you plead guilty?”
“I’m guilty of nothing, I keep telling you!”
“All evidence points to you being the culprit. Thus far.”
“Here, are we being recorded?”
“Everything is being filed as we speak, pending your trial.”
“Then note this: You’ve only taken a proportion of who I am. You’re presenting only one side of me to the judge, the jury and the public. It’ll influence the outcome of my sentence. I know it will.”
“And what is that to you?”
“Every story has different sides, why not speak with other people about this besides me?”
“And what people would these be, pray tell?”
“That girl saw other men besides me. She was a little whore, it’s obvious. So why not seek them out?”
“Seek who out?”
“Other men she might have been in contact with, I don’t know.”
“Can you you give us any names?”
“I don’t know their specific identities.”
Maybe she’s been single for too long, or is getting more fed-up about things than she should be, but going on dates just doesn’t seem worth the hassle anymore. She doesn’t mind going on the odd one, and she has a Tinder profile; she just really can’t be bothered. Everyone sizing each other up over glasses of cheap wine; doing it because they feel it’s what’s expected of them, rather than because they actually like the other person. The effort seems too much, she finds. Then again, she spends most of her time nowadays either going to or from work, or else she’s in college. She’s learned to live with the loneliness; it’s congealed into something more functional and workaday, a flinty, protective shell she has learned to wear more and more comfortably. The days pass at a low intensity, and that’s how she prefers it.
She’s got better things to be doing than flirtatious backs-and-forths with random creeps; either they’re doing this or they’re not. If there’s no spark, then no point in wasting either of their time.
In any case, she’s been training herself in this way for years. Ever since she started reading about hypnotism, its history and aberrant practices, she’s been on the prowl for a subject. Ideally, it’ll be a murderer. None of the A-listers, no Mansons or Bundys or Dahmers, just anyone who had willingly and actively put an end to another person’s life. She wants to know what it feels like, that split-second of reckoning wherein one holds the power of life or death over another human being. She’s realistic. She’d like to sit down in Mountjoy with one of them, hear their thoughts on the act itself and the punishment they received. Whether they enjoyed it, whether they feel remorse. Man or woman, it wouldn’t matter to her. Perhaps some day she might follow in their footsteps. Day in, day out, living on a strict diet of coffee and Amber Leaf rollies, and now she is ready. He will be her subject.
Had she been thinking straight, she probably wouldn’t have said yes to meeting him when he texted. She could have arranged it better, given herself more time to plan it out with greater precision. She’d been on her break, having a smoke outside and checking her messages when his text came through. Seeing his name was a little confusing; she didn’t expect to hear from him again. She won’t deny, a part of her did hope to hear from him. She sensed some potential in him; it’s odd, she feels, the way one’s mind is compelled more by strangers than by those nearest and dearest to us.
Finally, she speaks.
“Can I ask, what do you remember about the night we met? Besides the gallery, I mean.”
“Fucked if I know. I was langered.” He reaches into his pocket for his Amber Leaf, begins absent-mindedly rolling a cigarette.
“So was I. More so than you, probably. Come on. You can do better than that.”
He lights up, exhales. “I remember looking at you first. I remember you not looking away from me. I liked that about you.”
“I took it as a challenge.” He smirks a little. “In my experience, most girls prefer the guy to do the chasing. And I fancied you, so I went for it. I’m a go-getter. It’s what I do. Feint heart never won fair lady, and all that. I asked you out. You said yes. And here we are.”
“So I’m just another girl to you?”
“No, you’re not… you’re…” He trails off in an exasperated snarl. “I don’t mind us goin’ somewhere, y’know? I didn’t just want to take y’home, have the ride, and then good luck in the morning, won’t be seein’ yeh again. Because I do want to… see you again, that is.”
“That’s what I hoped.”
He eyes her. “Here, do I seem like some mad pussy-hound who goes on the pull in Coppers’ three nights a week, and then forgets the name of whoever I bring home the morning after?”
“No. You seem like you wish you were that, though.”
He smiled wanly. “Guilty, your honour. But I’m not like that. Really I’m not.”
They keep walking, her looking ahead. A sea-breeze whips up bronze sheets of sand, sends it rampaging past their ankles. On the night they met, he was assured enough, though not as much as she’d have liked. He did posture a bit, sticking his chest out and feigning disinterest, but that’s most lads for you. He didn’t give her well-worn clichés about her eyes or hair. He didn’t glance too much at the other girls in the room, though there were plenty. He wasn’t obnoxious; if he was awkward, he hid it well. Awkward men don’t do much for her, anyway. She knows half of them are just using it as a ploy, a nicely-crafted persona to lure you in. It’s pathetic. Once you give them the green light, they’re ready for action. If he was just looking for sex, she’d know.
His eyes come into focus, lingering. He sighs. The carefully-cultivated layer of posturing and laddish buoyancy he no doubt adopts with other girls is slowly peeling off. She lets the quiet build so he can gather his thoughts. The more info he surrenders, the sooner her work can begin.
“Alright, so I’m not a player. Not really. But I know how to read signals. You have an encouraging smile, so I necked the last of my wine and made the move.”
“I seem to remember you being very flustered. You kept stumbling over your words and grinning like an eejit.”
“So, a go-getter wouldn’t be that flustered. I mean, I’m no catch. It wasn’t like I had much competition that night.”
“Well, I didn’t care about the competition. I wanted you. I made my move when I had to. If I hadn‘t, would we even be here?”
“Yeah, well then. I figured you had to work, it‘s why I waited a while before texting you again.”
He chucks his cigarette and draws his jacket around him. She says: “If it helps, I’m glad to see you again. I just wanted to talk to you properly. Last two times I think I overdid it a bit.”
“Me too.” He glances over at her; his smile is more cautious. After a while, she slips my fingers between his, feels their bones press together. His touch is firm, tense.
An early moon has appeared in the sky; the first heavy clouds of dusk seem to cruise inland like profane smoke. A kestrel calls out over the water, its harsh cry cutting into the stony ravines that lurk between rocks. The lighthouse flashes at the mouth of the bay, a white, diamond-shaped flare sweeping in every twelve seconds. She hates this moment more than most. When daylight is on its last legs, all the car ferries and container ships jostle in the cove to make port first, and the moon is clear and crested.
And that is Gold Haven for you. A beach that time forgot, beloved in equal measure by tourists up from the country for the day, sketchbook-wielding art students and suicide cases who’d rather drown in its polar eddies than hurl themselves from a height. She has strange memories of it. Hearty afternoons of playing pirates and building sandcastles mingled with hazier images of herself and Gemma, her best friend from school, huddling next to one another among the marram grass, sharing a spliff and sculling back Tuborg, while a campfire rages beside them, the cries and laughter of their friends ricocheting through the night.
She turns to him and sighs. Time to get the ball rolling.
“Can I tell you something? I’d really like to get out of here.”
“What? Leave now?”
“Very. I’m still not used to Irish weather.”
“Why, were you out of the country?”
“Yes, I’m only just back,” she lies. “I was on my Erasmus for six months in Florence.” She doesn’t add that she’s told him this twice before already. “Also, no offence, but I really fucking hate this beach.”
“None taken. Not mad about it myself. Do you want to head for a drink somewhere, so? There’s a pub just there on the seafront.”
“Sure. I’d prefer that. Just one thing.”
“I won’t be drinking. You have whatever you want, but I won’t drink. It’s just too early in the day for me.”
“Sure, no bother.”
And just like that, they turn and trudge their way back up the dunes, the wind picking up behind them. She doesn’t really want to go for a drink, but the beach is getting to her. They walk the mile or so back to the harbour, still holding hands and not saying a word. He doesn’t look at her once the entire journey, just keeps his hand in hers and stares dead ahead.
The pub they end up going to, the Angler’s, is a torrid little cave facing the quayside, its interior decorated with scrimshaw carvings, model ships, paintings of yachts and trawlers, and the inevitable crotchety local perched on his usual stool at the bar. He eyes her briefly as she enters, as if she is an intruder entering his purgatory, before going back to watching the muted horse-race on the overhead widescreen. It’s still late afternoon, and easy enough to get a seat.
He orders a muddy-looking craft beer and a coke for her, with straws. That surprises her. Normally, she is the one buying. When he sits down in front of me, he avoids her eye.
“I have to tell you this now. I’ve been having dreams about you.”
“Very much so.”
He doesn’t even flinch at her saying that; as if he was expecting me to ask. She hopes there’s enough playfulness in her voice to keep him talking.
“Recurring dreams are usually bad. Are yours bad?”
“I don’t really know, to be honest. But you’re in them, and I’m in them as well. We’re together, we’re walking through this big field of thistles… you know, they’re on all sides, and for some reason I’m wearing this pair of sandals, instead of boots. Naturally my feet are bleeding from all the stings, so I’ve to keep watching where I step. Of course, it doesn’t matter where I go, because I’m just end up standing down on another thorn. You’re walking ahead of me, without any difficulty, and I have to keep a hold of your hand. That’s my worry, holding your hand. If I let go, I know you’ll get lost in the morass and I won’t be able to find you. And the weird thing is, you don’t even seem to feel the thistles as they brush off you. You just keep walking, not a bother on you.”
“Does anything happen?”
“No. We just try and manoeuvre our way through, and the whole time I’m bricking it that I’ll let go of your hand and lose you. And that’s it. That’s my dream. I‘ve had it at least three times already. Since I met you first.”
He sips deeply on his pint, wiping the foam off his lips. He seems relieved, though she notices he seems to be waiting for her response. “Sorry. I just wanted to get that off my chest.”
“I’m glad you told me. And I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to freak you out, if I did.”
“No, you’re grand. I know never to address you by name anymore. That’s something new for me.”
She watches him. “Do you want to know why I hate Gold Haven?” she asks, after a moment.
“Do you want to tell me?”
“Not especially. I just didn’t want to leave you sitting there awkwardly after you’d opened up.”
“Don’t tell me, so. Tell me when you want to.” He leaves his pint half-finished and leers again at her, slightly too broad and showing too much teeth. She tries smiling back. Without another word, he slides out of his seat and makes a beeline for the toilets.
She sits back and watches him recede, her own drink still untouched. Outside, the crescent moon is starting to hover over the bay, glaring brightly. She finds herself looking away from it. She’d known he’d tell her eventually, when she felt he needed to know. She glances over at the barman to make sure he isn’t watching, takes the naggin of vodka from her bag, unscrews the cap, and pours several shots into his unfinished pint. She stirs it in with a straw, before quickly shoving the naggin back in her bag. She feels ready, irradiated, like a fuel that has reached flash-point. When he comes back, she gets straight to the point.
“I think we need to talk.”
“I need you to do me a favour.”
He raises a baffled but eager eyebrow. “Sure. What?”
“I need you to look me dead in the eyes, and put your hands in mine. Can you do that?”