Joe O’Donnell has written extensively for radio, televison and the theatre. His short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. He has been a professional magician, an actor, a theatre and tv producer, and a writer. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.Joe O’Donnell has written extensively for radio, televison and the theatre. His short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. He has been a professional magician, an actor, a theatre and tv producer, and a writer. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
How do I describe the sound? It wasn’t like the ticking of a clock. That was too regular. Too down-to-earth. If you take your middle finger and thumb and click the nails together close to your ear. That’s more like it: irregular, faint, almost subliminal.
That was the sort of sound I first heard in our converted attic on that day in late September. At first I thought it was some insect trapped in the tangle of wires behind the computer VDU. We’d had a surfeit of wasps and other winged creatures that Summer.
But no. It was not an insect. Then it stopped. That was part of the sound’s quality. It wasn’t consistent. Not at first. It just came and went. I forgot about it.
A day later I heard it again. Again I checked. Decreasing the circle bit by bit. Narrowing the focus. When it stopped, keeping myself poised in silence. Like that game we played as children. You’re getting hot, you’re hotter, you’re burning, you’re red hot. Then: behind the waster paper basket. I was in the right place. I’d found it.
The figurine. That figurine. The one he brought back from Kenya. I hadn’t liked it when he produced it from his leather-strapped suitcase. It was neither teak nor ebony but cheap wood painted black and shoddily carved. An African woman, ugly, scowling, squatting and pregnant. Hugely pregnant and covered with a rough piece of sticky tartan sacking, repellent to the touch. Her eyes, picked out with dots of white paint held a baleful glare.
The figurine wasn’t of course his only present. He also brought a hideous mask and two long spears. Where in the name of God did he think we were going to put them? To his credit, he also brought some lovely silver bracelets. The figurine was a postscript. But to what?
I thanked him. He said it had been a present from somebody he met there. I put the figurine on the top shelf behind the battered radio where it gradually disappeared beneath the flotsam and jetsam that inevitably accrues around my life. I am not the tidiest of women as he never tired of telling me.
I knew something happened out there. In Kenya. Well, you do don’t you? No matter how they try to hide it. You know. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was had made him shifty.
He said there was nothing wrong. He’d been gone for three months and I put the awkwardness down to the separation. Even a couple as close as we had been would find a certain tension in the reunion after three months.
I hated it. The figurine. From the start. That’s why I put it behind the radio. I think it was the expression in the eyes. I know it sounds stupid, but those eyes held a malice, a venom.
Anyway, I had heard this noise, this scratching. Having eliminated mice, and trapped wasps the only thing left was the figurine. I told him at teatime. He went upstairs immediately, and came down. He put on a funny voice, and I could hear the ridicule in it.
“No, my darling,” he said, “ I can’t hear a sausage. I shook it, turned it on its head but it remained mute. It wouldn’t even speak to me”
I think I hated him for that. Silly, but there you are. He saw the look on my face, sat down and took my hands in his.
“You’re imagining it,” he said.
But I wasn’t. It started again the next day. Off and on, but definitely there. That night, I called softly down the stairs.
He came up. I held a finger to my lips and pointed to the figurine indicating that he listen. He did.
And he heard it. The scratch, scratch, intermittent but still there.
“Now do you believe me?” I whispered.
“What’s the big deal? It’s straightforward enough. The thing is made of unseasoned wood and because it’s in a hot room the timber is drying out and that’s why you hear the creaks and cracks. You’re always going on about how hot this attic is.”
The room, a converted attic and south facing, is high under the eaves of the house and normally the next best thing to a sauna. But the room was anything but hot now. Lately it had acquired a constant temperature, bleak and chilly, even on warm, sunny days. And the sound was not any creak or groan of contracting timber, but the scratching and scraping of some THING trying to get out. And this continued even when there was no sunshine and when the room was cold.
Even at night, I reckoned I could hear it. But that was impossible: our bedroom was quite a distance from the attic.
That was when something else happened. Something that put the damn figure out of mind and actually out of sight.
I was pregnant. We had tried for a few years but with no result. No known reason. The gynaecologist chuckled. “Just keep banging away. If you’ll pardon the pun. It’ll happen when you least expect it.” Yes, indeed.
Jake was shocked. “You couldn’t be, “ he said.
“I am,” I replied.
“But you.. I mean I thought you took precautions.”
“There’s no question about it. I’m pregnant.”
Of course we hadn’t planned it.
He was considerate. And he asked me lots of questions. Trying to appear casual. Like what I had been doing during his absence. And so on. It was too bloody transparent and I knew what he suspected.
“Come on, Jake, I’m not a fool. There wasn’t anybody else while you were away. The baby is ours-yours and mine, so you’d better get used to the idea.”
He looked at me with an oh-too-innocent look.
“Is that what you were thinking? How could you? I don’t doubt you for a moment.”
He kissed me. And we left it at that. Those days I knew instinctively that something had gone very wrong with our relationship.
A week or so later I was looking for the damned computer manual behind the radio. I found the manual, but I noticed the figure was missing. I looked around. Then I spotted it.
It was high up on the shelf above the radio. I had not put it there. I took it down and put it to my ear. There was no ticking. It was silent. But there was venom in the white eyes staring back at me. I put the figure back out of sight behind the radio.
The next day-don’t ask me why-but I lifted the radio to check the figure. It was gone. I called down.
“Jake, did you touch the figure?”
“The one you brought back from Kenya.”
“Are you sure?”
“‘Course I’m sure.”
That was that. Then I found it.
It was under my desk. And ticking away goodo.
The figure moved frequently in the next week. Or to put it another way: it was never in the same place in which I left it.
Then after the rambling it settled down. I still couldn’t get rid of the notion that Jake was playing a joke on me, except for one thing. Jake was not in a jokey mood. In fact Jake was becoming more and more preoccupied and closed in on himself.
I suppose I could have got rid of it, but I thought that that would be over-reacting. For some time after that, it stayed put in the corner of the desk top and window: diagonally across from where I usually sat and constantly in my eyeline. Fair enough. Once again I accepted its baleful presence and forgot about it. Just as I forgot about the constant chill in a room that faced south. Until that Saturday afternoon.
Jake went upstairs to use the computer: doing his tax or something. I heard his shout. And his high pitched laugh.
“Hey Sal, come quick. Look what your figure’s been up to.”
Beside the figure was a tiny pile of sawdust. Very fine and not a lot of it.
“That’s what was making the ticks,” he said. “Some sort of termite or insect or something inside. Look.”
There was an exit wound in the upper arm. Not the neat sort of hole you might expect from woodworm or whatever, but a tear in the wood which caused a vicious splinter and left an angry gash two inches long. Whatever come out and went into that good night, did not go gently.
I searched the sawdust carefully. There was no trace of anything. I looked and listened in the room. No sound of insect. The window is double glazed, and there were no insects, dead or alive on its ledge.
Whatever came out was not immediately visible. The next day I discovered another gash, and another tiny mound of powdered wood. And although I turned the place upside down, there was no sign of any insect or termite or whatever.
Like a mad woman I raced to the kitchen and ripped off a large freezer bag from the roll, together with one of those wire ties. I put the figure into the bag, holding it with the tips of my fingers, hardly able to touch the loathsome thing. Then I twisted the neck of the bag and secured it with a wire tie. “Now, let’s see you get out of that one, whoever or whatever you are.”
I was in high spirits that night. Now, once and forever, I would solve the mystery, I thought. I cooked a couple of rib-eye steaks, opened a decent bottle of red, and laid the table in the conservatory. I felt that I’d turned some sort of corner, and a celebration was in order.
Jake pointed out the table, the candles, the glass and silverware.
“What’s all this about?” he said.
“I’m not sure, “ I said. “Just today, I think I turned a corner. I can’t explain it.” I patted my stomach. “Maybe hormonal, or something to do with our friend.”
He dropped on his knees and kissed my bump. “I love you both,” he said, “now let’s eat.”
I poured him a glass of wine and served the steaks. We finished the wine and had started to make a foray on some yellow sticky liqueur which had been sitting in the cupboard for years since a holiday somewhere or other. I told him about the figure, and how I had trapped it in a sealed bag.
“You’re daft,” he said, “let’s have a look at him anyway.”
Grabbing the bottle and giggling we stumbled up the stairs to the attic. His hand was on my flank, and I knew what was on his mind. I switched on the light. “Ta-dah,” I said and pointed at the figure encased in the plastic. I picked it up. The dust was thick around the figure, and its face was scarred, as though it had been hacked with a penknife. Even the head, with its glued on black woolly hair was scored.
“What the hell is all this about?” I said.
I shook the bag, thinking I might find some winged insect or anything that might account for the scars and the sawdust. But there was nothing.
“There’s nothing” I said, “what the hell is in this that is making such scars. I would need a knife, a very sharp knife to make those gashes. Look at this.”
I shook the bag at Jake. He looked scared.
“Where did you get this yoke, anyway?” I asked.
He slouched down by the wall. He looked as though the were going to get sick. He croaked something.
“What did you say?” The bag was still in my hand.
“I stole it, “ he said.
“You stole .. this? This cheap piece of.. of.. diseased wood?”
“There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?” I said. I held the bag in front of his nose. “Isn’t there?”
He nodded again.
I crouched down next to him.
“You’d better tell me”
He took a slug from the bottle, and licked his lips.
“This is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to say to somebody in my life. Particularly somebody I love.”
I knew. Or thought I knew. I’d been right. There was somebody else.
I didn’t speak. My mouth had gone dry. I focused on a large vase of marigolds and white daisies I had brought in earlier from the garden.
“There’s no easy way of putting this,” he said, “so here goes.” He took a breath, made a face as though he had tasted something bad and then said: “I stole that from the mantelpiece of a prostitute’s apartment.”
My emotions were on spin at high speed.
He didn’t look at me, as he went into what was obviously a well-rehearsed speech. He was speaking so fast that I could barely understand him. “It was in Mombasa, got drunk one night, went with the lads to a massage parlour. A once off. That was it, or so I thought. Then I read on the plane coming back, that Kenya has one of the biggest incidents of AIDS in the world, and travellers were warned against etcetera, etcetera.”
My hands went protectively to my bump. The child.
The absurdity of it struck me. “You read this on the way back?” I said.
He nodded. “I went for a check up the Monday after I arrived home,” he said.
“But we made love on the Sunday night when you returned home.” I said. I was aware that I was shouting. The absurdity of the phrase ‘ made love’ also struck me. He nodded.
“And for some weeks after,” I continued.
“What was I to do?” he said, “ anyway they can’t tell you right away, you’ve got to wait six weeks. So far, I’m clear.”
“So far. What does that mean?”
“It means that the virus is not showing up.”
The word ‘yet’ hung in the air between us like the sword of Democles. I realised that I held the bag with that obscene thing in my hand. I ran down the stairs and into the back garden. I flung it into the ashes of what we use as a bonfire from time to time. I grabbed the red spouted can which holds petrol for the lawn mower. I slopped what remained in the can onto the figure. Jake swayed behind me, still clutching the bottle.
“Give me a light,” I said.
He looked at me vacantly. I had given up the fags when I heard I was pregnant.
I snapped my fingers. “A light,” I snarled.
He handed me a small Colibri lighter, which I had given him for his thirty third birthday. I flicked it. Then thumb-turned the flame control until it flared, casting dancing shadows in the dark. I threw the lighter onto the petrol sodden plastic bag and leaped back. With a whoosh, the petrol caught. I could feel the searing heat of the blaze. Jake groaned aloud and stumbled back into the house. The figure seemed to writhe in the flame, then blackened and shrivelled. As the flames, oily black, orange and evil smelling rippled and purled upwards, I heard a grisly noise.
It started as a nail scratching screech and rose to a heart stopping wail. The cry came from the charring package now bubbling in the fire and reached such a level that it was impossible that it had not been heard for miles. I stopped my ears with my hands to block it out, but stood my ground until the flames died down. Nothing remained but a small mound of ash, tarry and somehow foul. Blackening, charring, searing, scorching, shrivelling.
The ambulance took him into hospital that night. When I visited him the next morning, I could not believe the change that had come over him in less than twelve hours.
He lay under a throbbing huge plastic tent. I was not allowed to go in. By that time I had read all the literature. I knew what was happening. The wasting, the scars on his face, his arms, his thighs. Even that huge rash on his scalp. Then his mind began to go. I was not without sympathy. While still lucid, he insisted, time after time. “It couldn’t be what you think it was, they told me, all the tests were negative.” And indeed they were right. There was nothing. They kept talking about some form of cancer, as yet unknown. A mystery they said. But not the only one.
The scan was done at my request. My gynaecologist is a gentleman. He sat by my side, with his customary air of well scrubbed assurance, and held my hand. His hands were cool. I waited in silence. Finally he spoke.
“Mrs. Kerrigan,” he said, “I’ve asked for another opinion. I’m not sure I understand this but we definitely have a problem. A big problem.”