Kevin Barry's deliciously wicked collection Dark Lies the Island delivers on the many reckless promises made by his virtuosic and prizewinning debut novel, City of Bohane. It firmly establishes him as both a world-class word slinger and a masterful storyteller.
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About the Author
Kevin Barry is the author of the novel City of Bohane, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the story collection There Are Little Kingdoms. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.
Read an Excerpt
ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS
Early one summer morning, I sat with her among the rooftops of the city and the fat white clouds moved slowly above us – it was so early as to be a city lost in sleep, and she was really very near to me. My want for her was intense and long-standing – three months, at least; an eternity – and I was close enough to see the opaque down of her bare arms, each strand curling like a comma at its tip, and the tiny scratched flecks of dark against the hazel of her eyes. She was just a stretch and a clasp away. The city beneath was lost to the peaceful empty moments of 5 a.m. – it might be a perfect Saturday of July. All I had to do was make the move.
Nor was it my imagination that her shoulder inclined just slightly towards me, that there was a dip in the way she held it, the shoulder bare also beneath the strap of her vest top. The shoulder's dip must signal an opening.
'Now I don't want to sound painfully cool here?' I said.
'I believe you,' she said.
'But you may be looking at the man who introduced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city.'
We talked about the music and the clothes and the pills and the hours we had spent together – the nightclub, and then the party at the flat that was rented by friends, all of whom were panned out inside now, asleep or halfways there, and we had climbed onto the rooftop to smoke a joint and see the day come through. Every line had the dry inflected drag of irony – feeling was unmentionable. We talked about everything except the space between us.
I sat on my hands.
I thought about maybe kissing her shoulder. How would that be for a move? It would be the work of two seconds – a leanto, a planting of the lips, a withdrawal. And a shy little glance to follow.
'I should maybe think about going,' she said.
I really needed to make the move.
'Don't yet,' I said.
The pool of silence that was the city beneath us was broken but infrequently – a scratch of car noise from a cab rank, the tiny bark of a dog from high in the estates somewhere, very distant, the sound of the traffic lights turning on the corner of Washington Street and Grand Parade. Across the way the church and its steeple, the grey of old devotion, the greened brass of its dome.
I turned towards her and I looked at her directly and her eyes braved me to make the move.
'So any plans for Saturday?' I said.
I read again the disappointment in her – she was urging me on but onwards I could not make ground.
'Depends,' she said.
Her shoulder dipped a fraction again. Now was the moment. I sat on my hands and looked out across the rooftops and saw nothing, registered nothing but the hard quickening beat of my heart.
'So ... how's it you know Cecille again?' I said.
She sighed and explained the connection – it was through the university, they had shared a place on French's Quay as first years.
She said it in an exaggeratedly bored tone – an automated drone, the words running into each other; a mockery.
The flat high on Washington Street was Cecille's – Cecille had in her bedroom loudly been fucking some boy for most of the night; Cecille had no trouble ever making the moves.
'Cecille's had a good night anyway,' I said.
'Yeah,' she said.
Maybe I should just ask, I thought. Can I kiss you? How would that sound?
A gull descended to the lip of the church's roof. Across the breadth of the street, the mad stare of its eye was vivid and comical and a taunt to me.
I allowed my left hand to emerge from beneath my buttock and I let it travel the space between us, along the cool stone of the ledge, and I placed my fingers lightly on hers.
I listened for a change in her breathing but nothing. She was still even and steady and I turned to look at her and blithely still she looked out and across the rooftops. She did not incline her head towards me. And she did not speak at all.
I drew back my fingers but only by an inch or two.
I looked to see if she would withdraw her hand to a safer distance but she did not.
She breathed evenly.
Hard rasps of jungle panic ripped at my chest inside.
I thought – what's the worst that can happen here? The worst that can happen is I lurch and she recoils. So much worse not to try.
'So all I have to do now,' I said, 'is make the move.'
'Jesus Christ,' she said.
'You're killing this stone dead,' she said.
But she did not get up from the ledge. She did not leave my side. She allowed the silence to swell and fill out again. Now birdsong taunted from the direction of Bishop Lucey Park. What if I left it to her to make the move? Procreation would end and the world would stop spinning.
The birdsong rose up now and strung its notes along the rooftops and linked them in a jagged line, the rise and fall of the steeples and chimneys was as though a musical notation. There was dead quiet from the flat inside. The last awake, we had the morning to ourselves.
'I really like you,' I said.
'Okay,' she said.
'I mean really really.'
So very hard to put the words out but they were on the air and at their work now. I turned to look at her and she turned but to look away. I saw that a flush had risen to her cheek. The perfect knit of her collarbone as it turned, and flawless brown from a good June the smooth curve of the shoulder. Like rounded stone made smooth by water. It was as if my words had just flown up into the white sky above and softly imploded there, as if an answer was not needed.
'Okay,' I said.
This meant everything. All of summer would be coloured by this. She did not seem to breathe then. I kept my eyes fixed on her, as she looked anywhere but at me, and I counted the seconds away as she did not turn to face me.
In my evil dreams I had seen myself approach her with lascivious intent – with a cold thin cruel sexual mouth just parted slight-ways – and I went deep then to find a way to make this suave magic come real. Still, something in her presence unmanned me; perhaps it was the sense that I was aiming too high. She was really quite beautiful.
'Turn to me,' I said.
She laughed but it was only a tiny laugh and it had the trace of shock in it – I was forceful now out of nowhere.
And she turned to me.
I leaned in without pause – I did not allow the words to jumble up in my head and forbid me – and I placed my lips on hers.
She responded well enough – the opening of the lips was made, our jawbones worked slowly and devoutly, but ... we did not ascend to the heavens; the kiss did not take.
After I don't know how long – maybe half a minute, maybe a little more – she placed very lightly on my chest the tips of her fingers and the tiny pressure she applied there told me it was over, already, the pressure was of a fuse that fed directly from her heart. Gently so with her fingertips she pushed me back to break the kiss.
She turned quickly to look away and I turned as quickly to look in the opposite direction. My heart opened and took in every black poison the morning could offer.
Midsummer. Slant of the sun coming through the white-clouded sky then, and the church across the way drew its own shade over half of Washington Street; a fat pigeon flew beneath the eave of the church and only the heavy beat of its wings on the air broke the dark spell that had formed about us. I turned to look at her, and she responded with a half-smile, half sorrowful. She placed her palms face down on the ledge and pushed herself to a stand. Languid, the movement, to let me know what I was missing.
'I'm going to go,' she said.
I nodded as coolly as I could. That I could muster even the tiniest measure of cool was credit to my resilience. I was resilient as the small medieval city beneath – throw a siege upon me and I will withstand it. She crawled through the Velux window to the flat inside, and I heard after a few moments the turn and click on the flat's door; then her footsteps on the stair. With her steps' fading, the summer went, even as the sun came higher across the rooftops and warmed the stone ledge and the slates, and I looked out across the still, quiet city, and I sat there for hours and for months and for years. I sat there until all that had been about us had faded again to nothing, until the sound of the crowd died and the music had ended, and we all trailed home along the sleeping streets, with youth packed away, and life about to begin.
This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo's bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear – this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.
We were teenage sweethearts, Saoirse and I. She was exquisite, and seventeen; I was a couple of years the older. She was blonde and wispily slight with a delicate, bone-china complexion. Her green eyes were depthless pools – I'm sorry, but this is a love story – and I drowned in them. She had amazing tits, too, small but textbook, perfectly cuppable, and an outstanding arse. I mean literally an outstanding arse. Lasciviously draw in the air, while letting your tongue loll and eyes roll, the abrupt curve of a perfect, flab-free butt-cheek: she had a pair of those. It was shelved, the kind of arse my father used to say (in wry and manly side-mouthing) you could settle a mug of tea on. Also, she had a raunchy laugh and unwavering taste and she understood me. In retrospect, with the due modesty of middle age, I accept there wasn't that much to understand. I was a moderately poetical kid, and moderately rebellious, but diligent in my studies all the same, and three months out of college I had a comfortable nook secured in the civil service. We got married when Saoirse was twenty-one and I was twenty-three. That seems impossibly young now but this was the late 'eighties. And we made a picture – I was a gorgeous kid myself. A Matt Dillon-type, people used to say, which dates me. But your dates can work out, and we were historically lucky in the property market. We bought a fabulous old terrace house with a view to the seafront in Dun Laoghaire. We could lie in bed and watch the ships roll out across Dublin Bay, all lighted and melancholy in the night. We'd lie amid the flicker of candles and feast on each other. We couldn't believe our luck.
We had bought the place for a song. Some old dear had died in it, and it had granny odours, so it took a while to strip back the flock wallpaper and tan-coloured linoleum, but it was a perfect dream that we unpeeled. The high ceilings, the bay windows, the palm tree set in the front garden: haughty Edwardiana. We did it up with the sweat of our love and frequently broke off from our DIY tasks to fuck each other histrionically (it felt like we were running a race) on the stripped floorboards. The house rose 35 per cent in value the year after we bought it. It has since octupled in value.
Those early years of our marriage were perfect bliss. Together, we made a game out of life – everything was an adventure; even getting the tyres filled, even doing the groceries. We laughed a lot. We tiddled each other in the frozen foods aisle. We bit each other lustfully in the back row of the pictures at the late show, Saturdays. We made ironical play of our perfect marriage. She called me 'Hubby' and I called her 'Wifey'. I can see her under a single sheet, with her bare, brown legs showing, and coyly in the morning she calls to me as I dress: 'Hubby? Don't go just yet ... Wifey needs ... attendance.'
'Oh but Wifey, it's past eight already and ...'
'What's the wush, Hubby?'
Saoirse could not (and cannot) pronounce the letter 'R' – a rabbit was a wabbit – which made her even more cute and bonkable.
I rose steadily in the civil service. I was pretty much unsackable, unless I whipped out a rifle in the canteen or raped somebody in the photocopier room. Hubby went to work, and Wifey stayed at home, but we were absolutely an equal partnership. Together, in slow-mo, we jogged the dewy, early-morning park. Our equity by the month swelled, the figures rolling ever upwards with gay abandon. The electricity of our enraptured smiles – !! – could have powered the National fucking Grid. Things just couldn't get any better, and they did.
In the third year of our marriage, a girl-child was born to us. Our darling we named Ellie, and she was a marvel. She was the living image of her beautiful mother, and I was doubly in love – I pushed her stroller along the breezy promenade, the Holyhead ferry hooted, and my heart soared with the black-backed gulls. Ellie slept eight hours a night from day one. Never so much as a teething pain. A perfect, placid child, and mantelpiece-pretty. We were so lucky I came to fear some unspeakable tragedy, some deft disintegration. But the seasons as they unrolled in south County Dublin were distinct and lovely, and each had its scheduled joys – the Easter eggs, the buckets and spades, the Halloween masks, the lovely tinsel schmaltz of Crimbo. Hubby, Wifey, Baby Ellie – heaven had come down and settled all about us.
If, over the subsequent years, the weight of devotion between Saoirse and I ever so fractionally diminished – and I mean tinily – this, too, I felt, was healthy. We probably needed to pull back, just a tad, from the obsessive quality of our love for each other. This minuscule diminishing was evident, perhaps, in the faint sardonic note that entered our conversation. Say when I came home from work in the evening, and she said:
With that kind of dry up note at the end of a sentence, that sarcastic stress? And I would answer in kind:
Of course the century turned, and early middle age slugged into the picture, and our arses dropped. Happens. And sure, I began to thicken a little around the waist. And yes, unavoidably, the impromptu fucking tends to die off a bit when you've a kid in the house. But we were happy still, just a little more calmly so, and I repeat that this is the story of a happy, happy marriage. (Pounds table twice for emphasis.)
Not that I didn't linger sometimes in memory. How could I not? I mean Saoirse, when she was seventeen, was ... erotic perfection. I could never desire anyone more than I did Saoirse back then. It was painful, almost, that I had wanted her so badly, and it had felt sinful, almost (I was brought up Catholic), to be able to sate my lust for her, at will, whenever I wanted, in whatever manner I wanted, and for so many ecstatic years.
I'm not saying she hasn't aged well. She remains an extremely handsome woman. She has what my mother used to call an excellent hold of herself. Certainly, there is a little weight on her now, and that would have seemed unimaginable on those svelte, fawnish, teenage limbs, but as I have said, I'm no Twiggy myself these days. We like creamy pasta dishes flecked with lobster bits. We like ludicrously expensive chocolate. The kind with chilli bits baked in and a lavender dusting. And yes, occasionally, in the small hours, I suffer from ... weeping jags. As the ships roll out remorselessly across Dublin Bay. And fine, let's get it all out there, let's – Saoirse has developed a Pinot Grigio habit that would knock a fucking horse.
But we are happy. We love each other. And we are dealing.
Because we married so young, however, and because we had our beautiful Ellie so early in life, we have that strange sensation of still being closely attuned to the operatics of the teenage world even now as our daughter has entered it. It's almost as if we never left it ourselves, and we know all the old steps of the dance still as Ellie pelts through that skittle sequence of drugs, music, fashion, melancholia, suicidal ideation and, well, sex.
The difficult central fact of this thing: Ellie is now seventeen years old and everything about her is a taunt to man. The hair, the colouring, the build. Her sidelong glance, and the hoarseness of her laugh, and the particular way she pokes the tip of her tongue from the corner of her mouth in sardonic dismissal, and the hammy, poppy-eyed stare that translates as:
'Are you for weal?'
No, she can't say her Rs either. And she wears half-nothing. Hot pants, ripped tights, belly tops, and she has piercings all over. A slash of crimson lippy. Thigh-high boots.
Now understand that this is not about to get weird and fucked up but I need to point out that she is identical to Saoirse at that age. I am just being brutally honest here. And I would plead that the situation is not unusual. It's just one of those things you're supposed to keep shtum about. Horribly often, our beautiful, perfect daughters emerge into a perfect facsimile of how our beautiful, desirable wives had been, back then, when they were young. And slim. And sober. There is a horrid poignancy to it. And to even put this stuff down on paper looks wrong. There are certain people (hello, Dr Murtagh!) who would see this and think: your man is bad again. So I should just get to the story of how the trouble started. And, of course, it concerns my hatred for the boys who flock around my beautiful daughter.
Excerpted from "Dark Lies the Island"
Copyright © 2012 Kevin Barry.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Across the Rooftops,
Fjord of Killary,
Beer Trip to Llandudno,
Ernestine and Kit,
The Mainland Campaign,
The Girls and the Dogs,
Dark Lies the Island,
Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer,
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