The Story So Far: From the ‘Advanced Psychotherapeutic Facility’ in upstate New York to which her father, Mack, has admitted her, Mel McIntyre mines family history and her own memory for details of a 20-year-old tragedy: the death of baby sister, Tara.   Mel has reason to believe the mysterious circumstances of this killing connect in some way to the recent suicide of her twin, Jamie.

Previous Chapters Can be Read HERE.

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CHAPTER FOUR: BROUGHT TO BOOK

‘You’re not Doctor Keane.’

‘Well spotted, my dear.’ She’s a big woman, in her fifties, buxom. I’ve seen her and her waddling curves about the place but never spoken to her before. Germanic stock, I’d guess. Something about her reminds me of my grandmother, Tansy.

‘If this is about yesterday, I…’

‘Of course it’s about yesterday.’

A declarative statement. After three months of Say-Nothing Keane’s open-ended questions, I’m surprised by it. She is looking at me, straight and true. Not evasive like him — but not invasive either. ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’

I parry. ‘You have the good doctor’s explanation. That’s the one you’re going to go with, anyway.’

‘Is that so? And what’s his explanation, do you think?’

‘Oh, transference, or some such, I suppose.’

‘What do you mean by transference?’

‘Unconscious redirection of my feelings to my therapist.’ I snigger. ‘Dr Keane thinks I fancy him.’

‘It’s a fit for your behaviour…  But if you tell me that wasn’t what was going on in this room yesterday, I’ll believe you.’

‘It wasn’t.’

‘So why did you do what you did.’

‘It was the deliberate silences. I couldn’t stand them any longer.’

‘That’s what they’re for.’

Honesty again. A doctor who says what she means, is it possible?

‘I had to do something.’

‘Most of our patients,’ she says, ‘break the dreaded silence by speaking, maybe crying. Maybe even shouting or screaming. You’re the first to have thrown off her clothes and forced herself onto her therapist’s lap.’

I laugh at the memory of Meano-Keano’s shock. ‘Regression!’ I say, in his mincy voice, one of the words I know he would have used in his report. ‘Acting out! Compulsive sexualisation! Hostility!’

She doesn’t laugh with me. I know she can’t but I’m disappointed.

‘Mel, my name is Doctor Benet. I’ve been reading your notes. You’ve been doing well up to now so what triggered this? Did something happen?’

I like that she uses ordinary words, not clinic speak. Far-Too-Keane would have asked why I felt the need to derail my process, or some such, whether I’d had an inciting incident. I let an answer pop from my mouth without putting it through my filter. ‘I wasn’t.’

‘What?’

‘I wasn’t doing well. I was telling him what he wanted to hear.’

She smiles, not the therapist’s cool condescending sort. The kind of smile Tansy calls a Bobby Dazzler.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘If you weren’t before, you’re doing well now. Admitting to that.’

Can her smile be as understanding as it looks? Life’s hard, it seems to say, for everyone. We’re each doing what we can.

I think of what Jamie did, of the months of premeditation you need to make the choice he made. You need to be organised, and determined, and detached and, I think, you need to be ground down by the ceaseless mental debate day after day: will you, won’t you. Why you should, why you shouldn’t.

Is that right? Do people kill themselves just to stop that yes/no batting about their head?

‘Do you want to stay here, Mel?’ Dr Benet asks. ‘Or to be discharged?’

‘Discharged? You can’t discharge me, I’ve just thrown a crazy.’

‘Oh we can. And will, if we’re not doing you any good.’

Discharged. No, I can smell the city, live and wiry, tight and nervy, and what it would do to me. I need to get strong if I’m to face into what happened to Jamie and to Tara.  I need hospital timetables, ticks and checks, bedtime, mealtime, meds time.

‘For us, writing is a diagnostic tool as well as a healing one, Mel, and you are in good shape, well able to write.  Do you know how many people I see who can’t frame a sentence?’

I’ve been there, where the letters slither all over the page and meaning collapses into canyons between them.

‘We’re here to help you, Mel. Yes, we get it wrong sometimes. So do our patients and that’s okay. But from one as well as you, we expect co-operation. Not you acting out on your own imaginary stage, trying to shock a non-existent audience.’

I’m scraping for a few words to hold up in my defence when she switches the subject.

‘Why do you spend so much time with Mrs Clarkeson?’

For a moment I don’t know who she means, then I realise: the old-timer in the south ward, Ladbrook Hall’s oldest patient. I call her Birdy. Poor little Birdy.  The years pool in the sag of her breasts, the slack of her jaw, the bags of her eyes. To the rest of them, she is old, wholly old, nothing but old. They are afraid to die, so they can’t look straight into her sunken, socketed eyes that are always staring into the middle distance and often oozing tears.

The tears are for Birdy’s past, I know, the incidents of almost a hundred years leaking like spillage because she no longer has the strength to hold them in. They flow down the crazes in her cheeks, around the furrows of her mouth and, unless I’m there to wipe them away, drench the pillow under her head. I sit by her bed most mornings and evenings, hold her hand in mine a little while. Chicken bones. Limp glove of skin. When her ancient, brimming eyes turn my way, I know I’m not there.

‘My brother was named for my mother’s favourite drink,’ I tell the doctor. ‘Jameson whiskey. And I was named for her favourite food. Peach melba. That should tell you, Doctor Benet, all you need to know about our mother.’

‘Shall we talk about your brother today? About…’ Her eyes make a quick flick down to her notes. ‘… Jamie?’

Until that moment, that need to glance down, to seem to know more than she knew, I was hers.  I would have followed her wherever she led. That flickering glance to his name brought me right back to him, to Jamie, to walking into our basement bathroom, with its big tub in the centre of the room to see him, laid out, Mack’s straight razor on the floor on one side, Zelda’s gold scissors on the other. One for each wrist.

My screams as I tried to pull him from his tub of blood brought the help running. By the time my parents were home, his body was cleaned and labelled in the downtown morgue and I’d been given a sedative injection, launching me back into the world of shrinks and syringes.

‘No,’ I whisper, almost panting, like I’ve been running a race. ‘Not today. Not yet.’

‘Then tell me about your parents,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve been writing about them. Tell me about…’ – this time the look at her notes is open, as she reads the names – ‘… about Mack and Zelda.’

*

Did you meet my father the day he came to look the place over? Then you know what he’s like and you can guess, I guess, that he’s always been the same. A single-minded businessman always flashing, but never quite managing to enjoy, his success.

He started work at 15, in a shoe store on 44th St., got into real estate at 20, did his first deal at 22 and, except for a spectacular plummet during the Depression in ’29, grew each deal into a bigger and better one, until he was 53 years old. It was pretty much all he thought about, what would get the deal. The rest of his life was devoted to the partying and womanising he needed to absorb his stress.

That’s how he lived until he was 53 years old, when two things hit him hard in a place he’d forgotten he had.

The first was Ireland. In the summer of ’53 – yes, he’s the same age as the century – he visited there for the first time.  He’d been a one-day-a-year Irishman, hauling out a green jacket from his closet each 17th of March and taking it on a bender around the pubs of the Five Points, where he’d enjoy listening to the poor Irish cursing ‘the Brits’ and singing their rebel songs, and wake up the following day, headachy and dry mouthed, to get the jacket cleaned and return to his ordinary, moneymaking American life.  In ’53, he finally felt secure enough to take three full weeks away from MacIntyre Associates, to fly back to the old country.

Not being the type to bounce the sights on a tour bus, he hired a car and drove straight to Ballyroche, County Wexford, the tiny village his great-grandfather and mother, Nan’s parents, had left in 1848. He booked himself into a B&B overlooking the sea, the only accommodation option in the village. Aside from the view of Atlantic waves meeting a curving yellow shore, it was a disgrace, the draughtiest, dampest and dirtiest place he’d ever laid his head. There was no shower and the landlady kept the bath plug in her bedroom, making such a ceremony of doling it out that he gave up on her and did what his ancestors likely did: used the sea as a bath most days.

You’d have to know my father to know how unusual this was. In Ireland, his fastidiousness, and all his other habits and inclinations, fell away. The country grabbed him as no woman had ever managed to. Now as he went around the village he wondered if this was love. If not, what word could he put on this strange, continuous sense of deja vu, of absolute rightness intercut with elation?

It felt like it was all his: the little church – locals called it ‘The Chapel’, built by penny donations in 1851, while people starved. The cemetery, with its mossy gravestones and a streamlet running through. The little pub that had been serving mind-altering liquid on this spot for eight centuries, full of flat-capped men whose talk was so accented it took him three days to work out that it was English they were speaking, not Gaelic. Those big-booted men didn’t ask any questions or engage him in any talk, but by the end of his stay, they were welcoming him when he came in for his Guinness with a nod or a tip to the forehead.  The way they spoke brought back to him expressions Nan had sprinkled all over his childhood. He could feel his own words begin to change shape in his mouth

He gave up the car and began to walk everywhere, inhaling the scent of honeysuckle in the lane-ways they called roads, of clover in the little patchwork fields, of salt on The Strand. Inhaling the sing-song talk of the locals, the touch of the damp breezes on his face and hands, the star-studded sky at night. Inhaling the rain showers that spurted out of nowhere and vanished as quick, the thud of silence when he woke up each morning. He’d never heard such silence.

As he walked around breathing it all in, he was trying to work out which of the little houses of the village might have been the one in which his people led such a miserable existence that they’d braved a coffin ship, with hardly a fifty-fifty chance of reaching America alive. Nan was six years old when they crossed and the memory of the rats and the vomit, the people huddled without light or air, the ravings of the sick and the mad, the dying and the drunk forever stayed with her.

Mack asked the landlady where she thought the house might be, and the publican, and even the priest after going to Mass on one of the Sunday mornings for the spectacle. The priest said he’d pass on the enquiry to a Mr Furlong, a local historian who knew every rood and settlement in the parish, going back to 1798 and beyond. Mack thought it all just politeness but when he returned to his accommodation that evening, he found a note pinned to his bedroom door, with a telephone number to call.

He met with the sage of Wexford in a pub close by, found him knowledgeable and convivial and left with a map and a summary of all that he knew, which was all anyone knew, about the MacIntyre family.

They were not originally from these parts but had come down from the north of Ireland for some reason now lost in time. There was only the one family and they seemed to have left in their entirety during the famine. The hunger was not as bad in these parts as others, so they may have been the adventurous sort, acting on the same wandering impulse that had brought them to Wexford, maybe. He’d had a look in the registry and there was nothing about a marriage but there was the birth of a girl. An Anne MacIntyre, on the 31st October 1842.

‘Nan,’ Mack had said.

‘No, a girl wouldn’t have handed on the name. You’d have come from the male line. Maybe a brother born later in America?’

‘No, it’s Nan alright. Her birthday was on Hallowe’en. And she arrived in the States in 1848, at the age of six.’

‘Unusual.’

‘She was an unusual woman, Mr Furlong.  Exceptional. The kind they don’t make any more.’

He’d driven straight to the place-name on the map the minute the meeting finished. The sun was fading a little but following a slow arc far into the west, one of the longest evenings in the year. He got out of the car at the end of the pathway and walked up to the heap of stones Mr Furlong had told him he’d find. No sign that it had been a house. Some more stones heaped into a bit of a wall nearby. Another heap beyond that, a neighbour maybe? Mostly just green grass, daisies and cowslips and buttercups.

He lay down in the sound of the ocean. The sun seemed to stroke his eyelids. The clouds were the wispy kind that float fast across the sky, changing shape as they go. He stared at one of them until it parted and the sky seemed to open, like it was a big blue iris and the pupil at its centre was dilating, revealing what was beyond, which was nothing. A vast nothing that wasn’t dangerous or dreadful but light, light. Lighter than air. He became that lightness.

How long he lay there, feeling that way, he couldn’t say. It might have been a minute or an hour. Afterwards he wondered whether he’d  fallen asleep and dreamt it but if he had, it was a sleep that felt awake,  more awake than he’d ever felt before or since. He got up from that patch of grass a changed man.

When he got back to NYC, he couldn’t settle. The squeals and squalls of Manhattan, which had always energised him were now a torment. His health started to play up. His squeeze, Dana Davenport, who had previously seemed so perfect in her undemanding eroticism, began to bore him.  Ireland was nestling under his ribs, boring a longing into him. But a longing for for what?

*

When Zelda turned up in his office, Mack obviously was aware that he had been on the bathroom floor that morning, begging Nan to send him a girl.  But not a kid, he admonished his dead grandmother, as he steered the dark-haired, diminutive moppet towards his usual table in Cedaris.  Go again, Nan/this also-ran/is way too young/for grown-up fun.

She was well able to flirt though. The arrival of the handsome young waiter saw her eyelashes sweeping low, as if curtsying. She gave her order, steak with pepper sauce, pushing her assets forward most fetchingly and yes, it gave him a twinge of excitement, as passion by proxy always did. While they were there, he might as well enjoy her trying to get from him whatever it was she was after.

She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton or a screwball. Over soup, she told amusing stories about her folks in Brooklyn, originally from the county of Cork. ‘You don’t look Irish,’ he told her and he started to say ‘Spanish sailors’, the explanation always given in Ireland for anyone who wasn’t fair-skinned and they found she was saying the same thing at the same time, which made them laugh and after that everything loosened up a bit.  Maybe it was the wine kicking in.  She drank like a youngster, heedlessly and too fast, teeth almost biting the glass.

Flirting was definitely part of her pitch. As she told her stories, stories he would almost swear she had practiced, she waved her fingers like a princess, tilted her head like an actress, tinkled little laughs that sounded like money falling into a till. Over mains, she described  the premature deaths of Mammy and Daddy  in an automobile accident and how she and Scottie were taken in by an aunt for the rest of High School but now had to fend for themselves.

Dessert covered winning a scholarship to Columbia and then a first in English literature and she waited until coffee before getting down to business and when she did she came straight out with it. What she wanted was a job.

‘We have a personnel department,’ Mack said. ‘They’ll be pleased to take your application.’

‘I don’t want to work for MacIntyre & Associates. I want to work for you.’

‘Honey, if you were ten years older, I’d take you up on that.’

‘Mr MacIntyre, are you disrespecting me?’

He mumbled an apology she didn’t need and he didn’t mean.

‘Did you read the manuscript I sent?’

He hadn’t. Mara had brought it through to him at the time because it was unusual but he’d had Miss Delaney return it after reading the first page, with a letter explaining that MacIntyre & Associates dealt in shipping and real estate, not publishing. Advising her that Writers Market was the best guide for aspiring authors. He’d thought no more of it and only remembered when he read the file Mara put on his desk that morning.

‘I’m afraid it never got as far as me,’ he said. She bent to her bag, put a piece of newspaper on the table between them.  From The New York World. One of those damned reports by that bastard Cromer.

When Mack had come back from his Irish sojourn, he’d thought to write a book. A simple family history, about the MacIntyres. He’d had Mara organise a meeting with Roderick Palmer, of Central & Land, whom he saw described in The Times as ‘arguably the most prestigious publisher in NYC’, and yes, Mr Palmer was interested in the idea of a book from a rags-to-riches Irish-American who had bought up half of downtown and appeared so often in the gossip columns with a different woman on his arm.

The negotiation was handled not by any antsy-pantsy literary agent but by Charlie Pender. Wasn’t it only another piece of property, Charlie said, as he squeezed the deal all the way to hurting.

The size of the advance was newsworthy in itself so a press conference was called. Much was made of Mack’s trip back to Ireland, his intention to buy the land of his ancestors, to build a cottage there, a writer’s retreat.

Only when he got down to the book, he wasn’t able to write it. Last time Palmer was onto Charlie, he said the advance would have to go back if he didn’t come up with it soon. Which wouldn’t be a problem, not the money end of it, but – oh –  the humiliation, especially since Cromer had somehow got hold of the story and was ready to milk it like a farmer with a new cow.

And now, it seemed, even this little tyke had heard. Christ.

‘I’m offering you my writing services, Mr MacIntrye. I’ve made a start here.’  She put a manuscript on the table. ‘If you read it, I think you’ll agree I’m up to the job.’

‘Look sweetheart…’  He’d have hired somebody long ago only it meant admitting failure. The thing was, he knew he’d be well able to write it if he only had the time. If he could get back to Ireland, to that cottage he’d been talking about… he’d have it written in a month.

‘I’ll be completely discreet,’ she said. ‘No-one need know.’

Mack shook his head and called for the check. Before it arrived, before he had time to realise what was happening, she had stood up. ‘Just read the manuscript,’ she said. And with that, she was gone out the door without looking back.

*

As soon as she was a decent distance from Cedaris, Zelda went to a phone booth and dialled her apartment number.  Her sister picked it up on the first ring.

‘Well?

‘Pretty much according to plan.’

‘He kept the manuscript?’

‘I didn’t give him any choice.’

‘Good girl.’ This wasn’t one of Scottie’s condescending or encouraging ‘good girl’s. She was truly pleased. Zelda let out the breath she just realised she was holding.

A couple of blocks away, Mack was striding into his office and calling in Mara, telling him he wanted to know everything there was to know about this kid who called herself Zelda, telling him to get Peter Morgan, his private investigator, on the case.

*

That, doctor, is what happened the day Tara and Jamie and I began.


NEXT EPISODE: Tansy Pays A Visit.

[Because of screenwriting work and the need to get my previous two novels formatted & up on Kindle for Christmas, I have had to pause Skin Diving for a little while.

Frustrating for me and an inconvenience, I know, for those of you who are following the story chapter by chapter. I do apologise but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do all.

I know you’ll understand and we’ll get back on track very soon.]