Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat finds the 18th century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Described by the Sunday Times as “… sumptuous, almost symphonic, in its intensity… one of the best books of this dreadful year”, we hope you enjoy this extract.[restrict]
In the night-city, it’s easy to blot out the dark. Here, the haloes of street lamps are set so close to one another that their amber glow falls unbroken through our car, a steady light that spills over the steering wheel and over my love’s hand, tinting the wedding ring he had engraved with my name.
I like to sit aside when he drives – I like to watch his hand, the hand around which he will soon twist my ponytail as he tugs my head back to kiss me. I like to watch his face too, the smile that grows there when he feels my eyes on him, knowing that soon we will reach the rooms in which our children sleep, and the walls against which he will push me until I moan into his palm. The night that I first pressed my lips to his, we were both nineteen, and although a year had passed since I’d been yanked back from the river-railings, my hair was still damp. With him, at last, I began to laugh. He entered my life with neither fanfare nor glamour. There was no elopement. He simply fell into step by my side, with his easy smile, his old t-shirts, his worn jeans, and his steady footfall. Now we are driving the same road we walked hand-in-hand as teenagers, faster still.
Approaching the suburbs, the lights grow more broadly spaced. I watch pools of darkness move over his face; how quickly they seep and dissipate. We hurry together through those small darks, a little late for the babysitter, and a little hungry for each other. The car is still lit intermittently from beyond, but the darker pools grow longer, now. I don’t notice which light is the last.
Our headlights are useless at the T junction, their twin yellows staring ahead, illuminating only a knot of brambles. Instinct or habit tugs our heads to the left, to the right, and to the left again in vigilance, although we can’t see anything through the solid dark which shoves itself against the glass. In the absence of any approaching lights, he drives on. I tremble when the dull roar of the engine shudders us onwards into the unseeable. I’m not sure I can wait until we get home for his fingers, and maybe, I think, maybe I could ask him to find some quiet gateway, some secret spot where we could – just for a minute – but now we are rounding a bend, and now he is slamming the brakes, and now our car is screeching to a neck-aching halt.
We both hold our hands high, flimsy shields against that sudden light. Neither of us speaks, though both of us see the man standing next to a taxi, his face empty, while another car’s hazard lights blare crimson to dark and dark to crimson. Beyond the man I see another man, or maybe two, each with phones to their ears, and below them, now, I notice something else. Someone. A silhouette, splayed flat across the white line. A silhouette in miniskirt and stilettoes. A silhouette which is writhing. A woman.
This blind slope, where the road twists so steeply at both neck and ankle, is the most treacherous place I could imagine for a young woman to lie alone in the dark. ‘No’, says my husband. ‘NO. Do not,’ but tick goes my seatbelt and tick-tick goes the door handle. ‘No,’ he says again, ‘people are already helping,’ but my body is rising now, leaping from the car, and perhaps a better wife would obey, allowing others to resolve this unknown crisis, perhaps a better person would let herself be driven away, but I can no longer hear his voice, because I am running through the darkness, now, running and kneeling and touching this stranger’s shoulder, asking her name.
I see no blood, no broken bone, but she is howling and rocking, rocking, rocking side to side. Tyres screech another vehicle to a skewed halt behind ours, and when I glance back, I think I see my husband’s shadow flinch in his seat. The taxi driver approaches, lifting his arms in a loud shrug, palms up to absolve himself, talking fast, ‘I didn’t touch her, I swear, when I picked her up she was fighting with her fella, she clattered him square in the face, and then he kicked her, right in the –’ his finger towards his crotch – ‘and she just jumped in then, bawling, you know, and when I slowed down to ask if she was alright, she threw herself out the door, and I can’t leave her there, can I, but I can’t drag her into the car either if she won’t go, and –’ his phone rings and he turns to answer, still grumbling over his shoulder as he goes – ‘she’s going to kill us all with this carry on, the selfish b– Hello? Yeah, listen, I’ll be with you as soon as –’
The woman utters no discernible words, but there is a low howl held between her chattering teeth. I am gripped by the mother-urge to hold, to comfort, to shield, but most of all by the urge to recite the magic words that always press reset, that always conjure calm from panic. I lift her face in my hands and find her eyes with mine, and say ‘Everything will be OK.’ I ease her sad body up and steer her along, my palm very gentle at her elbow. As we walk together through the dark, my ears and eyes are on high vigilance, terrified as I am that a car might round the bend too fast to stop. I know I can’t fix her but I do what I can, I settle her safely into the car, I stroke her hair until her sobs ease.
I ask if she needs the hospital and she shakes her head. I ask if she wants to go home, if she feels safe in the cab, and she nods, so I click her seatbelt, slam the door, and never see her again.
When I return to our car my fingers are shaking too much to fumble my own seatbelt into its latch, so my husband shoves it in with an exasperated sigh. He is angry. ‘That girl was so drunk she won’t even remember you tomorrow. You could have killed us,’ he says, ‘and for what?’ I want to ask why he didn’t help too, but before he has even turned the key, a van veers past, making of our car a flimsy echo of its speed. I see it clearly, then: in abandoning him here, on this blind bend, to run into the dark – fearless, or foolhardy, or both – my actions had put both of us at risk. To him, I was merely interrupting a situation which was already under control: there were others there, who would surely have resolved the whole mess. I had seen something very different in those male shadows as they fell over a woman sprawled on the ground. Turning the key, his lips are tight white.
The rarity of his anger makes it startling. I apologise and we drive on in silence. I wonder why these urges are embedded inside me, the quick apology, yes, but also the desire which might surge up at any moment, faster than synaptic flash, sending me sprinting into the dark, too quick to be thwarted by shouts of reason. In attempting to do the right thing for one, I endanger another; in my efforts to help a stranger, I jeopardise both my husband and my children. I hadn’t even paused to consider them. Even now, as our car gathers speed, I am buzzing with the sparkle of achievement, the delight of donating my small assistance to another, the thrill of giving a kindness and expecting nothing in return. I don’t, however, feel that I can take any credit for my actions – it felt almost as though I was being driven into the dark by some force to powerful to resist. How mysterious, our instincts, those sudden engines that roar up to steer us towards new ends.
All the way home, I puzzle over his question ‘and for what?’ I am still thinking about it as we brush our teeth, as he wraps his arms around me and kisses my neck, then falls asleep. In the dark, I realise that there is only one way I could cast this incident as transactional, but it’s far too esoteric to reveal to him, and besides, I can’t bring myself to wake him. Let me tell you, instead. Perhaps it was the familiarity of giving myself away that first made me leap from the car, but in the moment that I bent towards that road, it was dark – dark as a river – dark enough to set some old sensation stirring in me. In helping that stranger up, maybe I was a shadow twin of the stranger who once heaved my own weeping, drunken self back from the railings of another river in another night. In rocking her, maybe I was rocking my own old aching self. Maybe there was some equivalence embedded in that moment, some weird reciprocity. In whispering to a stranger that everything would be OK, maybe I was casting a spell over all of us in our sorrow and pain, over her pain, and his pain, and mine, and maybe it was true, maybe it really would be OK, this time. Maybe it already was.
A Ghost in the Throat by
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is
available now, published
by Tramp Press.
Main photo by Bríd O’Donovan[/restrict]