If you enjoyed Louise O’Neill’s piece on the darker sides of life inspiring her writing, you’ll love this extract from her best-selling new release, After the Silence, the psychological thriller that everyone is talking about…[restrict]
Keelin was wearing her noise-cancelling headphones, so she didn’t hear him come into the study and yet, somehow, she could sense him there, standing behind her. The knowing was in the stiffening of her spine, that uneasy prickle at the nape of her neck. She could taste him on her tongue.
Her eyes flicked to the corners of the computer screen, checking to see if she could find his shadow, but there was nothing. Her hand rested on the mouse, and she stopped scrolling through the article she’d been reading, waiting for him to speak first.
‘She’s young,’ he said. There was a photo of a woman on the screen; it was taken on her wedding day, a slip of ivory silk clinging to her body. ‘She can’t be more than mid-twenties, can she?’
Nessa never even made it to that age. Nessa would never turn forty-six and feel bone-deep tired all the time, like Keelin did. She wouldn’t crawl into bed at ten p.m., barely able to keep her eyes open any longer, nor would she wake at four in the morning, her bladder fit to burst. Nessa wouldn’t have to stare at her reflection in the mirror, pinching the new folds of skin around her jawline she was certain hadn’t been there yesterday, wondering when, exactly, she had become old. The Crowley Girl would be young forever.
Her husband leaned over her and pressed the page-down key on the keyboard. An intake of breath as he skimmed the article. ‘My God,’ Henry said. ‘The poor girl. Did you read this part, Keelin? Where her daughter had a tummy bug and was sick all over her bedspread? And when the husband found out, he made –’ he checked the screen again – ‘Sarah Watson eat the vomit.’ He shivered. ‘That’s barbaric.’
Sarah Watson had married young, the journalist wrote, and the first time her husband hit her was on their honeymoon. By the time their youngest daughter was three, he’d hospitalised Sarah on two occasions, breaking her jaw and dislocating her shoulder by throwing her down a flight of stairs. But Sarah gave as good as she got, her mother-in-law was quoted as saying. That girl could start a fight in an empty room; they were as bad as each other, she said. After a particularly heated argument he choked Sarah until she lost consciousness, and she fled to a shelter, fearing for her life. The husband threat- ened to go to the police and file kidnapping charges if she
didn’t bring the children home and so, despite the staff ’s best efforts to persuade her to stay, she went back to him. I can’t lose my kids, Sarah Watson said to the shelter’s coordinator. He has rights in the eyes of the law, I’ll still have to negotiate child-visitation rights with him. I’ve seen what the system does to women like me. It won’t protect me. She was dead within two weeks, the story splashed across the front pages of the newspapers, friends and colleagues expressing shock that the husband could commit such a horrifying act of violence. He hadn’t seemed the type, but you never know what goes on behind closed doors, do you? they said to each other for a few days before promptly forgetting all about it.
‘I don’t know why you continue to read stuff like this,’ Henry said. ‘It only upsets you. Why do it to yourself?’
Keelin continued to read ‘stuff like this’ for the same reason she continued to read her psychology books and journals. It was why she was still a member of the Psychological Society of Ireland and subscribed to their magazine, why she scrolled through the events sections on their website on a daily basis, imagining which conferences she would go to, the questions she would ask the speakers, if she was capable of leaving this island. Keelin had trained to become a counsellor special- ising in domestic violence because she’d wanted to support women, to show them that a life free of abuse was within their grasp. The work had been difficult, but it had been fulfilling too, in a way that seemed impossible to imagine now. So she read ‘stuff like this’ because she needed to pretend she still had a career, a purpose.
Henry turned the computer off. ‘Honestly,’ he said, ‘it horrifies me how these men behave, if you can even call them “men”. When I think about how Mark Delaney treated you, darling . . .’ He gripped the back of her chair tightly. ‘It’s revolting.’
(Where were you? Her ex-husband screaming at her when he arrived home from work. I phoned the house a hundred times today and there was no answer. Where were you, Keelin? Are you fucking someone else, you cunt? Fists punching into her stomach, and she was doubled over in agony, begging him to stop, she would never do that, she would never betray him like that. I didn’t mean it, Mark would always say afterwards, drawing a bath and gently lowering her into the water, tears coming to his eyes when she gasped in pain. I just can’t bear the thought of you cheating on me, not after everything that happened with her. I’m terrified of losing you, that’s all. I’ll get help, he promised, and Keelin had believed him or she’d wanted to believe him. Maybe they were the same thing, in the end.)
Henry pulled her to standing, taking her place on the chair. He sat Keelin on his lap and she buried her face in his shoulder, breathing in the spicy scent of his cologne as she thought of that other house, that other husband. Henry would never raise a hand to her. She was safe with him.
‘Look at that,’ he said, checking his Patek Philippe watch, the delicate strokes of silver ticking in a platinum face. When Henry’s brother turned fifty, Jonathan had given his first-born son his vintage Audemars Piguet as a birthday present; it was the sort of thing that should become a family heirloom, he’d said. He gave it to Charlie, of all people! Charlie would be as happy wearing a fucking Swatch! Her husband had seethed when he watched the videos of Jonathan’s speech on Facebook, accompanied by photos of a lavish birthday party they hadn’t been invited to. He spent weeks afterwards searching for the most expensive piece he could source and sent his father the bill. It’s beautiful, Keelin told him when it was delivered to the island, hoping this would settle his prickly mood for a few weeks at least. But that same night she woke up and the bed was empty beside her. Henry? she called out, stealing downstairs and finding her husband in the sunroom. The new watch in his hands, staring at it. When will I be enough for them? he asked her, so quietly. Keelin sat at the foot of the chair, leaning her head against his thigh. You’re enough for me, she said, wishing she could make this better for him. I love you so much. When she jolted awake the next morning, her neck aching, her husband was gone.
‘I can’t believe it’s June 21st already,’ he said now. He’d never become accustomed to this new, amorphous life of theirs, the undefined edges of each day where one hour bled into the next until finally it was over and they could go to sleep again. ‘Remember when we used to—’
Henry had always loved the summer solstice, waiting until the day fell fast into night before setting the bonfire alight, taking a breathless step back as it soared to kiss the sky. The flames crackling orange, bodies moving in and around its heart, dancing shadows cast against bare skin. The solstice celebrations were supposed to be cleansing, meant to purify the body and soul. The Misty Hill guests would run into the sea at midnight, gasping at the icy sting of the water, calling to the heavens to wash their sins away and make them worthy.
‘Will you go down to Marigold Cottage and check on the Australians? They’ve been on the island for over a month now, I’m curious to know what kind of progress they’re making,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you ask if they’d like to join us for dinner? It’s the longest day of the year – we should mark it in some way.’
Henry missed their old life, she knew, the dinner parties and the heavy thud of wedding invites through the letter box every spring, throwing confetti into the air outside charming little churches in the Cotswolds, the holidays to the south of France to stay in friends’ plush villas. Was that why he had agreed to have the Australians stay in Marigold Cottage – because he was starved for company? Was her husband so desperate to fill the empty seats around the dinner table that he would put them all in danger?
‘I have to check on Alex first. He’s sick.’
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Henry’s tone was sharp. ‘Has he done anything to—’
‘He’s fine, don’t worry. It’s just a twenty-four-hour thing.’
‘Ah, OK. Poor Alex.’ He kissed the back of her neck.
‘But you can go down afterwards, can’t you? To talk to the Australians.’
‘I . . .’ Keelin pictured herself walking down the garden path, knocking on the yellow door of Marigold Cottage, and she was so weary at the thought of it she could feel herself physically wilt. ‘Please, Henry,’ she said. ‘I’m tired.’
‘We’re all tired, darling. And we all have to do things we don’t want to do, now, don’t we?’
She looked to the ground. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You’re always right.’
After the Silence, by
Louise O’Neill, published
by Hachette Ireland, is