Our extract this week is The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen.
Dublin: 1 May, 1978
It was the shoes he noticed first. Tomato red suede platforms tied with white ribbons for laces. Double knots. Loopy bows. Feet crossed at the ankles. Black and white striped stockings stretched over the knees. An inch of milky skin.
The rest of the woman who would one day become his wife remained hidden behind the stone campanile at the centre of Trinity College. Her left foot beat a determined rhythm, the right foot carried along in lopsided surrender.
Murtagh smiled. Stepped forward. Hesitated.
He transferred the weight of his leather satchel from one shoulder to the other. Wiped his nose once again in vain (it had not stopped running for days) and fingered the fraying blue handkerchief in the pocket of his new brown duffel coat.
Later Maeve would describe it as ‘Frank Sinatraeyes blue’ but he could not know that yet.
Nor how the big toe of her left foot poked through a hole in one of those pedestrian crossing stockings. Nor that she had spray painted those tomato coloured shoes herself, with an aerosol can she found abandoned, next to an unfinished graffti portrait of Lady Madonna, on Francis Street that morning.
All he knew for now was his compulsion to discover who owned those shoes, those stockings, those knees. He nodded at Sir William Lecky, eternally patient upon his green granite perch, and stepped on to the grass.
Murtagh grimaced as the soles of his Chelsea boots squelched in the soft earth. The hems of his corduroy flares were trailing in the mud from that morning’s summer showers. Scanning the silver skyline for nimbus clouds to prophesy whether another downpour was in the post, he was relieved to detect only a hazy veil of stratus.
Too much time with his head in the clouds.
Or so his mother, Teresa, had always said. As a consequence, he learned to name everyone and became an official cloud spotter.
Not all children were fortunate enough to have their very own Mother Teresa.
His hand reached automatically to smooth his messy mop of hair, as if she had just appeared before him, but he resisted the impulse. Instead he wrapped the emerald green scarf she had knitted him tighter around his throat.
Murtagh circled the campanile. Stood silently for a moment piecing a little more of the puzzle together. Her slender frame bore the burden of an oversized denim rucksack. It was covered in dozens of embroidered patches: yellow roses and purple stars, green and orange concentric circles, two crows perched on a branch, a white lighthouse with a red flag flying, rainbow stripes, slogans for anti apartheid and anti Trident, badges shouting Led Zeppelin and The Ramones.
A coil of blue black braid was pinned loosely under a scarlet beret as her head rested against an army surplus jacket she had crumpled against the wall as a pillow. A low pitched whine got louder as he inched closer.
Was she in pain? What on earth was wrong with her? He tentatively tapped her beret with his forefinger, cringing to see the potting clay embedded still under his nails. She swiped sideways with her bare arm, so pale that blue veins traced fragile lines beneath the translucent skin. Her fingers clenched his arm in a surprisingly vice like grip and he stared at the plum nail polish perfectly applied to her round fingernails. She turned her head to look at him; suspicious dove grey eyes peering out from beneath a thick fringe. Her face was that of a bird in human form: the point of her nose, the angles of her bones and jaw, the heavy eye brows for protection.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she asked, releasing his arm and clambering up into a stand as she rested her back pack on the ground.
She was tall, thin, threatening, wearing short red velvet dungarees and a shimmering ivory vest; it looked more of her than on her.
Murtagh held his hands up as if she were the police. ‘You sounded – that noise you were making – I thought you were sickening from something.’ She emitted a dirty, guttural cackle. ‘That noise was me singing a Patti Smith song. Well, trying to. I guess I’m a little outta practice.’
He watched her waiting for him to speak, but when nothing was forthcoming, she filled the silence herself. ‘Do you go here?’ she said, stretching into a yawn. ‘I’m waiting to get into my dorm, but reception doesn’t open until two. I almost fell asleep there, my bag coulda grown legs.’
Murtagh found his voice, a croak though it was, and mustered up a question that felt unworthy of the effort it took. ‘Whereabouts have you travelled from?’
She leaned her head to one side, cocked one leg behind her like a flamingo and squinted at him.
‘Can’t you tell?’ She waited a beat.
Murtagh nodded, his head light as he struggled to hold her gaze, blinded by the beams of silver sunlight scattering from her vest.
‘I’m from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to be precise.’ He began to ask her how similar New York really was to how it seemed in the movies but stopped mid sentence. ‘Mother of God!’ he yelled as he held his head, swaying back and forth, moaning, cursing and stamping his feet. Maeve reached out to him then took a step back, ‘What’s the matter? Are you having a fit or something?’ He looked up at her, his eyes red, streaming.
‘A bee. I’ve been stung by a bee. On my ear. Like a hot poker in the side of my head. It stings.’
Maeve stifled a snort as she rustled in her backpack, extracting copper tweezers, a miniature tincture bottle and a crumpled orange paper napkin with numbers written on it in blue ink.
‘Here, let me.’ She pulled his hand away from his face and inspected the wound. ‘Sit down, I’ll get the venom out.’ She sat on the stones beside him, curled her army jacket into a ball on her lap and patted it in invitation for him to lie down. He slid forward so he could place his head in her lap, the off ended ear turned towards her, his nose buried in the folds of her coat.
It smelled of apples.
He took a deep breath and sighed.
So, this is what all those songs are about.
The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually
is out now