- Published: 3 December 2019
- ISBN: 9780241379530
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 528
- RRP: $19.99
The Wych Elm
The Sunday Times bestseller
I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person. I don’t mean I’m one of those people who pick multi-million-euro lotto numbers on a whim, or show up seconds too late for flights that go on to crash with no survivors. I just mean that I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about. I wasn’t abused as a kid, or bullied in school; my parents didn’t split up or die or have addiction problems or even get into any but the most trivial arguments; none of my girlfriends ever cheated on me, at least as far as I know, or dumped me in traumatic ways; I never got hit by a car or caught anything worse than chickenpox or even had to wear braces. Not that I spent much time thinking about this, but when it occurred to me, it was with a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.
And of course there was the Ivy House. I don’t think anyone could convince me, even now, that I was anything other than lucky to have the Ivy House. I know it wasn’t that simple, I know all the reasons in intimate, serrated detail; I can lay them out in a neat line, stark and runic as black twigs on snow, and stare at them till I almost convince myself; but all it takes is one whiff of the right smell – jasmine, lapsang souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify – or one sideways shaft of afternoon light at a particular angle, and I’m lost, in thrall all over again.
Not long ago I actually rang my cousins about it – it was almost Christmas, I was a little drunk on mulled wine from some godawful work party, or I would never have rung them, or at any rate not to ask their opinions, or their advice, or whatever it is I thought I was looking for. Susanna clearly felt it was a silly question – ‘Well, yeah, obviously we were lucky. It was an amazing place.’ And into my silence: ‘If you’re getting hung up on all the other stuff, then personally’ – long deft slice of scissors through paper, choirboys sweet and buoyant in the background, she was wrapping presents – ‘I wouldn’t. I know that’s easier said, but seriously, Toby, picking at it after how many years, what’s the point? But you do you.’ Leon, who at first had sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me, tightened up instantly: ‘How am I supposed to know? Oh, listen, while I have you, I meant to email you, I’m thinking of coming home for a bit at Easter, are you going to be—’ I got mildly belligerent and demanded an answer, which I knew perfectly well has always been the wrong way to deal with Leon, and he pretended his reception had gone and hung up on me.
And yet; and yet. It matters; matters, as far as I can see – for whatever that’s worth, at this point – more than anything. It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal.
That night. I know there are an infinite number of places to begin any story, and I’m well aware that everyone else involved in this one would take issue with my choice – I can just see the wry lift at the corner of Susanna’s mouth, hear Leon’s snort of pure derision. But I can’t help it: for me it all goes back to that night, the dark corroded hinge between before and after, the slipped‑in sheet of trick glass that tints everything on one side in its own murky colours and leaves everything on the other luminous, achingly close, untouched and untouchable. Even though it’s demonstrably nonsense – the skull had already been tucked away in its cranny for years by that point, after all, and I think it’s pretty clear that it would have resurfaced that summer regardless – I can’t help believing, at some level deeper than logic, that none of this would ever have happened without that night.
It started out feeling like a good night; a great night, actually. It was a Friday in April, the first day that had really felt like spring, and I was out with my two best mates from school. Hogan’s was buzzing, all the girls’ hair softened to flightiness by the day’s warmth and the guys’ sleeves rolled up, layers of talk and laughter packing the air till the music was just a subliminal cheery reggae boom boom boom coming up from the floor into your feet. I was high as a kite – not on coke or anything; there had been a bit of hassle at work earlier that week, but that day I had sorted it all out and the triumph was making me a little giddy, I kept catching myself talking too fast or knocking back a swallow of my pint with a flourish. An extremely pretty brunette at the next table was checking me out, giving me just a second too much smile when my eye happened to land on her; I wasn’t going to do anything about it – I had a really great girlfriend and no intention of cheating on her – but it was fun to know I hadn’t lost my touch.
‘She fancies you,’ Declan said, nodding sideways at the brunette, who was throwing her head back extravagantly as she laughed at her friend’s joke.
‘She’s got good taste.’
‘How’s Melissa?’ Sean asked, which I thought was unnecessary. Even if it hadn’t been for Melissa, the brunette wasn’t my type; she had dramatic curves barely contained by a tight retro red dress, and she looked like she would have been happier in some Gauloise-ridden bistro watching several guys have a knife fight over her.
‘Great,’ I said, which was true. ‘As always.’ Melissa was the opposite of the brunette: small, sweet-faced, with ruffled blond hair and a sprinkle of freckles, drawn by nature towards things that made her and everyone around her happy – bright flowered dresses in soft cotton, baking her own bread, dancing to whatever came on the radio, picnics with cloth napkins and ridiculous cheeses. It had been days since I’d seen her and the thought of her made me crave everything about her, her laugh, her nose burrowing into my neck, the honeysuckle smell of her hair.
‘She is great,’ Sean told me, a little too meaningfully.
‘She is, yeah. I’m the one who just said she’s great. I’m the one going out with her; I know she’s great. She’s great.’
‘Are you speeding?’ Dec wanted to know.
‘I’m high on your company. You, dude, you’re the human equivalent of the purest, whitest Colombian—’
‘You are speeding. Share. You stingy bastard.’
‘I’m clean as a baby’s arse. You scrounging git.’
‘Then what are you doing eyeing up your woman?’
‘She’s beautiful. A man can appreciate a thing of beauty without—’
‘Too much coffee,’ Sean said. ‘Get more of that down you; that’ll sort you out.’
He was pointing at my pint. ‘Anything for you,’ I said, and sank most of what was left. ‘Ahhh.’
‘She is only gorgeous,’ Dec said, eyeing the brunette wistfully. ‘What a waste.’
‘Go for it,’ I said. He wouldn’t; he never did.
‘Go on. While she’s looking over.’
‘She’s not looking at me. She’s looking at you. As usual.’ Dec was stocky and tightly wound, with glasses and a mop of unruly copper hair; he was actually OK‑looking, but somewhere along the way he had convinced himself that he wasn’t, with predictable consequences.
‘Hey,’ Sean said, mock-wounded.
‘Birds look at me.’
‘They do, yeah. They’re wondering if you’re blind, or if you’re wearing that shirt on a dare.’
‘Jealousy,’ Sean said sadly, shaking his head. Sean was a big guy, six foot two, with a broad open face and his rugby muscle only starting to soften; he did in fact get plenty of female attention, although that was wasted too, since he had been happily with the same girl since school. ‘It’s an ugly thing.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured Dec. ‘It’s all about to change for you. With the . . .’ I nodded subtly in the direction of his head.
‘You know. Those.’ I darted a quick point at my hairline.
‘What’re you on about?’
Leaning in discreetly across the table, keeping my voice down: ‘The plugs. Fair play to you, man.’
‘I don’t have fucking hair plugs!’
‘They’re nothing to be ashamed of. All the big stars are getting them these days. Robbie Williams. Bono.’
Which of course outraged Dec even more. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my bleeding hair!’
‘That’s what I’m saying. They look great.’
‘They’re not obvious,’ Sean reassured him. ‘Not saying they’re obvious. Just nice, you know?’
‘They’re not obvious because they don’t exist. I don’t have—’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I can see them. Here, and—’
‘Get off me!’
‘I know. Let’s ask your woman what she thinks.’ I started to signal to the brunette.
‘No. No no no. Toby, I’m serious, I’m going to actually kill you—’ Dec was grabbing at my waving hand. I dodged.
‘It’s the perfect conversation starter,’ Sean pointed out. ‘You didn’t know how to get talking to her, right? Here’s your chance.’
‘Fuck yous,’ Dec told us, abandoning the attempt to catch my hand and standing up. ‘You’re a pair of shitehawks. Do you know that?’
‘Ah, Dec,’ I said. ‘Don’t leave us.’
‘I’m going to the jacks. To give you two a chance to pull yourselves together. You, Chuckles’ – to Sean – ‘it’s your round.’
‘Checking that they’re all in place,’ Sean told me, aside, motioning to his hairline. ‘You messed them up. See that one there, it’s gone all—’
Dec gave us both the finger and started off through the crowd towards the jacks, trying to stay dignified as he edged between buttocks and waving pints, and concentrating hard on ignoring both our burst of laughter and the brunette.
‘He actually fell for that, for a minute there,’ Sean said. ‘Eejit. Same again?’ and he headed up to the bar.
While I had a moment to myself I texted Melissa: Having a few with the guys. Ring you later. Love you. She texted me back straightaway: I sold the mad steampunk armchair!!! and a bunch of firework emojis. The designer was so happy she cried on the phone and I was so happy for her I almost did too :-) Say hi to the guys from me. I love you too xxx. Melissa ran a tiny shop in Temple Bar that sold quirky Irish-designed stuff, funny little sets of interconnected china vases, cashmere blankets in zingy neon colours, hand-carved drawer knobs shaped like sleeping squirrels or spreading trees. She had been trying to sell that armchair for years. I texted her back Congratulations! You sales demon you.
Sean came back with the pints and Dec came back from the jacks, looking a lot more composed but still intently avoiding the brunette’s eye. ‘We asked your woman what she thinks,’ Sean told him. ‘She says the plugs are lovely.’
‘She says she’s been admiring them all night,’ I said.
‘She wants to know can she touch them.’
‘She wants to know can she lick them.’
‘Stick it up your holes. I’ll tell you why she keeps looking over at you, anyway, fuckfeatures,’ Dec said to me, pulling up his stool. ‘It’s not because she fancies you. It’s only because she saw your smarmy mug in the paper, and she’s trying to remember were you in there for conning a granny out of her savings or shagging a fifteen-year-old.’
‘Which she wouldn’t care about either way unless she fancied me.’
‘In your dreams. Fame’s gone to your head.’
My picture had been in the paper a couple of weeks earlier – the social pages, which had netted me a ferocious amount of slagging – because I had happened to be chatting to a long-serving soap actress at a work thing, an exhibition opening. At the time I did the PR and marketing for a medium- sized, fairly prestigious art gallery in the centre of town, just a few laneways and short cuts away from Grafton Street. It wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I was finishing college; I had been planning on one of the big PR firms, I’d only gone to the interview for the practice. Once I got there, though, I found myself unexpectedly liking the place, the tall barely-renovated Georgian house with all the floors at weird angles, Richard the owner peering at me through his lopsided glasses and inquiring about my favourite Irish artists (luckily I had prepped for the interview, so I could actually come up with semi-sensible answers, and we had a long happy conversation about le Brocquy and Pauline Bewick and various other people I had barely heard of before that week). I liked the idea of having a free hand, too. In a big firm I would have spent my first couple of years huddled in front of a computer obediently watering and pruning other people’s ideas of brilliant social media campaigns, dithering over whether to delete racist troll comments about some horrifying new flavour of crisp or leave them up to generate buzz; at the gallery I could try out whatever I wanted and patch up my learner’s mistakes on the fly, without anyone hanging over my shoulder – Richard wasn’t entirely sure what Twitter was, although he knew he really should have some, and he clearly wasn’t the micromanaging type. When, to my faint surprise, I was offered the job, I barely hesitated. A few years, I figured, a few nice publicity coups to make my CV sparkle, and I could make the leap to one of the big firms at a level I would actually enjoy.
It had been five years now, and I was starting to put out feelers, to a gratifying level of response. I was going to miss the gallery – I had ended up enjoying not just the freedom but the work itself, the artists with their goofy levels of perfectionism, the satisfaction of gradually picking up enough to understand why Richard leaped on one artist and turned another one down flat. But I was twenty-eight, Melissa and I were talking about getting a place together, the gallery paid OK but nowhere near as well as the big firms; I felt like it was time to get serious.
All of that had come pretty close to going up in smoke, over the past week, but my luck had held. My mind was bouncing and dashing like a border collie and it was infectious, Sean and Dec were bent over the table laughing – we were planning a guys’ holiday for that summer but couldn’t decide where, Thailand? hang on, when’s the monsoon season?, phones coming out, when’s the coup season? – Dec kept insisting on Fiji for some reason, has to be Fiji, we’ll never get another chance, not after— and a fake-subtle tilt of his head at Sean. Sean was getting married at Christmas, and while after twelve years it was hardly unexpected, it still felt like a startling and gratuitous thing to do and the mention of it inevitably led into slaggings: The minute you say ‘I do’ you’re on borrowed time, man, before you know it you’ll have a kid and then that’s it, your life’s over . . . Here’s to Sean’s last holiday! Here’s to Sean’s last night out! Here’s to Sean’s last blowie! Actually Dec and I both liked Audrey a lot, and the wry grin on Sean – mock-annoyed, secretly pleased as punch with himself – got me thinking about Melissa and we’d been together three years now and maybe I should think about proposing, and all that talk of last chances made me glance across at the brunette who was telling some anecdote and using her hands a lot, scarlet nails, and something in the angle of her neck told me she knew perfectly well that I was looking and that it had nothing to do with the newspaper picture— We’ll get you seen to in Thailand, Sean, don’t worry— Here’s to Sean’s first ladyboy!
After that my memory of the evening gets patchy for a while. Of course in its aftermath I went over it a million times, obsessively, combing every thread to find the knot that set the pattern changing beyond recovery; hoping there was just one detail whose significance I’d missed, the tiny keystone around which all the pieces would slot into place and the whole would flash jackpot rings of multicoloured light while I leaped up shouting Eureka! The missing chunks didn’t help matters (very common, the doctors said reassuringly, completely normal, oh so very very normal): a lot came back along the way and I picked what I could from Sean’s memory and Dec’s, laboriously pieced the evening together like an old fresco from husbanded fragments and educated inferences, but how could I know for sure what was in the blank spaces? Did I shoulder someone at the bar? Did I talk too loudly, riding high in my euphoria balloon, or throw out an arm in some expansive gesture and catch someone’s pint? Was the brunette’s roid-rat ex snarling in some unnoticed corner? I had never thought of myself as the kind of person who goes looking for trouble, but nothing seemed out of the question, not any more.
Long buttery streaks of light on dark wood. A girl in a floppy red velvet hat leaning on the bar when I went up for my round, chatting to the barman about some gig, Eastern European accent, wrists bending like a dancer’s. A trodden flier on the floor, green and yellow, faux-naïf sketch of a lizard biting its tail. Washing my hands in the jacks, smell of bleach, chill air.
I do remember my phone buzzing, in the middle of an uproarious argument about whether the next Star Wars film was inevitably going to be worse than the last one, based on some intricate algorithm Dec had come up with. I jumped for it – I thought it might be something to do with the work situation, Richard wanting an update or maybe Tiernan finally returning my calls – but it was just some Facebook birthday-party invitation. ‘Story?’ Sean wanted to know, raising his eyebrows at my phone, and I realised I had grabbed at it a little too urgently.
‘Nothing,’ I said, putting the phone away. ‘And anyway how about the Taken series, the daughter started out as the victim and next time she turned into the sidekick—’ and we went back to the film argument, which by this point had gone off on so many tangents that none of us remembered what anyone’s original stance had been. This was what I had needed from the night, this, Dec leaning forwards over the table gesticulating, Sean throwing out his hands in incredulity, all of us trying to shout each other down about Hagrid— I pulled my phone back out and set it to silent.