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  • Published: 14 November 2023
  • ISBN: 9780857529817
  • Imprint: Doubleday
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 176
  • RRP: $29.99

Water

A haunting, confronting novel from the author of The Heart’s Invisible Furies

Extract

The first thing I do when I arrive on the island is change my name.

I’ve been Vanessa Carvin for a long time, twenty-eight years, but I was Vanessa Hale for twenty- four years before that and there’s an unexpected comfort in reclaiming my birthright, which sometimes feels as if it was stolen from me, even though I was complicit in the crime.

A few minutes later, I change it again, this time to Willow Hale. Willow is my middle name, and it seems prudent to take a further step in separating the woman I am now from the woman I once was, lest anyone here makes the connection. My parents were unremarkable, middle- class people – a teacher and a shop assistant – and there were some who thought them presumptuous in calling their daughter Vanessa Willow, which summons images of a Bloomsbury writer or a painter’s wan muse, but I was always rather pleased with it. I had notions about myself back then, I suppose. I don’t have them any longer.

My next task is to shave my head. I’ve kept my hair shoulder length and blonde for as long as I can remember but I purchased an electric razor before leaving Dublin and plug the device in to charge for half an hour before easing it around my skull, experiencing a feverish delight in watching the clumps tumble into the sink or fall on the floor around my feet. Standing in the cascading tendrils of my femininity, I decide not to make myself entirely bald for that would draw too much attention, and I don’t have the head for it anyway, unlike the famous singer who looked like one of God’s angels when she first appeared on our television screens. Instead, I shear myself down to the uncomplicated blunt crop of a hard- working country woman, someone far too busy to concern herself with indulging the physical. The blonde is gone now, replaced by a darkish grey that must have been lurking inside me all the time, like a benign cancer. I wonder how I will look when it starts to grow out again and rather hope that it won’t. The truth is, it would be more convenient if it just gave up the ghost with the cruel efficiency it inflicts on men.

I explore the cottage and find it suitable to my needs. The photographs I saw online did not lie about its austerity. The front door opens on to a living room that houses a kitchen. Or, perhaps, a kitchen that houses a living room. There’s a single bedroom with a single bed – how strange it will feel to sleep like a child again – and a small bathroom with no shower. An unappealing rubber attachment is squeezed plumply around the tap spouts, and I pull it away, relocating it to a cupboard beneath the sink. The roof must be sound for there are no damp spots on the stone floor that have fallen from above. The simplicity, the monastic nature of all of this, pleases me. It is so far from what I am accustomed to.

When I first made enquiries of the owner, a man named Peader Dooley, I asked about the Wi-Fi, and he told me a pub on the island offered it but that very few of the houses had access yet and his was not one of them.

‘I suppose that’ll rule the place out for you?’ he asked, disappointment in his tone, for this was not the type of cottage to draw many offers, and certainly not for an open- ended lease.

‘On the contrary,’ I told him. ‘If anything, it makes it more appealing.’

When I turn on the taps, the water emerges brown at first before clearing its throat in the pipes and running clear. I place my hand beneath it, and it is shockingly cold. Taking a glass from the shelf, I fill it and drink. I cannot remember when I last experienced such purity. I drink more and feel something inside me spring to life. I wonder, could a person get drunk on this water?

Moving from room to room, I check the light switches and am relieved that they’re all in working order since the island at night is sure to be darker than any place I’ve ever known. The wallpaper is bleached of its colour and looks as if it remains on the wall out of habit more than anything else; one good tug, however, and I imagine the sheets would fall away without complaint. Something is missing and it takes me a few moments to realize what it is: there is no television set. I’m not disappointed. If I am to live this hermetic existence, then it is best that nothing intrudes upon it. It will be a rare privilege to be so wilfully ignorant of the outside world and all its nonsense.

There is, however, a radio, an old- fashioned one with an aerial folded down. I turn it on but receive only static. Pulling up the copper spike, I rotate the dial and soon find myself tuned in to RTÉ Radio 1, where Joe Duffy is displaying admirable patience while interrogating one of his listeners about the latest indignity that has befallen her. For years, I listened to Joe’s show every day, but I turn it off now. Over the last twelve months, Brendan and I were the subject of debate on many occasions and, masochist that I am, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessively listening as strangers called in to denounce us both.

‘And as for her,’ they would say, vicious in their moral superiority. ‘Sure, you only have to look at that creature to see that she was in on it all along. Like attracts like.’

I’ve sworn that I won’t pay attention to these merciless commentators any more and so I remove the batteries from the device and bury them in different parts of the back garden, smoothing over their graves so I won’t be able to find them again.

Food. That will be an issue. The taxi driver, the only one on the island, a man named Mícheál Óg Ó’Ceallaigh, brought me and my suitcase from the dock to the cottage and told me there was a ‘grand little shop’ only twenty minutes’ walk from where I would be staying, between the pub and the church. The old pub, he added, not the new pub. I shall enjoy walking. They say that exercise is good for one’s mental health, and mine is in a low place. Right now, however, I’m not hungry, and, even if I was, Mr Dooley must have an agent somewhere nearby, for a fresh loaf of bread has been left on the table and there’s butter, ham, eggs and cheese in the fridge, as well as a small sack of potatoes slumped like a weary traveller by the front door.

When I unpack my suitcase, I’m surprised to find that I included a toiletries bag bursting with make-up, the zip straining against the pressure of a lifetime’s commitment to hiding the truth. I don’t remember including it. Perhaps it was simply an unconscious gesture after years of packing for holidays and Brendan’s work trips. I spill its contents on to the bed now and look them over. There must be a thousand euros’ worth of deception here, promises of youth decanted into white tubes, glass bottles and plastic containers. I sweep the lot back into the bag and throw it all in the bin. Rebecca, my younger daughter, would have a fit if she witnessed such waste. Some years ago, when she was fourteen, she turned into something of an eco-warrior and was forever scolding me for throwing things away when there was still life in them, just as men do with their first wives. Anyway, it’s no longer an issue for I intend to embrace a plain complexion here. I’ll wash my face with soap, dry it with a rough towel, and let the elements do their worst.

I didn’t bring many clothes, so it doesn’t take long for me to hang them up in the wardrobe. A few pairs of jeans. Some T-shirts. Underwear. A couple of heavy woollen jumpers. I anticipated the Atlantic cold and rather liked the idea of walking along the cliffs like an actress in a television advertisement, staring out to sea and contemplating the ruins of my existence. Only two pairs of shoes. The ones I’m wearing, which are really just a comfortable pair of trainers, and a second pair that aren’t much better. I should have brought some hiking boots, I suppose. I wonder if there might be a place to purchase some here as I have no intention of returning to the mainland during my self- imposed exile. If not, I will simply have to survive with what I have. People always used to. Plenty still have no choice.


Water John Boyne

From internationally bestselling author John Boyne, a masterfully reflective story about one woman coming to terms with the demons of her past and finding a new path forward.

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