Skin Diving. Sample

New novel by Orna Ross~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter One: Letter to Self


Tall gates glide open to receive us. Hagan, Mack's chauffeur, slides the Bentley over the speed bumps all the way along the avenue. ‘Sleeping policemen', Mack says.


‘That's what they call them in Ireland,' he says. ‘Which tells you all you need to know about the Irish attitude to the police. Lie down there, lads, and we'll go slow as we drive over ye'.

I open the window, stick out my head, to get away from this string of meaningless words. Tall trees are leaning towards each other from either side of the avenue, intertwining branches to form a tunnel above, shutting out the sun that's accompanied us all the way from the city. I lean my face up, trying to catch the sunlight flickering through.

Then the trees give out and, for a moment, I'm dazzled.

‘A fine few acres this place has,' Mack says. And, as my eyes clear, the agree. Rich, open parkland. Grasses rolling over small hillocks. To our right a flat lake holding a sepia mirror to the sky. And up ahead, emerging out of the trees, the house. A handsome 19th-century pile. White, Palladian style, sturdy steps leading up to an entrance framed by four Corinthian columns. More like a hotel than a hospital.

Sorry, not a hospital; an Advanced Psychotherapeutic Facility.

And here’s a flunky, more butler than porter, coming out as soon as Hagan stops the car, proferring his ‘Good Afternoon Mr McIntyre, Miss McIntyre, welcome to Ladbrook Hall'. Under his words, the air is syrupy with silence. I step out of the car and into it. Countryside quiet, clogging my city ears.

This way, this way. Would we like tea? The Facility’s admittance procedure picks us up and carries us along. To the secretary to sign the forms, to the assistant to be shown around and have the routine explained, to the nurse for physicals and finally to Doctor Keane, to listen while he and Mack talk over my head, to watch them clasp how-well-we-understand-each-other hands across my future.

How many times, now, have I sat like this with Mack?

Too many, you'd have thought, for him to be holding the faith he seems to be holding here. I can’t tell whether it’s a show, and he’s not as hopeful as he’s pretending, or whether he really thinks that this time, finally, he’s going to hand over a bundle of psychosis and get back a functioning daughter. Or at least one who is merely neurotic.  After twenty-two years with Zelda, he can cope with neurotic.

A second handshake and he's standing, he's leaving, hefting his poorly-hidden longing to be gone down the corridor, and out into the backseat of the car, where his work papers – his loyal and true children, the ones that don’t let him down – await him for the drive back.

I'm allowed to wave him off from the top of the steps and then, without time to think, I'm in a white room. White walls, white ceiling, a marble fireplace, an icy mirror reflecting white slatted blinds, sitting before a white page, being told by Doctor Keane, my white knight, my saviour-to-be, to write on it. A letter to my ten-year-old self, no less.

‘What’s with all the white,' I ask.

‘There is safety in the oblivion of white.'


Safety. He wonders whether perhaps I fear it, the emptiness that white represents?  I should have no such fear, it can actually be my friend. It’s there too in that notebook he's just opened on the table before me: the power of vacant, the potential in blank.

Or to put it another way: writing therapy, on which the success of his Facility is based, is transformative. The research is incontrovertible, widely replicated and validated, each finding consistently confirming  its power. And his faith in it. And the reputation of Ladbrook Hall.

On that empty whiteness before me, I will write a new self, my new doctor says. A self without Jamie.


Dear Mel,
Look, can’t you? Look till you see what you see.

The cot was only – what? – ten feet from the door and yes, okay, light was seeping through the flimsy nursery curtains, but dawn light, Mel. So bright that you were entirely dazzled? Able to see nothing more than a tall silhouette, black against the glare, leaning in? Truly?

If you knew your future, you’d open those locked-down eyelids. You’d wait by that door till you knew what you know.

Tara’s foot in the cot, you saw that clear enough. Every detail of that you’ve passed up the years. One heel beating against the mattress, thud-thud-thud. The bubbly, baby shape of it and its flaw, the mark of the McIntyre: the second and third toe webbed, joined almost up to the nail.

Jamie had the same pedalian quirk. So do I. We all inherited it from Mack.

In his teens, Jamie had his tattooed along the join with a broken line and scissors. Cut Here. Typical Jamie. (I liked it so much, I copied him and had it done too. Typical me).

Oh give me something, small Mel. Something more than our sister’s, six-month-old foot flailing and a mysterious, unidentifiable shadow bending over the cot. A man? A woman? You can’t say, you didn’t see. Only that the shadow was tall. Tall enough to reach right in.

Tall could only mean Mack. Not Zelda or Tansy, each as short as the other, or  ten-year-old Jamie, my twin. We had nobody else in the house that night.

Unless… Unless…

Unless  – surely, the most annoying word in our language – the shadow was standing on a chair. The chair. The one kept by the cot for the purpose. The one you and Jamie stood on many a time, to hand our sister a soother or toy or turn on her mobile or do anything that might stop her tears and her screams.

You’re not saying the figure was standing on this chair. Nothing so useful, oh no. Just that you cannot be sure it was not.

I’ve had enough, Mel, of your bedazzling light, and your no time to see, and your maybe the chair. I need you to look ahead and see where your not-knowing has landed us. Me. Look what it did to our twin.

Look would you, look.

Thud thud thud. The muffled sound of that heel thumping mattress can only be heard because Tara’s stopped crying. The room is empty of noise for the first time in six months. Thud thud. All the days and nights she’s been crying, sending four nurses on their way with their hands over their ears, forcing Mack to bring in Tansy, his own mother, to mind her, because Zelda couldn’t cope… No crying now, Mel. Listen.

Thud. The last sound you hear as the silhouette starts to turn your way. Did it – he? she? – sense you there, by the door, not seeing what you don’t want to see. Who knows? You’re already gone, feet whispering back down the corridor in their slippers, around the open door of your own bedroom, to leap into your bed and lie, swallowing breath that’s too loud, waiting to see who’s going to come.

Whoever comes will be who it was.

You wait, eyes pretend shut, the sounds of thud and silence moving into the bed with you, never to get out again but nobody comes.

And next morning is full of more shadows and whispers. You’re back in the same spot at the bedroom door, with Jamie this time, watching the doctor fold black instruments into his bag. You’re hearing new words that get said in hushed tones: suffocation, asphyxiation, sudden-infant-death.  You're learning new meanings for words you thought you knew: removal, service, remains.

You’re seeing Mack staring out the window, his back to the rest of the house, and Zelda being led, weeping, away.

You’re feeling soothing words from Tansy drop onto your forehead and slide right off again, falling into the silence you’ve clasped close and held onto, all the way up to here.

It's what killed Jamie, we both know that. I don't want to follow him and I will if you keep me cowering from what we know. I've got to the point where the silence is hurting more than anything else could, even the truth.  That's why I've allowed Mack to bring me to this place.

So I write to you, ten-year-old Mel, to beg you, for Jamie's sake, for Tara's sake, for your sake and mine, to open up and let me back in.




Chapter 2. Gaining Entry



The good doctor doesn’t know it but he has a tree growing out of his head. No, this isn’t what my mother likes to call ‘one of Mel’s phantasmagorias’. For Zelda, having a mad daughter is just another

exoticism to flourish, like her tiara, or feather boa, or her own little incident twenty years ago. ‘After all darling, who’s really sane in this crazy mixed up world of ours?’

I’m not hallucinating. I’m perfectly aware that the tree is outside the window, in the distance, but from where I’m sitting it looks like part of him, makes him look like that picture by that surrealist artist, what’s his name?  I like the surrealists. They’re not afraid of what it is to be human, they don’t pretend we’re all neat and tidy.

That tree feels like my friend, a defence. The doctor and I recognise each other, though we’ve only just met, and we can’t be friendly. He’s had too many a me in this armchair of his and Lord knows, I’ve had enough doctors. I’m uber-aware of his advantages in our upcoming association: his troop of medical lieutenants, his research weaponry, his alleged sanity, in the face of which I’m a tangle of madness, naked under the beam of his searchlight.

The tree helps diminish some of that. A little.

‘Soooooo,’ he wants to know, ‘how did you find it, writing to your ten-year-old self?’  He can’t wait to get at me, like a good housewife facing into the spring-cleaning.

I shrug. I say, ‘Yeah’.

It’s my standard doctor response. They can’t call it negative.

‘Most people,’ he says, ‘find it very powerful.’

I nod. He frowns. I’ll have to give him something.  ’I felt better,’ I say. ‘Afterwards.’

‘Good, good.  And was there anything in the content that took you by surprise? No, no,  look so worried. You don’t have to say what you wrote, that’s between you and the page. I just want to discuss how it made you feel’.

‘I told you, it made me feel better.’

It made me feel good that I could write at all.  I wasn’t as bad as Mack and Zelda had been claiming. When things are really bad, I can’t cough out a sentence. I can’t eat either, and the only sleep I get is the sort that doesn’t feel like sleep at all, but a version of this world with lurching pictures and jerky sound. When things are really bad, I eventually find myself running inside the four walls of my brain, where everything is black and blank as a night window, reflecting me, my panicked, cowering uselessness, back at me.

I say: ‘I wrote about my tenth birthday. I wrote about lying in a cornfield in the sunshine, feeling all grown up and glad to be into double figures. The sky was blue, the clouds were fluffy. I was glad to be alive.’

‘Sounds like a nice memory. Was Jamie there?’


‘It was his birthday too, right?’  He leans his head to one side, trying to be empathetic but now the tree looks like it’s coming out his ear.

‘What’s funny?’

I’m laughing the kind of laugh that has a mind of its own. It doesn’t want to stop.

‘Why don’t you want to answer that question, Mel?’  He writes something in his notebook, the little red one on the table beside him. I’ve never seen a doctor with so many notebooks.

‘Where was Jamie while you were lying in the cornfield?’

‘I can’t remember.’

‘How does it feel when I mention Jamie’s name, Mel?’

‘Oh I love it, Doc. I totally adore when people talk about my twin’s suicide.’

‘But I didn’t.’

‘No, but you were gearing up to it.’

‘Why do you think that?’

What does he want from me, this big fool of a doctor?  To admit that whenever I think about Jamie, a rolling wave breaks in me and tosses me up and up and up, high up where there’s no air? Up where I know if I let out the long breath I’ve been holding, I’ll come crashing down, up where I don’t know what’s worse, to stay in the unforgiving, suffocating clouds or to let myself plunge and never rise again? What good is it going to do either of us for me to talk about that?

‘That’s a nice tree out there, isn’t it?’


‘That tree. From here, it looks like it’s growing out of your head.’

‘What else do you remember about your tenth birthday, Mel? Was there a party?’

This isn’t fair. His treatment is supposed to be writing, not talking. That’s what Mack promised, that was the deal. I don’t want to try for answers, not with him. It will only set my mind whirring off towards the racing pulse, the old terror, the impotent fear… I refuse. No more talking and interpreting, figuring out, wondering what things mean.  None of that is any use to me.

All I want now is to know how Tara died. To understand the story of that original sin. All of it, no gaps or evasions, all the way to The End.

That’s why I’m putting up with this place and this doctor. I need to get strong, so I can swim out of these swirling questions into some answers.


It amuses me now to think of Mack in the last moments before Zelda swooped into his life, changing everything.  I have a picture of him coming up from the unaccustomed subway, at the unaccustomed time of quarter to nine. The band of steel he’d woken with tightening across his forehead as the whine of traffic seems to nag: Hurry, hurry! You’re late, you’re late!

He was supposed to have met Charlie Pender in the office at eight o’clock yet still, he found himself pausing at the top of the subway steps, unable for the dizziness of rush-hour. He dabbed his forehead, took a conscious breath, tried to ease his temples. New York City, capital of the world, he said to himself. But it failed to give him the usual spur.

Then he began to notice the girls. It seemed that at this time, Manhattan gushed girls off every train in Grand Central Station. They came clicking up the stairs out of every tunnel, oozing tight-skirted hips down street and avenue.  Girls in pale pink fuzzy overcoats and black suits, in hats and kerchiefs, in racoon collars and kid gloves, carrying overstuffed handbags and diminutive lunchboxes, looking eager or half-asleep or reluctant.

As he walked slowly on, a particularly fine specimen passed him. A redhead, and the sway of her as she turned left down the side alley twisted his head round, so that he almost fell on top of Luther’s newspaper cart.

‘Whoah there, Mister Mack!’ Luther allowed himself a big laugh once he knew his papers and change weren’t going to be upended.

‘Sorry Luther.’  Mac searched his pockets for change.  ‘Jaysus. It’s as well I don’t usually travel to work at this time.’

‘And why’s that Sir?’  Luther folded the New York Times in three for Mac as he did six days a week.

‘Too much distraction, Luther.’ He mimed a face of pain  ‘Where have they all come from? Where on earth are they all going?’

Luther laughed again, this time a deep-belly, man-to-man rumble. ‘Why, they’s goin to work, Sir, same as you.’

This, then, was my father on his way to meet my mother for the first time.  It was years before what he called Women’s Lib made it unacceptable for men to ogle women half their age. At 53, as he was that morning, and for the rest of his life, Mack thought 30 the ideal age for a female.

If he had time, he would explain to you in detail how almost all women had a few years around 30 where they bloomed again before what he called ‘the withering’ set in and why half a lifetime younger was how he liked ‘em and how he had no problem saying so.

Mack’s pride was to say aloud what he thought others thought too but didn’t dare to say. So he would elaborate for you, no matter who you were, (yes, even for his own daughter), the ways in which 53-year-old female flesh was an offence to Mother nature. And how no, no matter what you said, it wasn’t the same the other way round — because men were ugly bastards in the first place, so didn’t give the shock of a flower gone to seed. And anyhow, a man’s attraction was not in his looks but his wallet.

Between one thing and another, it was 9.12 when Mack swung in through his office doors that morning, straight into a commotion. His Number 2, Hagan, was looking on, grinning like a chimpanzee as a delivery girl, wearing a newsboy cap pulled low in an – failed – attempt to hide an ugly port wine stain on her cheek, was arguing with O’Mara, his unflappable personal assistant. Who who was decidedly flapping.

‘What’s going on?’

The girl turned and jumped with recognition. A flush rose on the white side of her face, until her entire visage was various shades of plum.

O’Mara folded his lips. ‘Nothing for you to worry about Sir.’ Though Mack paid his personal assistant handsomely to take just that attitude, it never failed to irritate him.

‘I’ll be the judge of that, O’Mara. What’s the problem?’

‘This girl is…’

‘I’m just trying to deliver a gift to you, Mr McIntyre. From an admirer.’  On her delivery trolley was a large and, it seemed, a seriously heavy basket from Saks.

‘Young lady, Mr McIntyre does not…’

‘It’s just a gift, Sir.’

‘What’s your name?

‘Scottie O’Regan.’


‘My father had a penchant for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sir.’

‘Had he indeed?’ A penchant.  This was no delivery girl.

‘Yes. My sister is called Zelda.’

‘Zelda… ?’

‘Zelda O’Regan. Isn’t that the name of the writer girl?’ Hagan asked, slowly as a bad actor. ‘The one who’s been sending all those –’

‘Yes, thank you Hagan.  Help Miss O’Regan to wheel the basket to the elevator, like a good man.’

The girl’s smile grew so wide it nearly walked off her face.

‘But Mack –’

‘Will you accompany them, O’Mara, please? I’ll meet you all in the boardroom in five.’

‘Mack, I really think…’

But he was striding away, leaving them to negotiate the trolley.

As he squeezed into the crowded elevator, he berated himself. Already later than he’d ever been in 40 years of work, what was he doing wasting more time? The events of last night, and in the bathroom that morning, and the girls on the way in: they must all be taking their toll.  He was losing it. Pender would have his guts for garters.

But the girl’s accent was so delightfully Irish and…  And it all just seemed to fit the strange morning he was having.

Up on the 29th floor, his secretary, Miss Delaney, met him with a notebook and an excess of anxiety. ‘Mr Pender has just left, Mr MacIntyre. He was upset we couldn’t contact you.’

‘I don’t think upset is quite the word you want, Delaney.’ Mack could be stewing in death juices on his apartment floor and all Charlie Pender would be worrying about was the deal. ‘I’ll call him in a while. Right now, I’m having a delivery sent up.’

He went into the boardroom and took a position against the mantlepiece, leaning on one elbow, his ankle nonchalantly crossed over a straight leg. He lit a cigarette and stood in what he hoped was a picture of relaxation  He wouldn’t be able to give this more than five minutes but it looked like they’d be the best minutes of the day.

The girl wheeled the trolley in, Hagan and O’Mara trooping behind her. She placed it, with great care, into position in the middle of the floor.

‘Would you be so kind as to open the hamper for us, Miss O’Regan?’

‘Er Mack, don’t you want me to check it out?’ Hagan sounded unconvincing in his new bodyguard role, a response to the supposed assassination threat that endangered all US businessmen these times, especially ostentatious real estate developers.

‘I wouldn’t worry too much, Hagan.  If Miss O’Regan is a communist-at-large with a bomb in her basket, she’ll be blown up along with us. Which is hardly the plan.’

She was undoing the yellow strap and lifting the lid and the three men drew closer, leaned in to look.  Nothing could be seen except shredded newspaper. Then it began to stir, as if something live was in there.

Hagan reached for his holster.  ‘Mack!’ He yelled.  “Seriously. Watch out!”

‘For the love of God, Hagan,’ Mack drawled, voice as lackadaisical as he could make it.  ’Put that yoke away, or I’ll have it taken off you.’

He had guessed by now what was in there and yes, the newspaper clippings parted and a vision emerged, small and slim and perfectly formed, up out of the hamper. A pint-sized, dark-haired, Venus rising.

He stepped forward and offered his hand to help her climb out of the crate. “The other Miss O’Regan, I presume?”

“Zelda,” she said, bouncing his smile back to him.  “Just Zelda.”









Ah the girl breaking out of the box. That classic image of the flamboyant 1920s: femininity dressed up as liberation.

When planning this scene to tickle Mack’s nostalgia bone, Scottie and Zelda had originally intended to deliver a cake. But they didn’t have the utensils to bake one big enough and they couldn’t afford to pay a baker. (And what if it broke en route? And anyway, how did a girl get to breathe in there?)

It was Scottie who had the idea of using the Saks crate that masqueraded as a side table under a cloth in their apartment. Zelda’s bursting out, not what she would burst out from, was what would do the trick, invoke the spirit of those flamboyant years between the Great War and the Great Depression, the Roaring, jazzed-up 1920s through which Mack’s own twenties had unfolded.

And yes, it had worked. Here they were, with Mack clearly diverted by the diversion, dismissing Hagan and O’Mara. Ushering the two girls, his hand on the small of Zelda’s back, to sit at the boardroom table. Grinning at them and breaking out the cigarette box.

So: phase two. Scottie declined the cigarette. ‘In fact, Sir, I have to be going. I have another delivery to do.

‘Have you indeed?’

‘Unfortunately yes. But my sister can stay and explain.’

‘I don’t think so, dear.’

Zelda stopped in the act of filling her cigarette holder. Mack noted the quick questioning glance she sent her sister. ‘Thanks for the entertainment, girls. Now I have to get to the work you have delayed.


‘But what, dear? You thought I’d be so charmed by your sister’s little act that I’d cancel my morning?’

He took a long drag of smoke, indulging his own dramatic side now. ‘You can – both of you –  go out to Miss Delaney in reception and wait until I’m free to listen to whatever it is that brought you here. Or you can – both of you – leave now.’

Oh Mack. I know something of what my father was feeling in that moment, beyond his need to regain control and beyond his physical response to Zelda’s beauty. Something else was stirring, something he’d never felt before. He told me about it once. It was years and years after it had been corrupted but the memory of it still lit him up. As the memory of seeing him like that now lights me.

They had their time, my mother and father, their love moment. I want to make it live again. That is what I think about, here in the hospital that pretends not to be a hospital, when I sit down with the notebook I’m told to write in or when I walk by its lake. How it began.

Mack knowing he wanted to sit down, one-to-one, with this young coquette, hoping she might be the answer to the prayer he had called out into his bathroom that morning, feeling how his need made him vulnerable. It made him suspicious of what she and her sister might have planned for him and even more wary, even more careful to dominate, than usual.

As these two people circle round each other, I am coming to be born.  This is the beginning that led to here.

The hospital has a fence around its little lake, a mesh see-through affair which allows us to enjoy the sight of water without getting too close, like our blinds have no cord and our food is the kind that can be eaten without a knife. Yes, the lake does remind me of Jamie – how could it not? – and yes, it calls me, but that doesn’t make it a postcard from Mr Death, as Dr Life-and-Light seems to think.

It’s soothing, actually.

After the rising ritual, the breakfast, the exercise, the writing therapy and the lunch but before the session with Doctor Lee, the tea, the indoor recreation, the dinner and the bedtime routine, this is what I do. This circumambulation, around and around this perimeter fence, is the hub of my hospital days.

I do not do group therapy. I have a dispensation. That was part of the deal. Instead I join the languid afternoon air, the wafting smell of grass, the drone of buzzing insects, the flutter of butterflies. And throw a pebble or two over the fence and into the lake.

Have you ever looked at water that has just accepted a stone, at the indentation it makes, like the pupil of an eye. A hole that seems open but isn’t. Other people see the ripples but I always look for that spot where the stone has plopped, breaking the skin of the water. I follow it in my imagination, as it sinks, as low as it can go, down to the mud at the bottom.

A stone can live down there where we humans cannot. Not any more. When we crawled out of the primaeval gloop, on our march to improvement, we said goodbye to that possibility. A stone can…

But Mack, back to Mack. What a morning he’d had, even before the sisters showed up. He’d woken to deep blue filling his eyes and a cold hardness against his knees and elbows. After some confusion, he’d united these sense impressions into the tiles of his en-suite bathroom floor upon which, it appeared, he was lying, facedown.

Had been lying on for hours, from the feel of it.

Using the smooth edge of the porcelain sink above, he hauled himself up and almost crashed into an intruder lurching toward him, pushing his head into his, ugly and unshaven. He recoiled so hard he was almost floored again. He heard himself scream in a weak faraway voice, like a girl’s, and then groan as he realised the interloper was himself, his own image in the bathroom mirror.

Then came another realisation, from the noise coming up from the streets below, the pressing, river-rush of traffic, its hoots and siren-screams, that this Manhattan morning was up and running, well and truly dawned. That he’d missed his normal rising time by maybe as much as two hours. That downtown, at the head office of MacIntyre & Associates, Charlie Pender, his financial controller, would have been sitting, waiting for their 7am meet, scratching his big, bald head in that way he had, which made him look like an idiot from some godforsaken Irish village, a manner the two of them had used to their advantage many a time.

He became aware of the wires of tension tangling out across his shoulders, the dread that lined his stomach, the heat of his head, electric with confined thoughts, barred from surfacing.

‘You’re exhausted,’ he told his haggard image. ‘You are completely fucking shattered.’

It had been a gruelling six months, even by the standards of MacIntyre & Associates, week after week of applications and arguments, of lawyers and accountants, of finely judged ‘incentives’ to grasping politicos…   And paperwork.  The paperwork was the worst of it, eating up fourteen-hour days and still coming back for more.

A girl was what he needed. That was the conclusion he’d come to as groped for a pill from the phial in his pocket and swallowed it with a swig of water from the tap. Not Dana, a new girl. The name of his latest companion cracked open another memory from the night before: him forgetting to feed her the necessary quotient of compliments; her storming an exit, shouted insults and invective.

After that..?

He had been boorish with Dana, he could admit it.  Overwork didn’t put you in the right frame of mind for the niceties and he was tired of her demands, that was the truth. It was over and he was glad of it. He pulled at his eyes in the mirror, made a face, tried to make himself feel better by making himself look worse. Eyes red with blear and bloat/Tongue lined with foul white coat. That was another thing he had to stop, the rhyming thing, it was getting on his own nerves.

His Nan used to do it. It was her vehicle for a fund of rhyming rules and morals, some in bits of language from the old country. Mo Ash Ling Bawn/I hear you yawn.

Lay down your head/it’s time for bed. Oh Nanny m’love, send me a girl. A fresh start. Someone young who’ll invigorate me. Forgive me for not wanting to marry — and send me a girl anyway. Not for the great-grandchildren you’re never going to get, but to help me deliver that book I promised you.

Time was the excuse he kept making for not having come up with the goods — but he knew time was just another word for energy. He needed reinvigoration. There was enough time for everything if you had the right mental attitude. And he knew how to spark that in himself. It always worked. Send me a girl, Nan.

He straightened. A small lingering dizziness, a tightness at the temples, but nothing too sinister. The pill was working. He brushed his teeth. Combed his hair. As he addressed some nose hair, her voice spoke loud and clear in his head: Stupid jerk/Go to work.

She was right, as always. He dropped the tweezers, with a clang, into the porcelain sink and headed out into the Manhattan morning.


And now it was after ten and he still hadn’t got started on his work. He escorted the sisters to reception, regretting how his officiousness was stripping Zelda of her glamour and Scottie of her pep, how it was turning them from stars in their own drama into a pair of naughty schoolgirls.  But life isn’t a movie script, girls. It’s a poker hand and if you don’t hide your cards, you’re quickly out of the game.

So he deposited them in reception with an instruction to Miss Delaney to give them tea and went on into his own office, sat to his desk, and with the discipline that only comes with years of self-direction, immediately dismissed them from his mind. He called Charlie Pender and had the necessary conversation and made the necessary decisions, then turned the laser of his concentration to the dreaded paperwork.

Observe it, the quality of my father’s concentration. It’s unbreakable by anyone but him, I learned that when I was very young. It’s the quality, even more than his cunning or ruthlessness, that underwrites his success, that levered him off the mean streets of Manhattan up  to the top of this skyscraper which he owns, from which he runs his real estate empire.

See how he still pushes himself as hard as he did when he was 20. If you asked why, he would say that money is as easily lost as won. He did, after all, lose a decade’s worth of accumulation in the great crash.

That’s not it though. He knows he has enough money for the rest of his life in MacIntyre Properties alone, never mind the other investment vehicles, from Greek shipping to French wine. He knows the only thing that could take him belly-up again would be a world-shaker, and that even then, Charlie Pender would probably know how to make money out of it.

Still he needs to make more. If it’s there to be made, then he must make it. And at that time, more than any time since the crash, opportunities were beating down the door. America was launching itself again on a consumerist binge. Growth was everywhere. Mack knew it would be followed, as it always was, by a contraction and by the time the next boom swung round, he’d probably be gone. This was his last hurrah and he wanted in. So he worked, on automat, while Zelda waited. As he will work and she will wait out so many future hours to come.

It was almost three hours later before he emerged, with a smile more appropriate to a wait of three minutes. ”All right girls, let’s see what you have to say for yourselves.”

He told Delaney they were going to Barney’s and they’d be back after lunch, waved the girls ahead of him towards the elevator. From behind, the sister looked good too. Taller and not as neatly made but well able to walk the walk. A fine figure of a girl as they like to say in Ireland, until she’d turn around and show what over there they’d call there her “cross”.

Hard on her but truth to tell, she was now of minimal interest. The morning’s work had strengthened him, the bathrooom floor seemed very far away and all he now wanted was to have Zelda to himself. So when they got to the ground and the elevator pinged open, he said to Scottie: “You can go now.”

‘But you said…’

‘I thought that was what you wanted?’

‘But…’  That was Zelda, also trying to object, but he had taken her elbow and was steering her through the revolving doors, without looking back.








‘You’re not Doctor Keane.’

‘Well spotted, my dear.’ She’s a big woman, in her fifties, buxom. I’ve seen her and her waddling curves about the place but never spoken to her before. Germanic stock, I’d guess. Something about her reminds me of my grandmother, Tansy.

‘If this is about yesterday, I…’

‘Of course it’s about yesterday.’

A declarative statement. After three months of Say-Nothing Keane’s open-ended questions, I’m surprised by it. She is looking at me, straight and true. Not evasive like him — but not invasive either. ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’

I parry. ‘You have the good doctor’s explanation. That’s the one you’re going to go with, anyway.’

‘Is that so? And what’s his explanation, do you think?’

‘Oh, transference, or some such, I suppose.’

‘What do you mean by transference?’

‘Unconscious redirection of my feelings to my therapist.’ I snigger. ‘Dr Keane thinks I fancy him.’

‘It’s a fit for your behaviour…  But if you tell me that wasn’t what was going on in this room yesterday, I’ll believe you.’

‘It wasn’t.’

‘So why did you do what you did.’

‘It was the deliberate silences. I couldn’t stand them any longer.’

‘That’s what they’re for.’

Honesty again. A doctor who says what she means, is it possible?

‘I had to do something.’

‘Most of our patients,’ she says, ‘break the dreaded silence by speaking, maybe crying. Maybe even shouting or screaming. You’re the first to have thrown off her clothes and forced herself onto her therapist’s lap.’

I laugh at the memory of Meano-Keano’s shock. ‘Regression!’ I say, in his mincy voice, one of the words I know he would have used in his report. ‘Acting out! Compulsive sexualisation! Hostility!’

She doesn’t laugh with me. I know she can’t but I’m disappointed.

‘Mel, my name is Doctor Benet. I’ve been reading your notes. You’ve been doing well up to now so what triggered this? Did something happen?’

I like that she uses ordinary words, not clinic speak. Far-Too-Keane would have asked why I felt the need toderail my process, or some such, whether I’d had an inciting incident. I let an answer pop from my mouth without putting it through my filter. ’I wasn’t.’


‘I wasn’t doing well. I was telling him what he wanted to hear.’

She smiles, not the therapist’s cool condescending sort. The kind of smile Tansy calls a Bobby Dazzler.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘If you weren’t before, you’re doing well now. Admitting to that.’

Can her smile be as understanding as it looks? Life’s hard, it seems to say, for everyone. We’re each doing what we can.

I think of what Jamie did, of the months of premeditation you need to make the choice he made. You need to be organised, and determined, and detached and, I think, you need to be ground down by the ceaseless mental debate day after day: will you, won’t you. Why you should, why you shouldn’t.

Is that right? Do people kill themselves just to stop that yes/no batting about their head?

‘Do you want to stay here, Mel?’ Dr Benet asks. ‘Or to be discharged?’

‘Discharged? You can’t discharge me, I’ve just thrown a crazy.’

‘Oh we can. And will, if we’re not doing you any good.’

Discharged. No, I can smell the city, live and wiry, tight and nervy, and what it would do to me. I need to get strong if I’m to face into what happened to Jamie and to Tara.  I need hospital timetables, ticks and checks, bedtime, mealtime, meds time.

‘For us, writing is a diagnostic tool as well as a healing one, Mel, and you are in good shape, well able to write.  Do you know how many people I see who can’t frame a sentence?’

I’ve been there, where the letters slither all over the page and meaning collapses into canyons between them.

‘We’re here to help you, Mel. Yes, we get it wrong sometimes. So do our patients and that’s okay. But from one as well as you, we expect co-operation. Not you acting out on your own imaginary stage, trying to shock a non-existent audience.’

I’m scraping for a few words to hold up in my defence when she switches the subject.

‘Why do you spend so much time with Mrs Clarkeson?’

For a moment I don’t know who she means, then I realise: the old-timer in the south ward, Ladbrook Hall’s oldest patient. I call her Birdy. Poor little Birdy.  The years pool in the sag of her breasts, the slack of her jaw, the bags of her eyes. To the rest of them, she is old, wholly old, nothing but old. They are afraid to die, so they can’t look straight into her sunken, socketed eyes that are always staring into the middle distance and often oozing tears.

The tears are for Birdy’s past, I know, the incidents of almost a hundred years leaking like spillage because she no longer has the strength to hold them in. They flow down the crazes in her cheeks, around the furrows of her mouth and, unless I’m there to wipe them away, drench the pillow under her head. I sit by her bed most mornings and evenings, hold her hand in mine a little while. Chicken bones. Limp glove of skin. When her ancient, brimming eyes turn my way, I know I’m not there.

‘My brother was named for my mother’s favourite drink,’ I tell the doctor. ’Jameson whiskey. And I was named for her favourite food. Peach melba. That should tell you, Doctor Benet, all you need to know about our mother.’

‘Shall we talk about your brother today? About…’ Her eyes make a quick flick down to her notes. ‘… Jamie?’

Until that moment, that need to glance down, to seem to know more than she knew, I was hers.  I would have followed her wherever she led. That flickering glance to his name brought me right back to him, to Jamie, to walking into our basement bathroom, with its big tub in the centre of the room to see him, laid out, Mack’s straight razor on the floor on one side, Zelda’s gold scissors on the other. One for each wrist.

My screams as I tried to pull him from his tub of blood brought the help running. By the time my parents were home, his body was cleaned and labelled in the downtown morgue and I’d been given a sedative injection, launching me back into the world of shrinks and syringes.

‘No,’ I whisper, almost panting, like I’ve been running a race. ‘Not today. Not yet.’

‘Then tell me about your parents,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve been writing about them. Tell me about…’ – this time the look at her notes is open, as she reads the names – ‘… about Mack and Zelda.’


Did you meet my father the day he came to look the place over? Then you know what he’s like and you can guess, I guess, that he’s always been the same. A single-minded businessman always flashing, but never quite managing to enjoy, his success.

He started work at 15, in a shoe store on 44th St., got into real estate at 20, did his first deal at 22 and, except for a spectacular plummet during the Depression in ’29, grew each deal into a bigger and better one, until he was 53 years old. It was pretty much all he thought about, what would get the deal. The rest of his life was devoted to the partying and womanising he needed to absorb his stress.

That’s how he lived until he was 53 years old, when two things hit him hard in a place he’d forgotten he had.

The first was Ireland. In the summer of ’53 – yes, he’s the same age as the century – he visited there for the first time.  He’d been a one-day-a-year Irishman, hauling out a green jacket from his closet each 17th of March and taking it on a bender around the pubs of the Five Points, where he’d enjoy listening to the poor Irish cursing ‘the Brits’ and singing their rebel songs, and wake up the following day, headachy and dry mouthed, to get the jacket cleaned and return to his ordinary, moneymaking American life.  In ’53, he finally felt secure enough to take three full weeks away from MacIntyre Associates, to fly back to the old country.

Not being the type to bounce the sights on a tour bus, he hired a car and drove straight to Ballyroche, County Wexford, the tiny village his great-grandfather and mother, Nan’s parents, had left in 1848. He booked himself into a B&B overlooking the sea, the only accommodation option in the village. Aside from the view of Atlantic waves meeting a curving yellow shore, it was a disgrace, the draughtiest, dampest and dirtiest place he’d ever laid his head. There was no shower and the landlady kept the bath plug in her bedroom, making such a ceremony of doling it out that he gave up on her and did what his ancestors likely did: used the sea as a bath most days.

You’d have to know my father to know how unusual this was. In Ireland, his fastidiousness, and all his other habits and inclinations, fell away. The country grabbed him as no woman had ever managed to. Now as he went around the village he wondered if this was love. If not, what word could he put on this strange, continuous sense of deja vu, of absolute rightness intercut with elation?

It felt like it was all his: the little church – locals called it ‘The Chapel’, built by penny donations in 1851, while people starved. The cemetery, with its mossy gravestones and a streamlet running through. The little pub that had been serving mind-altering liquid on this spot for eight centuries, full of flat-capped men whose talk was so accented it took him three days to work out that it was English they were speaking, not Gaelic. Those big-booted men didn’t ask any questions or engage him in any talk, but by the end of his stay, they were welcoming him when he came in for his Guinness with a nod or a tip to the forehead.  The way they spoke brought back to him expressions Nan had sprinkled all over his childhood. He could feel his own words begin to change shape in his mouth

He gave up the car and began to walk everywhere, inhaling the scent of honeysuckle in the lane-ways they called roads, of clover in the little patchwork fields, of salt on The Strand. Inhaling the sing-song talk of the locals, the touch of the damp breezes on his face and hands, the star-studded sky at night. Inhaling the rain showers that spurted out of nowhere and vanished as quick, the thud of silence when he woke up each morning. He’d never heard such silence.

As he walked around breathing it all in, he was trying to work out which of the little houses of the village might have been the one in which his people led such a miserable existence that they’d braved a coffin ship, with hardly a fifty-fifty chance of reaching America alive. Nan was six years old when they crossed and the memory of the rats and the vomit, the people huddled without light or air, the ravings of the sick and the mad, the dying and the drunk forever stayed with her.

Mack asked the landlady where she thought the house might be, and the publican, and even the priest after going to Mass on one of the Sunday mornings for the spectacle. The priest said he’d pass on the enquiry to a Mr Furlong, a local historian who knew every rood and settlement in the parish, going back to 1798 and beyond. Mack thought it all just politeness but when he returned to his accommodation that evening, he found a note pinned to his bedroom door, with a telephone number to call.

He met with the sage of Wexford in a pub close by, found him knowledgeable and convivial and left with a map and a summary of all that he knew, which was all anyone knew, about the MacIntyre family.

They were not originally from these parts but had come down from the north of Ireland for some reason now lost in time. There was only the one family and they seemed to have left in their entirety during the famine. The hunger was not as bad in these parts as others, so they may have been the adventurous sort, acting on the same wandering impulse that had brought them to Wexford, maybe. He’d had a look in the registry and there was nothing about a marriage but there was the birth of a girl. An Anne MacIntyre, on the 31st October 1842.

‘Nan,’ Mack had said.

‘No, a girl wouldn’t have handed on the name. You’d have come from the male line. Maybe a brother born later in America?’

‘No, it’s Nan alright. Her birthday was on Hallowe’en. And she arrived in the States in 1848, at the age of six.’


‘She was an unusual woman, Mr Furlong.  Exceptional. The kind they don’t make any more.’

He’d driven straight to the place-name on the map the minute the meeting finished. The sun was fading a little but following a slow arc far into the west, one of the longest evenings in the year. He got out of the car at the end of the pathway and walked up to the heap of stones Mr Furlong had told him he’d find. No sign that it had been a house. Some more stones heaped into a bit of a wall nearby. Another heap beyond that, a neighbour maybe? Mostly just green grass, daisies and cowslips and buttercups.

He lay down in the sound of the ocean. The sun seemed to stroke his eyelids. The clouds were the wispy kind that float fast across the sky, changing shape as they go. He stared at one of them until it parted and the sky seemed to open, like it was a big blue iris and the pupil at its centre was dilating, revealing what was beyond, which was nothing. A vast nothing that wasn’t dangerous or dreadful but light, light. Lighter than air. He became that lightness.

How long he lay there, feeling that way, he couldn’t say. It might have been a minute or an hour. Afterwards he wondered whether he’d  fallen asleep and dreamt it but if he had, it was a sleep that felt awake,  more awake than he’d ever felt before or since. He got up from that patch of grass a changed man.

When he got back to NYC, he couldn’t settle. The squeals and squalls of Manhattan, which had always energised him were now a torment. His health started to play up. His squeeze, Dana Davenport, who had previously seemed so perfect in her undemanding eroticism, began to bore him.  Ireland was nestling under his ribs, boring a longing into him. But a longing for for what?


When Zelda turned up in his office, Mack obviously was aware that he had been on the bathroom floor that morning, begging Nan to send him a girl.  But not a kid, he admonished his dead grandmother, as he steered the dark-haired, diminutive moppet towards his usual table in Cedaris.  Go again, Nan/this also-ran/is way too young/for grown-up fun.

She was well able to flirt though. The arrival of the handsome young waiter saw her eyelashes sweeping low, as if curtsying. She gave her order, steak with pepper sauce, pushing her assets forward most fetchingly and yes, it gave him a twinge of excitement, as passion by proxy always did. While they were there, he might as well enjoy her trying to get from him whatever it was she was after.

She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton or a screwball. Over soup, she told amusing stories about her folks in Brooklyn, originally from the county of Cork. ‘You don’t look Irish,’ he told her and he started to say ‘Spanish sailors’, the explanation always given in Ireland for anyone who wasn’t fair-skinned and they found she was saying the same thing at the same time, which made them laugh and after that everything loosened up a bit.  Maybe it was the wine kicking in.  She drank like a youngster, heedlessly and too fast, teeth almost biting the glass.

Flirting was definitely part of her pitch. As she told her stories, stories he would almost swear she had practiced, she waved her fingers like a princess, tilted her head like an actress, tinkled little laughs that sounded like money falling into a till. Over mains, she described  the premature deaths of Mammy and Daddy  in an automobile accident and how she and Scottie were taken in by an aunt for the rest of High School but now had to fend for themselves.

Dessert covered winning a scholarship to Columbia and then a first in English literature and she waited until coffee before getting down to business and when she did she came straight out with it. What she wanted was a job.

‘We have a personnel department,’ Mack said. ‘They’ll be pleased to take your application.’

‘I don’t want to work for MacIntyre & Associates. I want to work for you.’

‘Honey, if you were ten years older, I’d take you up on that.’

‘Mr MacIntyre, are you disrespecting me?’

He mumbled an apology she didn’t need and he didn’t mean.

‘Did you read the manuscript I sent?’

He hadn’t. Mara had brought it through to him at the time because it was unusual but he’d had Miss Delaney return it after reading the first page, with a letter explaining that MacIntyre & Associates dealt in shipping and real estate, not publishing. Advising her that Writers Market was the best guide for aspiring authors. He’d thought no more of it and only remembered when he read the file Mara put on his desk that morning.

‘I’m afraid it never got as far as me,’ he said. She bent to her bag, put a piece of newspaper on the table between them.  From The New York World. One of those damned reports by that bastard Cromer.

When Mack had come back from his Irish sojourn, he’d thought to write a book. A simple family history, about the MacIntyres. He’d had Mara organise a meeting with Roderick Palmer, of Central & Land, whom he saw described in The Times as ‘arguably the most prestigious publisher in NYC’, and yes, Mr Palmer was interested in the idea of a book from a rags-to-riches Irish-American who had bought up half of downtown and appeared so often in the gossip columns with a different woman on his arm.

The negotiation was handled not by any antsy-pantsy literary agent but by Charlie Pender. Wasn’t it only another piece of property, Charlie said, as he squeezed the deal all the way to hurting.

The size of the advance was newsworthy in itself so a press conference was called. Much was made of Mack’s trip back to Ireland, his intention to buy the land of his ancestors, to build a cottage there, a writer’s retreat.

Only when he got down to the book, he wasn’t able to write it. Last time Palmer was onto Charlie, he said the advance would have to go back if he didn’t come up with it soon. Which wouldn’t be a problem, not the money end of it, but – oh –  the humiliation, especially since Cromer had somehow got hold of the story and was ready to milk it like a farmer with a new cow.

And now, it seemed, even this little tyke had heard. Christ.

‘I’m offering you my writing services, Mr MacIntrye. I’ve made a start here.’  She put a manuscript on the table. ‘If you read it, I think you’ll agree I’m up to the job.’

‘Look sweetheart…’  He’d have hired somebody long ago only it meant admitting failure. The thing was, he knew he’d be well able to write it if he only had the time. If he could get back to Ireland, to that cottage he’d been talking about… he’d have it written in a month.

‘I’ll be completely discreet,’ she said. ‘No-one need know.’

Mack shook his head and called for the check. Before it arrived, before he had time to realise what was happening, she had stood up. ‘Just read the manuscript,’ she said. And with that, she was gone out the door without looking back.


As soon as she was a decent distance from Cedaris, Zelda went to a phone booth and dialled her apartment number.  Her sister picked it up on the first ring.


‘Pretty much according to plan.’

‘He kept the manuscript?’

‘I didn’t give him any choice.’

‘Good girl.’ This wasn’t one of Scottie’s condescending or encouraging ‘good girl’s. She was truly pleased. Zelda let out the breath she just realised she was holding.

A couple of blocks away, Mack was striding into his office and calling in Mara, telling him he wanted to know everything there was to know about this kid who called herself Zelda, telling him to get Peter Morgan, his private investigator, on the case.


That, doctor, is what happened the day Tara and Jamie and I began.


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