All the Dead Birds by Danielle McLaughlin
What the judges said about All the Dead Birds:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: I loved the dark, rather bitchy, humour in this story, the sharply drawn portraits of the women in their lake-side ‘cabins’. The setting is beautifully conveyed – I was there, in the glass-fronted cabin, on the lake. Very good dialogue. The storyline works, but the real strength is the lemon-sharp observations of character and the analysis of the female group dynamic. Maybe too many characters for a short story? The writer, I felt, has a true novelist’s skill.
Donal Ryan: A beautifully written and poignant story, atmospheric and very memorable.
All the Dead Birds
As Carol climbed the steps of the Coles’ decking, Patricia Cole hurried over to greet her, pausing on the way to inspect jugs of iced water on a trestle table. Tutting a little, she lifted one of the jugs and brought it with her. ‘Carol, darling!’ she said, ‘Are those new shoes? Recession how are you!’ The water sloshed back and forth in the jug as she leaned in to kiss Carol’s cheek. She was a tall, nervy woman in her late thirties, with hands that were constantly in motion, always tugging and smoothing, picking things up and putting them down. ‘These damn flies,’ she said, and Carol looked into the jug, saw something black and winged floating on the surface beside a slice of lime.
Patricia tipped the contents of the jug over the timber railing into the grass below. It was a Friday evening in early September, the air thick with the scent of blackberries that ripened and fell in the ditch behind the cabin. The party was a small gathering, scarcely a dozen guests dotted in twos and threes around the decking. ‘How’s Greg?’ Carol said. Greg, Patricia’s husband, had left for Dubai the previous month.
‘He’s getting on fine,’ Patricia said, ‘but the apartment feels strange without him, you know? I got up at six Tuesday morning and drove down here.’ She laid a hand on Carol’s arm. ‘I’m glad you could make it,’ she said, ‘Angela came down yesterday. It’s nice when the three of us are here together.’
By Christmas they wouldn’t be speaking, their friendship rolled up like a rug and put away, relegated like the patio heater and the golf clubs to the ranks of things that once had been useful. But that September evening, Patricia linked her arm and led her across the decking. ‘Have you heard?’ she said. ‘We’ve got a new neighbour.’
The holiday cabins were in two lines either side of Farran Lake, though they weren’t really cabins but three- and four-bed split-level houses, timber cladding over block. The lake, in its turn, wasn’t really a lake, but a man-made stretch of water formed a century before when the forest was cleared and the course of the river altered to create a reservoir. Each cabin was fronted by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that faced the water and each had decking raised on timber stilts, braced against the slope that ran down to the shore. There were forty cabins in total, though only four had sold: one each to Carol and Patricia and two to Angela, who waved at them now from behind the glass wall of Patricia’s kitchen.
Carol recognised Louise Barden immediately, though it was three years since they had met and Louise had cut her hair, the copper spirals Carol remembered from that night in Aix-en-Provence cropped now to just above her shoulders. She was in a wicker chair, citronella candles in little terracotta pots flickering at her feet. Apart from the hair, which was spectacular, she wasn’t especially pretty, her mouth a little too big, her eyes too wide-set. ‘This is Louise,’ Patricia said. ‘She’s renting the show cabin.’
If Louise recognised Carol, she gave no indication, but that was the way of things lately, everyone rushing to forget; tearing whole pages from their lives, a friend here, a business associate there. She stood to shake Carol’s hand. ‘He’s such a liability,’ she said, ‘I hate bringing him, but he tears the place apart if I leave him on his own.’
‘The bloody dog.’
Carol looked down and saw a long-haired, brown and white creature beneath the chair, thrown on its side as if dead. It was of indeterminate ancestry, part gundog, she guessed, part myriad other things.
‘He belongs to my mother,’ Louise said, ‘The nursing home refused to take him. I wouldn’t mind, but I could keep her at the Hilton for less. €1,400 a week.’
A bird flew low over the water and disappeared into a clump of yellow furze to the side of the cabin. The dog shuddered and twitched a mongrel ear, as if the beat of wings had stirred something in its genetic memory. It raised its head, and trouble flickered briefly in its red-rimmed eyes before it closed them again, drifted back to sleep.
‘You should talk to Angela,’ Patricia said. ‘Angela moved her mother to a nursing home outside the village here. Only €800 a week. She’s very pleased with it.’
‘Is it Sunset Harbour?’ Louise said. ‘Those two pink bungalows under the flyover? Because I’d shoot my mother before I’d put her in Sunset Harbour.’
Patricia had recently taken to plucking her own eyebrows. The outer half of her right brow was missing and had been pencilled back crooked, lending her a slightly crazed look when she frowned. ‘Goodness, Carol!’ she said, ‘I never got you a drink. The usual, I presume?’ and she turned and went into her kitchen. Louise glanced at Carol and shrugged. She walked to the railing of the decking and stood looking out at the lake.
A mermaid risen. That’s what she had looked like that night at the fountain in Aix-en-Provence, the sequins of her dress shimmering like scales, water beading her skin and hair. It was after the restaurant, the men with their black ties in their pockets, the women fidgeting with clutch bags. Everyone was suddenly shy, unsure all at once of themselves and of each other. The evening might have been lost, the project too, if Louise hadn’t kicked off her shoes and run barefoot to the fountain, jumping in, scooping up water in her cupped hands to throw at them. She stepped behind the wall of water, into the arms of the marbled cherubs at the heart of the fountain. Reaching behind her back, she untied her halter-neck dress, let it fall about her waist. They glimpsed her in flashes through the cascading water: her hair, when wet, reaching her waist, her sodden gown clinging about her legs like a tail. And they had laughed and clapped, all of them, believing again that they belonged in that glittering place.