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.
Angela went by with a bowl of crisps. She was in short sleeves, a martyr to the flies, her arms covered in red welts. ‘They have me destroyed,’ she said, ‘worst summer in ages,’ though in the four years since Carol had bought the cabin, it had been the best summer, a string of hot, glorious weeks that lingered yet into autumn. The stone well that she passed each Friday evening on the edge of Farran village was festooned with sun-bleached ribbons and withered flowers, left there by the wives of farmers, praying for rain that never came.
‘Is that your cabin?’ Louise said, when Angela had gone, pointing to the one beside the Coles’.
‘Yes, how did you know?’
‘I saw you earlier, walking across the grass. Recognised you, of course.’
Carol nodded. ‘How’ve you been?’
‘Do you really want to know?’ There was a hardness to her that was new, that lay like a lacquer upon her features. ‘I’ve been on my own since Frank moved to England to file for bankruptcy.’
Carol looked away, out to the lake where east, towards the city, she could see the tower of the hydro-station and beyond that, the dam. The water seemed higher tonight, edging up the concrete walls before curling back on itself. ‘Does that take long?’
‘He’s been gone a while. All going well, he could be bankrupt this time next month.’ She laughed. ‘Funny, isn’t it,’ she said, ‘how the things we wish for change?’ She was quiet for a moment. ‘Clever you,’ she said, ‘pulling out of that south of France deal.’
‘Not clever – lucky. I didn’t get the loan.’
Patricia re-emerged from the kitchen with a tray. The evening was growing cooler, and she had thrown a pale blue coat, cape-like, over her shoulders. ‘How lovely,’ Carol said, stroking the coat’s fur collar.
‘Thanks,’ Patricia said. ‘It’s last year’s.’ She appeared to have forgotten Carol’s drink and had instead brought canapes. ‘Can I tempt you, ladies?’
The canapes were burnt around the edges, shedding flakes of blackened pastry like charred skin. Carol chose one topped with something green and when she bit into it, found it frozen in the middle.
‘Go on,’ Patricia said to Louise, ‘have one.’
‘I had one earlier, thank you.’
Louise took a canape, held it out from her body like she might hold a burning cigarette. She made no attempt to eat it. Patricia waited expectantly, the tray held high and close to her chest like a ceremonial platter. Eventually, with one last, pointed look at the uneaten canape , she turned and walked away across the decking.
‘Is she always like this?’ Louise said, as they watched Patricia going from guest to guest with the tray. ‘It’s like bloody Guantanamo.’ She held up the canape between finger and thumb. The dog, sensing an opportunity, emerged from beneath the chair and, padding over, began to lick her ankles. ‘Oh, fuck off,’ Louise said. She dropped the canape over the railing into the grass. ‘Don’t you just hate it?’ she said.
‘All this bloody sanctimony and mea culpa and own-brand toilet roll.’ She nodded towards Patricia. ‘All this playing at being poor in last year’s coat. As if somebody should give her a medal.’
Patricia, at the other end of the decking, was too far away to hear. But Angela heard. Carol knew she did by the way she lowered her glass and stared. The stare took in Carol as well as Louise, seemed to measure the distance between them as if calculating a new and difficult equation. Was this all it took? A throwaway comment about toilet roll and a coat, spoken a little too loudly? Or was there already resentment of a sort, a sense that Louise, who had not bought her cabin but rented, had somehow cheated in a game, a game whose rules were only becoming apparent now that it was over, a game the others had lost?
Graffiti appeared on the bio-unit at one of Angela’s cabins, and a sack of refuse was upended on the shore. Holes were dug in the silt at the end of Patricia’s garden, causing green, stagnant pools to form. Perhaps these things, or versions of them, had always happened, but now they were seized upon by Angela and Patricia, dissected and recorded, watched for like early manifestations of disease.
When Carol was a child, she decided one winter to catalogue all the dead birds on the road near her home. She recorded them in a copybook – finch, robin, blackbird – her pages divided into neat columns of species and date of passing. She recorded too their injuries, inspecting their small, sometimes still-warm bodies for wounds, bites, evidence of poison. The copybook became a fearsome thing, a thing of death and severed wings and bloodied feathers. And still she wrote in it, even as dead birds colonised her dreams and most of her waking until her father took the copybook away. There would always be dead birds, he said. Counting would not make them any less dead, or fewer in number. This, Carol thought, was what Angela and Patricia were doing: they were counting their dead birds, noting in every shard of smashed glass the progress of their ruin, as they met to drink coffee on each other’s decking.
Carol, who mostly used her cabin at weekends, was rarely at these meetings and Louise never was, though occasionally Carol saw her walking the shore. Carol invited her to supper one Saturday, along with Patricia, Angela and her husband, and two cousins of Angela’s who were visiting. Louise arrived elegant in a green cashmere dress and suede court shoes, though the shoes had seen better days, the suede a little worn around the toes. Angela immediately got up and went outside, followed by Patricia. Louise’s hair was as glorious as ever but her eyes were red-rimmed and she appeared distracted. She excused herself after half an hour, saying she had to attend to something at her cabin, and she didn’t return.
The women regrouped when she had gone, Angela and Patricia coming back inside to sit together on the long, leather sofa in the living room. ‘She’s rather odd, isn’t she?’ Patricia said.
‘I wouldn’t call her odd,’ Carol said. ‘She keeps to herself, that’s all.’
Patricia glanced sideways at Angela. ‘She doesn’t keep to herself as much as we would like,’ she said.
Angela, holding a glass of wine, began to laugh. She laughed so hard her hand shook, splashing wine all over the sofa. Patricia joined in and the laughter grew louder until Angela’s husband, who had gone outside with the cousins to admire the lake, wandered back in to stare in bemusement.
On a grey Saturday at the end of October, Patricia knocked on the door of Carol’s cabin. ‘Come with me,’ she said, and she turned and headed in the direction of the lake. When Carol caught up with her, she was stopped beside the giant barbecue the Coles had imported from the States. It was mounted on a patch of rough concrete where the garden met the shore. ‘Not exactly keeping to herself now,’ Patricia said, picking up a smashed rotisserie and flinging it in disgust into the bushes.
Carol looked at the side burners, snapped off and lying on the ground. The lid was hanging loose and inside the barbecue’s silver belly the bars were smashed and bent, jagged ends pointing upwards like a ravaged chicken carcass.
‘Angela saw her,’ Patricia said. ‘She saw her on the shore last night.’
There was no wind that day, the lake smooth and still. As Carol looked out at the water, the surface changed: a puckering, small at first, then more pronounced, as if someone on the opposite bank had found a loose thread and pulled. A rowing boat came up the reservoir. There were four figures in the boat, all in red lifejackets, beetle-shelled, their bodies creasing and straightening, folding and unfolding.
‘Who did Angela see?’
‘You know very well who she saw.’
Carol bent to retrieve a control knob that had rolled onto the grass, placed it beside another on the concrete base.
‘Did you see anything?’ Patricia said.
‘I had a migraine last night, I went to bed early.’
‘It’s Angela’s word against hers,’ Patricia said, ‘But if you saw her too...’
‘But you could have.’
A second boat came up the reservoir, travelled past and was gone. Carol watched the movement of the rower’s arms, swift and smooth, too distant from where she stood to be blighted by the ripple of muscle, the tremor of tired limbs. This, she realised, was all she knew of Patricia, of Angela too: a short, choreographed stretch of coffees and suppers and occasional evenings on each other’s decking. She knew nothing of the rest of their lives, what currents ran there, what weeds lined the bank. ‘I didn’t see anything,’ she said.
In winter, the wind created collages of wet leaves on the glass fronts of the cabins. Patricia Cole went to Dubai in November and didn’t return. There were no more parties, at least none that Carol was invited to. Angela’s sister, it turned out, had also seen Louise on the shore that night, though what happened afterwards, Carol hadn’t heard. The barbecue was left to rust where it stood, a monument to the Coles’ last summer at the lake.
One morning on the shore, Carol looked up at Louise’s cabin and saw a tiny, white-haired woman on the decking. She was in a wheelchair with a rug across her knees, the dog at her feet. The glass doors slid open and Louise appeared, her hair tied back in a scarf. She handed a bowl and a spoon to the white-haired woman, cuffing the dog on the side of the head as he tried to lick her hand. She was wearing a blue dress belted tight about her waist with a gold sash. Carol had seen the dress before. She had seen it shimmer under the sensor lights of the Coles’ garden, as metal struck metal and sparks rose like fireflies into the night sky. From her darkened bedroom, she had followed the high, curved trajectory of the hammer as it travelled out over the lake, then dropped into the blackness of the water.
Carol raised a hand and waved. Louise gave no indication of having seen her, just turned and went back inside the cabin. The white-haired woman began to eat. Only the dog seemed to register Carol’s presence, making his way down from the decking to follow her along the shore. He barked wildly at a pile of rubble left behind by the builders, a mix of cement and broken blocks that had hardened to form a jagged-edged pool. That winter, for the first time in years, the lake had broken its banks and now Carol saw, at the bottom of the almost dry pool, the bodies of a family of field mice. They had washed in on the flood and drowned, trapped by the concrete surround, the water receding too late to save them. Their fur was dark and sleek, their tails silver, almost translucent, and she stooped to take a closer look, wondering as she did so if it was very wrong to see such beauty in their rotting bodies.
Danielle McLaughlin lives in Co Cork. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies and journals, including The Stinging Fly, Crannóg, Long Story, Short, Southword, Boyne Berries, and The Burning Bush 2. In 2013, she won the Willesden Herald short story competition and the Merriman short story competition in memory of Maeve Binchy.