Summer short story: Saviour Complex by Emer O’Hanlon

Swords are being sharpened on set, and battle is nigh

I’m just putting the finishing touches to the murder weapon when Dermot comes up behind me, a gentle hand on my shoulder, and asks would I like to come out with him later. The care he takes to be discreet (he knows I hate other people’s attention on me) is startling, and I feel a stupid surge of attraction to him.

I’ve to stay on a bit later tonight, I tell him. Loads to do.

All marching towards the battle. He seems determined to hold my gaze. I’d love to spend some time with you, you know, before it all kicks off.

(He’s angling. It’s exhilarating, the feeling of power it gives me.)

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Well, why don’t you drop by around seven? I break eye contact. We could get chips, drive around the lough?

(This is something we’ve started doing together, an easy way to fit him into my routine.)

Sounds like a plan. So anyway, what’re you up to now?

I flex the sword I’ve been working on. All of us have been trained in weapons handling, so we can do it carefully. I know I’m showing off; but it’s a novelty, having something he’s interested in.

I’ve been doing these all day, I explain. We’re making thousands, everyone on the team I mean. It’s a pain in the arse. We’ve specs for what they have to look like, for nobles or commoners, or the motley ones anyone could’ve picked up on the field. It’s so much work for something no one’s gonna see properly.

Eh, not true. You know there’re people who’ll pause and put a screengrab on Twitter complaining that someone’s using the wrong sword.

Fecking nerds.

After a while, Dermot leaves, and Kevin (who works beside me) glances up.

I’ll never understand you, he says.

Huh?

Kevin is buffing rivets. He’s been on shields for a week now, God love him.

Dermot’s clearly into you. You should take up on his hints. He’s not bad looking.

Thanks for the advice. Jesus, you’d think no one had anything better to do than discuss my sex life.

That’s the part of the shoot I like best, muses Kevin, the gossip.

Next day, I take a long lunch, and meet up with Rachael for a walk. This summer, she’s been visiting all the time. Although things are becoming hectic at the shoot, I make time to see her when I can.

It’s unusually nice outside, so instead of sticking to the estate, she picks me up by the entrance and we drive into Strangford. We head to the woods with fresh scones from the bakery, Rachael’s dog Mattie on the lead.

It’s during these walks that we perfect our plan, and adapt it as necessary. It absolutely has to coincide with the filming of this battle, so we’re into the final stages, although there’s still time to make changes. Like now, when I suggest to her that we shift the location to the woods rather than the estate.

There are more people at Castle Ward every day, and anyway, the ticket will tie you to the place.

What kind of dick would buy a ticket for the venue he was gonna commit a murder? Rachael’s lip curls as she catches my eye. We both burst out laughing.

(That, of course, has been the plan until now.)

Hear me out, I tell her. Park your car in the estate, and then bring him for a walk along the lough. It’s not clear where the estate ends, but you know it better than him, so he’d never catch on. Then you could hide the body round here. The estate ticket’s your alibi. Look, I’ve found the perfect place.

I’ve been leading her down to the water, to one of my favourite places along the shore. The land curves inwards, and suddenly you have a panoramic view of the whole lough. The harbour at Strangford, across the water to Portaferry and Greyabbey glinting in the distance, and then on the other side, the south facade of the Big House at Castle Ward with Audley’s Castle on the hill to its right.

I take special care to point out the castle to her, explaining how they used it on the show (altered with CGI, of course). She appreciates the detail. I knew she would.

And here’s where I was thinking we could dump him, I explain to her. I lead her along a narrow stretch of sand, towards a clump of ruined outhouses. One of them is sunken, so that our feet are level with its roof. The ruin is flooded to make a deep, stagnant pool, and I step on to its walls to get a better look into it, Rachael following gingerly.

If we dumped him at high tide, like today, I say, we could make sure he’s submerged underneath the water. He mightn’t be found for a few days. Plenty of time to report him missing and act worried and stuff. I think this is safer than the estate.

Rachael stares down into the pool, her expression difficult to read. I know I’m taking this too seriously. I always do. But it’s the only way I know to help her.

Sometimes at work, I’ll hear Dermot talking about Ciara. He’s staying here for the whole shoot, they’re not even alternating weekends. He says the shoots exhaust him, and travel makes it worse. He wants to make the most of being here while he’s got the gig.

You know, Ciara and I are actually open, he tells me. We are parked in a quiet spot at Loughmoney, eating our chips by the water’s edge.

We’re both good at it, he continues, sticking his joint out the window. I don’t want her feeling lonely. I know my work can be difficult, especially when we’re not, you know, living together.

(They live together in Galway, in the house owned by his parents there. He brought me to visit it once, all glass and windows and light.)

(Part of me would love to start f**king Dermot again, especially when he says moronic stuff like this. I hate that I’m still fond of him. But he’s also irritating and weedy. I get all superior these days, after I’ve spent time with him. Superior and lightheaded and nauseous.)

(I may not let him touch me any more, but aren’t I still letting him decide how we spend our free time?)

I love this spot, I say to change the subject. I’ve always thought it’d be the perfect spot to confess a murder to someone.

Shit Sive, you’ve a weird imagination.

Rachael messages to say that she and the bastard husband have reached a breaking point. Desperate measures are called for. So we meet at one of our favourite bars in Belfast. We’ve just settled down with our drinks when she nods towards the corner. Somehow we’ve come out to the same drinkhole as Dermot and two of the actors.

Small world, laughs Rachael, her eyes glued to the actors. She never met Dermot, before, and I haven’t mentioned to her yet that he’s here now.

That’s Dermot, I tell her. (Does she remember his name? Did I ever tell her his name?) He’s one of the runners, just joined this season. Apparently, he makes friends quick.

D’you know either of them? I’m dead curious to know what they’re like.

(The one who plays the sadist is off to find the bathroom; the psychopath stays with Dermot.)

We don’t have much to do with the actors in props, apart from telling them they can’t take pieces of the set home. But to be honest, it’s the extras who’re the worst for that.

(Dermot hasn’t given any indication that he’s noticed me. Rachael and I are both reasonably dressed up, me much more than usual. It makes a nice change from my uniform of cargo trousers and fleeces.)

I still can’t believe how much you reuse each season. I’m always pausing to show — people that, when we watch together.

She catches herself before saying her husband’s name.

(Rachael’s husband, I’ve never liked him, would be so much easier to deal with if we could just kill him and dump his body in the lough, like we’ve been planning all summer. It was Rachael who came up with the plan, right here in this bar.)

How much longer’s the shoot then? Rachael asks.

Well, the battle is nigh. That’ll be about three weeks of utter f**king hell.

Rachael rolls her eyes at me. Why d’you keep negging on this battle? (It’s a bit of a front. I know Rachael gets a kick out of hearing this stuff.) Tell me what you’re prepping now.

Ah, we’re all on shields. Think I already told you about swords. They’re a bit trickier. Most of the time when you see them in shot they’re just made of rubber, like when they’re not actually being used. For battles, you’ve a mix, so that’s been challenging.

She nods. The swords, we’ve discussed in-depth before.

Yeah, she says, you told me, about the blunt and the sharpened ones. And after the battle?

Bits to prep for next year, I guess.

I thought they weren’t using Castle Ward much again?

(She might be right; I’ve no idea. I refuse to read those doorstopper books the show was based on, pay no attention to the fan stuff.)

Maybe, but there are plenty of other locations in Northern Ireland, so I could be moved there, like the big one up at Ballintoy. I mean, it’d be a shame, as Castle Ward is so handy for the house.

Yeah, they do do a bit of filming in North Antrim, don’t they?

(The sadist is back from the bathroom, bestowing another round of pints on their table.)

He looks so different in real life, Rachael says.

Apparently he’s actually lovely, in real life.

(So Dermot says anyway.)

Rachael goes quiet. I watch her watching the sadist, maybe thinking about how, if she were single, she’d go over and try to hit on him. I’m useless in situations like these. I don’t know how to cheer her up. Somehow the truth (I dress it up as gossip) about Dermot tumbles out.

Of course, I remember him! Youse had an on-off thing in college, didn’t you?

I try not to get impatient with her for fudging the details.

You know, I don’t think it was ever really on.

Away on, you went on holidays with him.

That was only to his parents’ house in Galway. It wasn’t really a holiday.

And now?!

We go for walks or drives, or sometimes dinner after work. He texted me to say he’d got the job here, cause he remembered where I lived. He didn’t realise I worked on the show too.

Not been stalking you then? Pity, in a way.

Yeah.

Hang on, what’s his name again?

Umm, Dermot.

And he’s on the crew?

Yep.

So it’s that guy over there?

I guess.

Rachael stares. Then she gets up, catches Dermot’s eye, and beckons him over. He looks taken aback to see me here, of all places, but he picks up his pint and joins us.

Sive, I didn’t know you drank here too, he says.

(He doesn’t bring over the psychopath or the sadist, I notice. He’s always had a funny way of being exclusionary.)

Can I get you two a refill? He asks.

We’ll both have another of the elderflower cocktails, will we?

Get us doubles of the gin, would you, Dermot? says Rachael.

I’m Rachael, she says, when he sits back down with our drinks. Sive’s friend from school.

So you’re from Strangford?

No, Belfast. From before Sive’s parents moved out there, like.

Dermot’s lip curls.

A story about Belfast, he says. I met Sive working on the same play. She was on props and I needed a bomb made. I told her, sure, you’d have enough experience with bombs being from Belfast. The look she gave me was daggers.

The way he tells this story signals platonic affection. Rachael laughs weakly. I can tell she doesn’t like him. I don’t blame her. I don’t think I do either.

Awk, I miss having her near since the move, says Rachael, but we see each other when we can.

My parents moved just after we started college, I remind him. I’m not sure how much of my backstory he remembers.

Oh I remember. You should’ve got me to visit. I always just assumed you lived in a dump, the way you talked about the place.

I wasn’t too happy about it then. I was determined to never live there. I thought it was the most boring place in the world. And I was used to Belfast, like.

(I’m cringing at my own words as I speak. My tipsiness is driving me into faux-friendliness, faux-intimacy with him.)

Don’t listen to her Dermot, says Rachael. She’s such a wee hermit, she actually loves it out there.

It’s mad to me that people want to visit there now. Coaches full of Americans every day. You know they wear fake fur cloaks and plastic swords?

You did undersell it, says Dermot. Anyway, I think me and the lads might be heading off soon, trying to catch last orders at Strangford. Do you want to come?

Pub’s full of locals. I’ve my superior mystique to uphold. But I’ll share a ride back with you, if you don’t mind.

He laughs at this, genuinely.

I’ve got to tell you, Rachael says when he’s gone, this evening has really cheered me up.

Saturday is our final chance to run through the plan before the filming for the battle starts next week. When Rachael doesn’t show up on time, I start panicking. What if he’s done something to her? Eventually, her car pulls up, and she’s not alone.

Jump on in, she yells to me across her husband, through the open window. D’you mind if we just stick to the estate today?

Rachael says you and her are obsessed with that house, he says.

She gives me a warning look in her mirror. No more jokes.

Rachael and I know the free tours of the Big House practically off by heart. Anne, who designed it, argued with her husband about architecture. He’d married her for her money, you see, even though he privately believed she was mad. But she pushed her case, and in the end they split the house in two. Anne’s side Gothic, Bernard’s neoclassical. You could see the dividing line all the way down the house, present in the style of the doors, the windows, the plasterwork.

She was dead right to leave him, I say loudly, while the guide lets us look around the ballroom.

Brutal that she just left the kids like, says Rachael’s husband.

Sad how they were such a bad match, Rachael says.

Anne’s portrait is in Washington for a temporary exhibition, but we compare her pale, watery face in the reproduction with Bernard’s, a puffy-faced man with squinty eyes.

He’s not as evil-looking as Robert, says Rachael, pointing at the picture of Bernard and Anne’s prodigal son. But he’s weak. You can just tell.

Yeah, Robert’s got that perfect black-sheep, bad-apple look, doesn’t he?

He kinda reminds me of Dermot, how I imagine him looking anyway, says Rachael’s husband.

What?

(I can suddenly feel the blood pumping in my throat very, very clearly.)

Sive doesn’t want to talk about Dermot right now, says Rachael, pulling on his arm. Jesus.

She won’t meet my eye.

We get coffees afterwards, and drink them down by the water, diverting to pass through the old farmyard, where Rachael points out the remains of the old castle, the ramparts used in the show. Her face is slightly pink, eager to share with him the snippets I’d told her in the first place.

(And we guide him, between us, along the paths we chose together to lead to his grave.)

Back in the courtyard, he makes a last-minute toilet run before they go back to the car, and I’m alone with her at last.

So —

She shakes her head.

I should get back to props. I’ve so much to do before Monday.

Okay, she says, and pulls me into a tight hug. She rubs my arm. Thank you.

I hug her back. Neither of us saying what we want to say.

(I’ve always had a habit of taking things too seriously. Once I commit, I’m in it all the way — and Christ knows, Rachael has plenty of reason to want him gone. I would’ve taken it exactly as far as she asked me to.)

I take the right hand path away from the courtyard, down to the lough via the big tree and the insect nests. A message comes through on my phone, but it’s not her. It’s actually Dermot.

Chips and drive tonight? My treat xx

I start typing.

We can meet, but let’s do something proper. The Lobster Pot? I’ll go home first and dress up.

I delete and retype this message several times. (The plan is worthwhile. Water-tight, almost. Maybe I should recalibrate it. Make Dermot the victim instead. Be a shame to waste it.)

I delete the message a final time, before getting back to the shields and armour.

Any plans for the weekend? Kevin asks me, when he’s leaving later that night. (It’s still bright outside, a glorious summer evening, and I’m sure Dermot won’t have had dinner yet. I don’t have to involve him in the murder plot. Dinner, a nice date, could be healthy for me.)

Awk, I don’t think so. I should probably rest before the madness starts.

You should text that Dermot fella, says Kevin over his shoulder. I keep saying he has a thing for you, but sure, no one ever listens to me.

Emer O’Hanlon is a writer from Belfast. Her previous work has been published in The Honest Ulsterman and The Cormorant. In 2022, she was the inaugural winner of the Stinging Fly/Felicity Bryan Associates Fiction Prize.