Into The Red by John O’Donnell

Ten stories have been shortlisted in our short story competition, Legends of the Fall. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday

John O’Donnell

John O’Donnell


What the judges said about IntoThe Red:

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Imaginative story which is courageous enough to deal directly with some of the main effects of the Recession on the lives of the innocent. Good voice, well paced, engaging. Great title and good central image.

Donal Ryan: Very enjoyable. The unrepentant hero is really well rendered and believable and the story is very well imagined.

Into The Red

I’d a picture on the wall of Tina with Sean, but I tore it down last week, after she told me she was leaving. Australia. “There’s nothing for me here,” she said. Sean was sitting on her knee in a Spiderman outfit, playing with an action figure. “What about me?” I said. “I’m here, amn’t I?” “You’re…” she said, and then she stopped, and turned towards the window of the visiting area, and didn’t say any more. I started trying to explain again why I’d done it, but she just sighed. “Don’t start that shite again, Dean,” she said. Sean wouldn’t look at me. He had his head down the whole time, twisting the arms and legs of the action figure so that it kept punching and kicking whatever enemy he could see.

I liked working in L & W in the old place, but even though the stock was walking out the door there was never enough room to store it all. So when Anto told us we’d be moving to a big new place out near Blossom Lodge, the estate they were just finishing building, it made sense. All those houses; and all those new customers coming in looking for patio heaters and picture hooks and garden furniture and God knows what. A huge barn of a place, it was. They promoted me to assistant manager, and took on a whole load of new staff, and that’s how I met Tina. On the day it opened there was a big party in the new store. Anto had his picture taken with O’Leary, the local TD, and some shiny suit from head office in England. Later a whole load of us went to the pub, and me and Tina ended up getting off with each other, and six months later we moved in to an apartment out near the canal, me and Tina and Sean, Tina’s little fella. The building society was falling over itself to give the two of us a loan, especially after Anto’d said at work that the new house-owners would be moving in to Blossom Lodge any day now, once the planning thing was sorted, and then we’d all be able to sit back and watch the moolah come rolling in.

That’s all they talk about in here, the screws: money. Overtime bans. Pay cuts. Lost allowances. I saw a couple of them on the landing the other day, comparing payslips. I’m on special obs, so every 20 minutes one of them is supposed to squint in the spyhole in the door to make sure I haven’t topped myself, or escaped, or whatever. But they couldn’t be arsed. I could be in here swinging from the ceiling or digging a tunnel like yer man in the Shawshank Redemption and they wouldn’t notice, unless it meant them getting more money. I bet one of them got a big wad of notes from whatever journo took my picture while I was playing football during exercise in the yard. “Face Of A Killer”, the headline said; Lanigan gave me a copy when he came in to talk about my appeal. He’d warned me before the trial, in fairness to him. “If you plead guilty,” he’d said, “with no previous, early plea, remorse; you’ll get four, be out in three.” “But he deserved it,” I’d said. Lanigan looked up at me then, startled. “You can’t say that, Dean,” he’d said.

The window’s so small and so high up it looks like a stamp at the top of a postcard. Below it I have all the newspaper cuttings I could get; photos, articles, opinion pieces, court reports. I’ve the whole wall nearly covered. They loved giving out about Milliken and all the others in StanCorp; well, now they’ve something else to give out about. “Our Broken Country: The Loss of Law and Order”, one piece trumpeted . But this place was banjaxed long before the thing with me and Milliken. And the ones mourning him now never stopped giving out about him and StanCorp. StanCorp wasn’t even its real name; it was Standard Corporate Bank. But Milliken always called it StanCorp, and that was what the baseball hats and umbrellas and mobile phone covers said: StanCorp, with underneath the logo of an eagle, its wings spread wide. Pat Kenny and the rest of them nearly burst their shite laughing at that eagle when the bank went bust. “StanCorp chickens come home to roost.” They wanted this. They stirred it up so that the whole country hated StanCorp and Milliken, and now they’re giving out because someone actually did something about it. But if it hadn’t been me it would have been somebody else.

Anto looked pretty shook when he called us in. We all just stood there in the warehouse while he read the announcement. The union woman asked a couple of questions but no one was really listening. “With immediate effect”. “Enormous regret”. “Fully committed to Ireland”. “No option but to close”. There were TV cameras outside already as we all drove out past the entrance to Blossom Lodge, past all those nearly-built new houses with weeds growing in their front gardens and the roads fenced off by the receiver. It wasn’t planning permission that had been the problem; it was money. The builder was living in Spain. Even the other banks were broke now, thanks to StanCorp apparently. A few months later, after we’d missed a second payment, we were sitting on two plastic chairs in the building society, Tina and me, opposite O’Leary the TD’s brother, Willie. “Relationship Advisor”, the sign on the desk said. Willie was looking at us with his fingers joined together at the tip of his nose, like he was a priest. There was a page of figures on the desk which he kept picking up and putting down. “This can’t go on,” he said. “Sure I know,” I said, “but what d’ya expect us to do? There’s no work out there at the moment.” I could feel my cheeks getting hot, and Tina was shushing me, trying to calm me down. But Willie just sat there, shaking his head. “Something has to be done,” he said.

Apparently I have “schizophrenic/suicidal ideations”. This fella Dunne has been in to see me a couple of times. I don’t know whether he’s a counsellor or a shrink or what, but I heard him say to one of the screws that Dundrum might be a better place for me. I’ve told him I’m not psycho, though; I keep trying to explain but he won’t listen. “I’m not saying I set out to kill him,” I said. “But he got what was due to him; and the way it’s worked out, wasn’t it for the best?” Dunne sucked on the top of his pen and wrote on his file. They’d never have convicted him anyway, Milliken. Look at all those scumbags walking in and out of Dublin Castle during the tribunals, strutting up and down as if they’d done nothing wrong. Not one of them inside. Milliken would have got off, no doubt about it. Some guard would have dropped the ball in the witness box, or else the jury would just have given up. And he’d have been there, smiling and giving the thumbs up to the cameras as he left court after. Free.

“A vigilante, isn’t that how you saw yourself?” He’d a big Shrek head on him, the prosecuting counsel, and he stood there with one foot up on the cushion of the bench, and a finger in the pocket of his waistcoat. “You decided you’d take the law into your own hands, isn’t that right?” he said. He was really enjoying himself now, Shrek was; he kept looking over at the jury for support. I could see Lanigan miming “No, no” at me. I said nothing. “Ah, c’mon now, sir,” said Shrek, his jowls quivering indignantly. There was a little soup stain on his gown. “Are you going to answer me?” “An accident,” I’d agreed I’d say, after talking to Lanigan. “I had no desire to kill or injure the deceased.” Lanigan had still wanted me to plead, right up to the end; he told me to say as little as possible if I gave evidence. He even wrote it out for me: “I never meant for this to happen”. But as I looked out at the jury staring back at me, and the judge scribbling away in her notepad, and Milliken’s wife with his son beside her holding her hand, and Tina wiping her eyes, I realised what Lanigan had told me to say wasn’t true. I never wanted courts, or a trial, or prison. But I didn’t want what I had before all this, which was a big black sack of nothing. No money, no job, no apartment (very soon); nothing. And all of it Milliken’s fault. Isn’t that what they were all saying, the papers, the TV, the radio, online, everyone; that this entire mess was all down to Milliken, and that bank? At least this way – even if it hadn’t turned out the way I’d expected – at least this way I had something. Milliken was gone, and never coming back, and I’d done that. A hero, one person on Twitter had called me. I liked the way that sounded.

He’d been coming out after a remand hearing. There’d still been no date fixed for his trial; the judge had spluttered about delays and the prosecution counsel had been huffing and puffing about the need for “extra resources” to get ready for the trial. There were a couple of cameras outside the courthouse as he walked down the steps towards the car waiting for him at the bottom. His solicitor was beside him, carrying a big black brief case, looking importantly into the middle distance. There were two guards kicking their heels just inside the courthouse door; the Garda union boss said later this “tragic incident” was “an inevitable result of Government cutbacks on security and crime prevention”. There was an aul fella in a big white beard who looked like Santa, carrying a placard which read “Show Me The Money”, and a couple of his hangers-on. And me. I’d a tin of paint with me; it’d been on special offer in L&W the week before we closed. Into The Red, it was called; it seemed kind of appropriate. One of Santa’s helpers started jeering Milliken as he came down the steps. “Where’s the money, Milliken?” he said. Milliken ignored him and looked straight ahead, saying nothing, but he had that smarmy grin you see in all the papers. I watched as he went past me, the dark blue suit and the gold bracelet and the ring of short blond curls like a crown. “Fuck you, Milliken,” I said, almost to myself; he was nearly at the car. Then I swung the tin at him. The idea was the paint would empty out all over him; I’d loosened the lid beforehand. But instead of emptying, the tin hit him on the side of the head, and he stumbled and then went down. There was a crack as his head hit the bottom step. I lost hold of the tin, and the lid finally came off as it hit the ground. The step was covered in bright red paint. His solicitor went down on his knees to see if he was alright, but Milliken didn’t move. Santa and his helpers started hooting and cheering, and then the guards came rushing down the steps and grabbed me. They twisted my arms up behind my back, and one of them started calling into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder for an ambulance, and a squad car. The other one was younger; he didn’t say much, but when I saw his face I could tell it was the first time he’d seen anything like this. All the cameras started flashing and clicking at Milliken as he lay there on the step. And then the cameras turned around and started pointing at me.

Superman. Batman. Spiderman. All those superheroes Sean adores. They protect the innocent and make sure the guilty are brought to justice. Isn’t that what I did? It wasn’t just Twitter, or the Facebook campaign trying to get me released. Some people started daubing red paint outside the offices of StanCorp and other banks; they even did it outside a couple of Government departments. When two women were arrested for trying to paint the gates of Leinster House the Minister for Justice came on television. “We must never, never take the law into our own hands, no matter how strongly we feel about what has happened to our economy,” he said. He sounded just like Shrek did later, at the end of the trial, when he was telling the jury they had to convict me, thumping his pudgy fist into his hand as he went on about the law of the land and the law of the jungle. It didn’t take them long to decide anyway, despite Lanigan’s brave last-ditch effort to have me declared unfit to continue trial by reason of being mute “by visitation of God”.

Nine years. Lanigan pursed his lips when the judge announced her sentence. But after the verdict Mrs Milliken gave evidence about her husband and what his death meant to her and the family. And she said it was a consolation to her that someone else’s life would be made better by his death. I didn’t know what she meant, but Lanigan explained it later; it was in the victim impact report. Millken had been young (too young to be head of a bank, some said) and healthy, and he’d had an organ donor card. When they’d switched off the machines a few days after what happened, the doctors were able to take one of his kidneys (“harvesting” I think it’s called) and transplant it into a woman who’d been ill for years. I never found out who she was, or how she was chosen to receive Milliken’s last gift. But as the cell door closed that evening, I was thinking: if I hadn’t done what I did, that woman would probably soon be dead. So as well as everything else, what I had done had saved that woman’s life.

When visiting time ended Tina stood up, lifting Sean off her lap on to the ground. He looked quickly at me and then at Tina. “Will Dean be going to Australia as well, Mammy?” “No, love,” she said, avoiding my eyes, “Dean’s going to be staying here for a while.” She grimaced at me, stepping back so that I couldn’t hug her or give her a kiss. “See ya, Dean,” she said. I could see Dunne at the door of the visiting area with a file under his arm, waiting to talk to her. “Bye, Dean,” Sean said as he took her hand. Then the two of them walked away.

I’ve been having this dream lately. I told Dunne about it when he came to see me last. He’s the top of the pen near chewed off by now, but he writes it down anyway. I am flying over the city, a scarlet cape streaming in my wake. It’s night, but I can see everything clearly; L & W, and Blossom Lodge, and our apartment and the canal. I can see the TV studios and the hospital, and the newspapers offices and the Dail, and the courthouse; and up the river the financial centre, with the offices of StanCorp and the other banks standing empty, abandoned. I gaze down at the sleeping city as I fly, looking for people to save, and people to punish; and I know that the buildings of those who deserve to be punished are marked with a daub of wet paint. I soar over the city, searching and searching. But I can find no one to save. The whole city is painted red.

John O’Donnell has received various awards for poetry and has published two collections; a third is forthcoming. He also won a Hennessy Award for Fiction. Married with four children, he lives and works in Dublin.