Snow Globe: A new short story by Danielle McLaughlin
A harassed artist’s installation critiquing the Irish property market causes a bit of a storm
Photograph: Getty Images
The initial instalment of funding hit my bank account on a grey Monday in mid-February, eight months after the children’s father left. I put Aoife and the baby into creche three mornings a week. The first morning I rushed home and sat on the sofa by myself, keeping very still. In the bathroom, alone, I washed my hands slowly, watching the suds slide between my fingers.
Post had built up on the hall table and now I went through it, wrote “Not known at this address” on all the bills, and on anything addressed to my ex. The sounds the fridge made, the central heating, the blustery boil of the kettle: all were revelations. The second morning I got to work. The commissioned piece was called Elysium, a 5ft-tall papier-mâché replica of a famine cottage, or, in the words of my funding proposal: “a three-dimensional site-specific engagement with urban space, sculpted entirely from recycled property advertisements”. It would be installed on College Green in early December.
It almost could have been a meditative practice, the constant dip of my paintbrush in the wash of glue and water. The brightly coloured strips of estate agent brochures, laid out on my kitchen table like fabric swatches. Houses, apartments, duplexes, warehouses, layered over a skeleton of chicken wire, as I imagined my ancestors might have done with wattle and daub, mud and cow s**t. The inside walls would be a blank canvas for members of the public to paper with eviction notices, warning letters from mortgage providers, threats from their landlords.
I decided to construct the cottage near the patio doors in my kitchen so that, come December, it could be carried down the garden to the back lane. A lorry would bring it to College Green where a reinforced Plexiglas dome, on order from a factory in China, would protect it from the elements.
The property pages were written in a language all of their own: circa, P.O.A., deceptively spacious, beautifully appointed, light, vacant, gated, zoned, turnkey. Human beings rarely featured, unless in a computer-generated image, virtual people presumably being more enticing to buyers than real ones. But, every so often, a person broke the fourth wall, their outline captured behind a net curtain, or in the shadow of a gable. I began to search them out, these people. They reminded me of the ghost people of Google Maps, who continued to walk down virtual roads, though they were many years dead. Whenever I found one, I took care to embalm them in my glue paste, imagining myself laying them down beneath bricks and basements and south-facing mature gardens, layer on top of layer, like the skeletons upon skeletons in the paupers’ graveyard.
One day I tore off a strip of newsprint that was over seven years old and found myself looking at our house. Our house in a time before us, when it cost half what we’d paid for it. It was like an out of body experience, or rather an out of house experience. Once more, I was on the outside looking in; standing at the gate, about to walk up the path for the first time. There was an eerie sense of my life circling back on me and I hesitated at that newsprint gate, my paintbrush suspended in mid-air, dripping paste on to the kitchen tiles. Rolling the strip of paper into a tight ball, I dropped it into the wastepaper basket.
Summer tipped into autumn, Halloween came and went, and I was behind deadline. I tried getting Aoife to help in the afternoons after creche, but she was slow, as you’d expect, and clumsy. Her fine motor skills were not yet sufficiently developed. One lunch-time, when I was late collecting the children, I got talking to another mother, also late. This woman, it turned out, had four children, the one in Aoife’s class being her youngest. She looked exactly like you’d expect a mother of four small children to look. “They must come over!” I said. “All of them. Aoife would love it.” I looked at the woman pointedly. “And I’m sure you could use the break.”
“I don’t like to take advantage…,” Mother-of-Four said, but I could see how she was hanging back, waiting for me to insist.
“I insist,” I said. “How about tomorrow? I’m doing some crafting with Aoife. The more the merrier.”
When she stepped into my kitchen the following afternoon, she went straight over to Elysium. The expressions on her face flickered between wonder and envy and self-loathing, then back to wonder again. She tucked a strand of greasy hair behind her ear. “I keep meaning to do stuff like this with them,” she said.
It was possibly the only time anyone had shown themselves jealous of my parenting abilities. “Well,” I said. “I make a point of scheduling the time. They grow up so fast, don’t they?”
“Yes,” she said, “they do”. She walked the perimeter of the cottage, stood on tiptoe – she was barely 5ft – to run a hand along the edge of the sloped roof. “Maybe I could start with a smaller one,” she said. “Doll’s house size.”
“You could,” I said. “You could definitely do that. Though I prefer to raise them to believe in the infinite abundance of the universe. You wouldn’t want to prescribe smaller dreams.”
She gave a wobbly smile. “I won’t be long,” she said. “I only have to do the supermarket run, and pop to the dentist, and get the brake pads changed in the car. I need to pick up an inhaler at the chemist’s for my mother, and then I’ll be straight back.”
“Take your time,” I said. “There’s no rush. You deserve some me time.”
The five-year-old and seven-year-old got stuck in straight away. They were at that charming age where they were still biddable, but also had sufficient upper arm strength. They were much better than Aoife at working a paintbrush. I allocated them separate walls to avoid distraction. After an hour, I had to slip the nine-year-old €2 when he got whiny. By the time their mother got back – late, of course, flustered and apologising – we’d made considerable progress. I told her to drop them in again on Friday after school, and Monday afternoon also, if she liked. “If you’re sure,” she said. The nine-year-old began to object, but she shushed him sharply. Her eyes were red and I suspected that someone had recently made her cry. Dentists were prone to doing that. Mothers, too.
A fortnight later, we were on the home stretch and I began to set aside brochures with hints of a winter palette: snow on slates, houses with pine trees in the garden, red front gates. These would be the final outer layer. A man came from the Arts Council – let’s call him Billy. He circled the cottage, circled it again. He said he liked how the inherent political undertones invited dialogue, and said that he’d transfer the next payment to my bank account as soon as he got back to the office.
Elysium was installed by crane on College Green on December 8th. The Plexiglas dome with its little arched doorway was lowered into place over it. The children came with me to the opening, because the children come with me everywhere. After their father left, my mother-in-law used to travel from Kildare to babysit, but those were not easy times for any of us, and after one particularly tense weekend she stopped coming. The Lord Mayor performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony while a string quartet played Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and I gazed at my Elysium and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever made. Within an hour, a taxi driver had phoned a radio show and christened it the “Snow Globe”. Other people called it a dazzling re-imagining of the architecture of urban space; a blight on the landscape; a manifesto for our times; a waste of public funds; an anthropomorphic rewriting of the nativity trope; an appropriation of the misery of others. It was alleged to have been funded by Elon Musk, George Soros and Dolly Parton. I couldn’t have been prouder.
Sometime between 2am and 5.30am on the morning of December 15th a young homeless couple, a man in his 20s and a girl who was little more than a child, moved into Elysium. They tacked a shower curtain patterned with goldfish across the open threshold and on it they pinned a handwritten note saying: “Please Respect Our Privacy”. By the following evening a dozen others had occupied the space between the outer wall of the cottage and the Plexiglas dome, one of those liminal spaces in which much happens in art, although this particular space came to be littered with sleeping bags, discarded deodorant containers, fast-food wrappers and blankets.
A meeting was convened at the Arts Council offices two days later. Billy was there, and a woman from the City Council. I wriggled out of my coat and took a seat next to Billy, holding the baby on my lap while Aoife did her colouring book on the floor.
“It’s not what we’d envisaged,” the woman from the City Council said.
“I understand,” Billy said. “But I’m not sure it’s prudent to evict people from an installation about homelessness. Not just before Christmas. Why don’t you wait until January 6th?”
“It’s not Christmas for another week,” I said. “Do it now, and people will have forgotten.”
“Actually,” the woman said, “our legal people tell me that the Snow Globe isn’t …”
“It’s called Elysium,” I said.
She wrinkled her nose as if she’d caught a whiff of something bad. “It’s not considered a dwelling for the purposes of the Housing Acts,” she said, “so we won’t be evicting anyone”. She looked pointedly at Billy. “That would be a matter for your people.”
“I don’t think...” Billy began, but I registered an ominous warmth in my lap just then, the baby’s nappy leaking. “This won’t take a second,” I said. “Keep an eye on Aoife, would you?”
The baby changing facilities were located two floors down. By the time I returned, Billy and the woman were putting on their coats, saying their goodbyes, and Aoife had drawn on the woman’s legs with marker.
On December 20th, while I was sleeping, the Plexiglas dome was removed, leaving Elysium exposed to the weather. The people inside must have been as surprised as I was, the roof of their world coming off in the dead of night. By the time the news reached me, it was the following afternoon and the rain had already begun to do its thing. The cottage started to sag and leak, the colours seeping away. I stood watching, buffeted by crowds of shoppers pushing past. Through the window, the young woman could be seen darting about with pans and paper cups to catch drips.
“That’s what happens when Mummy leaves her toys out in the rain,” Aoife said.
At home that night as I was tucking her into bed she said: “Will our house melt?”
“Only other person’s houses?”
“Yes, that’s right, sweetheart. Now go to sleep.”
Temperatures dropped, homeless figures rose, and the cottage subsided into a hillock of dirty sludge. People called it an ingenious mirroring of economic collapse; a tripping hazard; a masterpiece in purposeful impermanence; an eyesore. Mother-of-Four rang Joe Duffy and claimed her nine-year-old had sustained repetitive strain injury doing the papier-mâché. A young photographer travelled from Milan to catalogue the disintegration, hour by hour, day by day. Years later, on a train to Manchester, I would open a magazine and see an article about those photographs being sold to an art collector in California for $1.2 million and think how we only see the value in things as they are slipping away from us, when they are very nearly gone.
On Christmas Eve I put the baby in the buggy, dressed Aoife in her red coat and matching mittens, and caught the bus to town to visit Elysium. The rain had razed the cottage almost to ground level by then and the young couple had gone. A council truck was parked alongside and men in high-viz jackets were preparing to shovel away the lumpy sludge. On the far side of College Green, children in Santa hats sang Christmas carols while their parents, also in Santa hats, jingled collection buckets. It had snowed the night before, then frozen, and when I kicked at the sludge a mist of silver grit rose in the air.
“Glitter!” Aoife yelled.
A woman in a Santa hat came hurrying across the Green toward us, her cheeks mottled purple with cold. Mother-of-Four. “You,” she said, pointing a finger. She looked like she’d recently been crying and it occurred to me that perhaps this was how she always looked, that every so often her emotions synched with her appearance. She was clutching a bucket. “You,” she repeated, “are the most selfish person I know. I thought we were friends”.
Aoife raised a mittened hand and waved. “Happy Christmas, lady,” she said.
There’s no point talking when people get like that, and so I turned my back on Mother-of-Four who was now most definitely crying, and breathed in deeply. Something shone in the sludge by my feet. At first I thought it was lamplight catching the zip of an abandoned sleeping bag, but looking more closely I saw it was a pendant, one of those cheap dog tag kinds, its chain broken. Inscribed on the back was To Gary, Love Tina. The tears took me by surprise. Blinking rapidly, I slipped the pendant into my coat pocket. My Elysium had saved it, had set it aside for me as a winter offering, not real gold, not even frankincense, but a mirroring of my life this past year: broken, marked by love, but here still. “Come on, Aoife,” I said, “time to go”. Grabbing the handle of the buggy, I set off for the bus stop, the pulse of a new idea thrumming in my pocket. As I walked, I patted my coat, felt the outline of the pendant through the fabric. Nothing is ever wasted. And I swore then I’d put that pendant to good use, it’s what Gary and Tina would have wanted.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of the short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Stinging Fly, 2015) and winner of the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, is published in February 2021 by John Murray