The Book Club: An extract from Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

In the opening chapter we meet Vivan as she begins her daily exploration of Dublin

 

This month The Irish Times Book Club is reading Caitriona Lally’s debut novel Eggshells. In this extract from the first chapter, we meet the book’s protagonist Vivan as she discovers a map of Dublin in her recently-deceased great-aunt’s house, which prompts her to begin exploring the city.

When I return to my great-aunt’s house with her ashes, the air feels uncertain, as if it doesn’t know how to deal with me. My great-aunt died three weeks ago, but there is still a faint waft of her in every room - of lavender cologne mixed with soiled underthings. I close the front door and look around the house with fresh eyes, the eyes of a new owner. My great-aunt kept chairs the way some people keep cats. There are chairs in every room, in the hall, on the wide step at the bottom of the stairs and on the landing. The four chairs on the landing are lined up like chairs in a waiting room. I sometimes sit on one and imagine that I’m waiting for an appointment with the doctor, or confession with the priest. Then I nod to the chair beside me and say, “He’s in there a long time, must have an awful lot of diseases or sins, hah.”

Some of the chairs are tatty and crusty, with springs poking through the fabric. Others are amputees. There are chairs in every colour and pattern and style and fabric - except leather, which my great-aunt said was the hide of the Devil himself. I go into the living room and sit in a brown armchair and examine the urn. It’s shaped like a coffin on a plinth - I chose it because death in a wooden box is more real than death in a jar. I shake it close to my ear, but I can’t hear a thing, not even a cindery whisper. I prise open the lid. The scratch of wood on wood is like a cackle through the ashes, the last laugh of a woman whose mouth never moved beyond a quarter-smile. I’ve seen people on television scattering ashes in significant places, but the only significant places in my great-aunt’s life were her chair and her bed, and if I scatter them there, I’d be sneezing Great-Aunt Maud for years to come.

I take the address book from the shelf and sift through it. There are a few “A”s and “C”s, a couple of “G”s, an “H” and some “M”s, but my great-aunt seems to have stopped making friends when she hit “N”. I take some envelopes out of the desk drawer and write the addresses on the envelopes: twenty-two in all. Twenty-six would be a symmetrical person-per-alphabet letter ratio, so I take the telephone directory from the shelf and flick through from the end of the alphabet. The pages are Bible-thin, and my fingers show up as ghostly grease-prints. I decide on Mr Woodlock, Mrs Xu, Mr Yeomans and Miss Zacchaeus.

In school we sang about the tax collector who cheated people out of money. “Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, Nobody liked Zacchaeus”, I sing, or I think I sing, but I don’t know what other ears can hear from my mouth. I open my laptop and type:

Hello,

You knew my Great-Aunt Maud. Here are some of her ashes.

Yours Sincerely,

Vivian

I print twenty-two copies of the letter, but it looks bare and mean, so I draw a pencil outline of the coffin-shaped urn in the blank space at the bottom. Now I type a different letter to the four strangers.

Hello,

You didn’t know my Great-Aunt Maud. You probably wouldn’t have liked her, unless you’re very tolerant or your ears are clogged with wax.

Yours Sincerely,

Vivian

I print four copies of this letter and fold all the letters into envelopes. I add a good pinch of ashes to each envelope and lick them all shut, my tongue tasting the bitter end of gluey. The pile of envelopes looks so smug and complete, I feel like I’m part of a grand business venture. Now I peer into the urn. The small heap of ashes, probably an elbow’s worth, looks like a tired old sandpit after the children have gone home for tea. I close the lid, put the urn on the bookshelf between two books, and sit down. I look around the room. The idea of owning something so unownable is strange: owning a house-sized quantity of air is like owning a patch of the sky. I laugh, but the sound is mean and tinny, so I take in a lung of air and laugh again - this one is bigger, but too baggy. I’ll save my laughs until I have worked on them in private. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them that I’m between laughs.

My glance keeps returning to the urn; I’m expecting the lid to open and the burnt eye of my great-aunt to peek out. When they were deciding how to bury her, I said she had always wanted to be cremated. It was a lie the size of a graveyard, but I wanted to make sure she was well and truly dead. I spot a thin slip of a book on the middle shelf and pull it out, wondering how a book could be made from so few words, but it’s a street map of Dublin, its edges bitten away by mice or silverfish. I unfold the map, spread it on a patch of carpet and write in my notebook the names of places that contain fairytales and magic and portals to another world, a world my parents believed I came from and tried to send me back to, a world they never found but I will:

“Scribblestown, Poppintree, Trimbleston, Dolphin’s Barn, Dispensary Lane, Middle Third, Duke Street, Lemon Street, Windmill Lane, Yellow Road, Dame Street, Pig’s Lane, Tucketts Lane, Copper Alley, Poddle Park, Stocking Lane, Weavers’ Square, Tranquility Grove, The Turrets, Cuckoo Lane, Thundercut Alley, Curved Street, The Thatch Road, Cow Parlour, Cowbooter Lane, Limekiln Lane, Lockkeepers Walk, Prince’s Street, Queen Street, Laundry Lane, Joy Street, Hope Avenue, Harmony Row, Fox’s Lane, Emerald Cottages, Swan’s Nest, Ferrymans Crossing, Bellmans Walk, The Belfry, Tranquility Grove, Misery Hill, Ravens’ Court, Obelisk Walk, Bird Avenue, All Hallows Lane, Arbutus Place.”

I close my eyes, circle my finger around the map and pick a point. When I open my eyes, I see that my finger has landed nearest to Thundercut Alley. If a thunderclap or lightning flash can transport characters in films and fairytales to other worlds, visiting Thundercut Alley might scoop me up and beam me off to where I belong, or cleave the ground in two and send me shooting down to another world. When my parents were alive, they tried to exchange me for their rightful daughter, but they must not have gone to the right places or asked the right questions. I crouch at the front door in the hallway and listen; I can’t hear my neighbours, so it’s safe to go out. I walk to the bus stop and stand beside a man wearing a grey jacket with a hood, holding a bottle of cola. He nods at me.

“Baltic, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

I give an exaggerated shiver, because one word seems a fairly meagre response. I think about the seas of the world.

“It’s really more Arctic than Baltic,” I say. “Surely the Arctic is the colder sea.”

“Yeah, yeah love.”

He unscrews the cap from the bottle, pours some on the ground in a brown hissing puddle and balances the open bottle on a wall. Then he takes a brown paper bag containing a rectangular glass bottle from inside his jacket, pours the clear liquid from the glass bottle into the cola bottle, and puts it back inside his jacket. When he takes a sup from the cola bottle, he smiles like he has solved the whole world.

The bus arrives. I get off on O’Connell Street and walk in the direction of the river, passing the bank on the left, which has a carved stone skull of a cow over each side window. A blue-and-white football is wedged beside one window, as if the dead cows had a kick around in the dark of night. I cross the street near a building with the look of a fairytale, and a sign that reads “E Confectioners Hal”. It’s a shoe shop now, but maybe they sell shoe measures of jam or sweets, and the people with the biggest feet have the rottenest teeth. I cross Bachelors Walk to the boardwalk, and head west. The river and the traffic flow east on either side of me, which makes me feel the wrong way around. I stop and sit on the wooden bench and look at the other side of the river. From this angle, the buildings on the south quays look like they were dropped from a height and shoved together, with the Central Bank sticking up behind, like a Lego brick they forgot to paint. When the boardwalk ends, I cross the street and pass solicitors’ offices, bargain furniture shops and dark pubs, until I reach the museum in Collins Barracks. I come here when I need to look at furniture and containers; I’d rather look at the things that hold other things than at the things themselves. I take out my notebook and walk through the museum, collecting names:

“Posset Bowl, Mether, Pitcher, Tankard, Water Bottle, Sweetmeat Box, Chalice, Salt Cellar, Monstrance, Sugar Bowl, Goblet, Vase, Trinket Box, Ewer, Jug, Inkstand, Flagon, Hot Water Urn, Decanter, Snuff Box, Patch Box, Cruet Stand & Bottles, Finger Bowl, Carafe, Pickle Jar, Sweetmeat Cup, Chocolate Pot, Coffee Pot, Teapot, Kettle, Cream Ewer, Strawberry Dish, Sugar Basket, Egg Cup, Butter Dish, Tea Caddy, Salver, Cigar Box, Needlework Box, Correspondence Box, Bridal Coffer, Blanket Chest, Calling-Card Box, Travelling Box, Writing Cabinet, Log Carrier, Coal Scuttle, Double-Compartmented Meal Bin.”

Every item in the glass case is labelled with its function. It knows what it’s supposed to hold; its task has been assigned. It is clear and ordered and contained. I peer closely at the snuff boxes. If I tried some snuff, I’d probably sneeze ferociously, but they would be pleasant-smelling sneezes. The ornate chests and trunks are behind glass. The caption says that the bridal coffer is decorated with mother-of-pearl and gilt inlays, brass escutcheons and laquer. I would like to be decorated with escutcheons, but I probably should find out what they are first. My gravestone could read: “Here lies Vivian Lawlor: She Wasn’t Quite the Thing, But She Was Decorated with Escutcheons.”

In the Irish furniture section, shelves of chairs face me expectantly, waiting for me to perform; I disappoint. The museum has not half so large a collection of chairs as my great-aunt has, but these ones have names and written histories: “Súgán, Carpenter’s Chair, High Comb-Back Chair, Spindle-Back Chair, Comb-Back Hedge Chair.”

I can’t match my great-aunt’s chairs exactly to any of these, she seems to have discovered some odd shapes and sizes that fit under no labels.

I walk back to the quays, turn up Queen Street, and approach Thundercut Alley from the back, not from the Smithfield side, because I want to take it by surprise. It’s a curve of an alley, all draught and shade, lined by new buildings that don’t speak of magic. I stand in the middle with my eyes shut and wait for thunder. I open my eyes: nothing has changed. I need to rouse a thunderstorm, so I shout “Boom!” and flash the light on my phone: “boom” - flash - “boom” - flash - “boom”. I open my eyes but I’m still standing in the alley, un-thundered and un-spirited away. This is clearly not the right opening, so I start walking home through Stoneybatter. Some of the white letters on the street signs have been coloured blue to match the blue background: Manor Street reads “MAI_O_ STR_ _T”. “Maiostrt” sounds like a combination of mustard and mayonnaise that would taste good on ham sandwiches. I pass boarded-up houses with small trees growing out of their chimneys, and a supermarket that sells used cars. At “Prussia Street”, the “P” on the street sign has been blue-ed out to read “_RUSSIA STREET”. I picture a band of Smurfs combing the city in the black of night with tins of blue paint, daubing over the street letters that offend them. For the higher-up signs they step on each other’s shoulders to form a pyramid, placing the most agile Smurf with the best blue head for heights at the top.

When I walk by the greengrocer, my eyes are pulled to a pile of lemons on display outside the shop. I bundle them all into my arms - I need this exact quantity to replicate this intensity of colour - and go into the shop to pay. I walk back to my great-aunt’s house, which I have to start calling home. When I enter the house I catch the beginning of my smell, an earthy tang that I plan to grow into. There won’t be many visitors to dilute my smell. My sister called over in January but she didn’t stay long - I think I was her New Year’s resolution. She bothers me to clean the house and get rid of chairs and find a job. Her world is full of children and doings and action verbs, but I’m uncomfortable with verbs; they expect too much. Since our great-aunt’s death, we have nothing to talk about, and our conversation is jerky with silences the size of golf balls. I check the answering machine for messages, the numbers on the screen are “00”. They are accusatory; I wish they would act more like their round cuddly shape. I put the lemons in a glass bowl, then I take one out and pull the nubs at either end, imagining that my hands are the hands of two different people playing a peculiarly zesty kind of tug of war. I unfurl the Dublin map onto the kitchen table, and draw black blobs with a marker along the route that I walked today. Then I take out a roll of greaseproof paper, tear off a piece, place it over the map and trace my route with a pencil. I hold the paper up to the world map on the wall: today I covered the shape of an upside-down and back-to-front Chad.

I put the greaseproof map in the top-left corner of the kitchen table and sit in the rocking chair, hurling to and fro, to and fro. The chair clacks against the wall on the “fro” movement, and this is good: I am causing effect, I am cause and effect.

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