The Cold God of Bad Luck, a short story by Colin Barrett
This tale of a consumingly selfish person and her family’s very Irish kind of purgatory is from The Broken Spiral anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
Because all humans are imperfect, even the most consumingly selfish person is only imperfectly so. Lorna Dawes’ consuming selfishness was her defining – at times it felt like her only – feature, but there were those periods when her selfishness seemed to exhaust itself and lapse into a kind of dormancy. It was in such periods that Lorna found herself susceptible to the plight of others. And who, exactly, were the others? Oh, all of them, that sprawling mass of humanity, eight billion or so of the suckers, dozens of whom she could count as personal acquaintances, or better. This latter group, with their sticky particularities and uncanny ability to relentlessly conspire against their own best interests, proved harder to be moved by. Take the mother, for instance, or, take the father, for instance, but let’s not even, with either, because where to start? Anyhow, both were safely sequestered back in Lorna’s hometown, a dismal provincial fixture in the west of Ireland best known as the site of a former nun-run Mother and Baby home where, from the nineteen-twenties through to the fifties, the little bodies of the children who died in the nuns care were stuffed, as a matter of course, into a septic hole in a far field off the premises.
Lorna was thirty-one years old, and lived in Dublin. She worked in the support centre for an online betting company. Her job was to contact those customers whose accounts had fallen into arrears. It was an easy gig because gamblers, or Irish gamblers at any rate, were a uniformly cringing and suppliant species of loser: theirs was the cosmological resignation of the loser who believes his loserdom is intrinsic and inescapable, and the call from Lorna was to them a relieving affirmation of this belief, like a call from The Cold God of Bad Luck herself. Because Lorna was a consumingly selfish person, she had no sympathy for these sad, invariably male voices as they blubbed, wheedled and bargained into her ear.
On her lunch break, she ate avocado sandwiches on the fifteenth floor rooftop smoking area of her building and watched the slow, delicate work of the cranes dotted throughout the industrial estate skyline, their hooked lines patiently rising and sinking between the skeletons of the unfinished structures. The cranes made her think of keyhole surgery. She had worked all over Ireland in her twenties, pinging from one zero hour gig to another – PA, data entrist, secretary, call centre rep – and was a member of what her younger brother Robert informed her was called the precariat. When he began explaining what the term precariat meant – she said, yeah, yeah, Bo, I get it.
Robert – or Bo, as he was now known – was twenty-three, and had moved to Dublin last year for a second stab at art college, his manic depression having ruined his first go round in Galway. Because Lorna was a consumingly selfish person, she had arranged the terms of her life in such a way as to have remained ignorant of just how bad things had gotten for Robert in Galway, and she felt determined now to overcome her instinct towards self-protection in order to properly support her brother. But the truth was that Robert was another person Lorna found it easier to love when he was a confounding, guilt-generating absence. In person, it usually took about fifteen minutes before she wanted to push him over the nearest low wall. Take, for example, the preposterous diminutive – Bo! – he wished to be known by. Not Rob or Bob or Bobby, but Bo! It was barely a noise, and of course all his art college friends were delighted to accede to Robert’s whim. It had taken a gruelling degree of self-control for Lorna to resist asking them to call her Lo.
Lorna went out with Bo and his friends every week. Bo’s friends affected to be delighted by Lorna, but she knew what they were delighted by was her bitterly prideful insistence on standing them drinks. They were students and aspiring artists, and they were in fairness poor, though most of them were poor in the way that people who can move back into the homes of their middle income-or-better parents whenever they wanted, were poor. She bought them drinks and they talked with high passion and enviable articulacy of the opacity of process, of something called postmortem-neoliberalism, how shit Hozier was. Lorna went drinking with them every Thursday, and every second Sunday attended AA. AA was good because it was a place where Lorna could admit to the true scale and scope of her selfishness, though she was aware that these denunciations of her selfishness, no matter how thorough and unsparing, were ultimately just one more function of it. Still, she used AA to regularly perform a searching and fearless moral inventory of herself, and always came to the same conclusion: she had never, in any way, made anyone’s life better.
She went to art shows with Bo and his friends. Bo drank copiously at them. He drank all the complimentary booze he could get his hands on and carried a naggin of Tallisker around in his coat pocket for maintenance purposes. An artist at one of the shows had a speech impediment and Bo went up to the man and stared at him until the man was obliged to interrupt the small monologue he was delivering to a crowd of absorbed patrons to ask Bo, what, exactly, was his problem. Ttpph, Bo said, then Ttpph again, then finally he roared, TTTHHUFERRING TTTHUCKATHHHAGE.
Or he did his Jack Nicholson Joker bit, prancing past a row of installations and handwaving at each work, rolling his Rs, saying CRRRAP, CRRRAP, CRRRAP, CRRRAP, until arbitrarily pausing at one piece, turning to Lorna and his friends, his top lip satyrishly curled just like Nicholson’s Joker, and saying, ‘Now that’s good work.’
Just to rile him Lorna told him all art was nonsense and he said, sure don’t I know.
Your friends are posturing fakes, she told him and he said, sure don’t I know.
But I like them anyway, she conceded, and he said, sure don’t I know.
Every six months Lorna spent a weekend back home. The mother and the father were no longer together, though their relationship had sunk into a very Irish kind of purgatory. The father had moved out, but only as far as the granny flat at the bottom of the garden. There, the father could drink until he vomited in peace, thirty yards from the back door of the kitchen, and he and the mother had agreed set times of the day for taking turf from the turf shed, so their paths would not cross. Sometimes, rinsing a plate in the sink, Lorna would glimpse the spectral smudge of the father’s profile in the little kitchen window of the granny flat. Like most men his age, he was domestically incompetent, and after thirty years of marriage barely knew how to boil an egg. Lorna’s suspicion was the mother still cooked his dinners and left them at his door, though the mother never admitted to this. Certainly, whenever Lorna found the stamina to spend half an hour in the flat, enduring the excruciating near-silence that constituted a conversation with her father, he moved about the cramped kitchen fixtures with the baffled tentativeness of a stroke survivor. She sometimes wondered if her father had suffered a stroke, and nobody had bothered to tell her. Because she was a consumingly selfish person, she only ever felt relief when she left the flat.
Her mother made Lorna come on walks with her, long treks down country lanes, no matter the weather. The last time they’d gone, the sun was shining and it was pouring down, because this was how the weather in the West frequently occurred: all at once. As they went along, the mother listed off the various small ways in which her friends had failed and betrayed her over the last few months - the mother was a great one for making a searching and fearless moral inventory of other people. The puddles in the ruts of the lane were burning mirrors. Lorna was wet and warm. There was a herd of Friesians sitting in a field, a sheen to the slopes of their haunches that made them look like wet rock.
Lorna asked her mother if she and the father were going to getting a divorce.
We are not getting a divorce, the mother said.
But you are separated.
We are not separated, the mother said.
But you don’t live together anymore.
But we do, the mother said.
But you don’t, Lorna said. It’s over.
In a way, the mother said.
In what way? If it’s not over then what is it?
It is what it is, the mother said.
The only thing either parent asked her about Dublin was how the job was going, though they had long ago given up on bothering to keep track of what her current job was, as most of Lorna’s positions lasted less than a year and they all seemed fairly interchangeable, which they were.
Lorna wasn’t sure how often Bo came home. He disappeared most weekends in Dublin, but Lorna doubted he was making the pilgrimage west any more regularly than she. There was a girl among his set, Emma, with pageboy hair and the beguiling pallor of someone with a chronic blood disorder, and it was Lorna’s suspicion that she and Bo had something. Lorna could not be sure, and it was futile to ask, but she had observed the silence, like a kind of loyalty, with which Emma listened in the pub whenever Bo was speaking, even when what he was saying was absolute garbage. Because she was a consumingly selfish person, Lorna hoped it was true.
In the industrial estate the cranes multiplied and the buildings grew, the tramline route from the city centre was extended further out, and investigating officials at the Mother and Baby home were still hauling remains out of the ground, still counting out the bones. There were days when Lorna’s malign selfishness was so acute she felt like she couldn’t breathe for all the unbearable weight of herself upon herself, and she had to lock her body into a toilet cubicle and drop her head between her knees until her throat eased back open.
One day, she rang her father from work. The calls out were on an automatic dialler. She asked to speak to Mr. Dawes and didn’t realise it was her father until he spoke. She had not yet given him her name, and didn’t: he didn’t seem to know it was her. His account was 91 euros in arrears going back several months. Lorna explained this to him and he still didn’t recognize her. It was just after midday, and there was a liquored slur to his voice, which had turned as grave and small as all the other losers’ voices. She told him she could accept an immediate payment by credit card and if he could not supply that she would have to bar his account until he paid the outstanding sum, plus a penalty, by card, postal order, or cheque.
There was silence on the line as the father absorbed this info.
Do you have any dependents? Lorna asked him, though such a question was of course not part of the protocol.
Yes, like children? she asked.
After another long silence, he said, no, it’s just me here.
Well that’s a shame, she said. And now, Mr Dawes, for the last time, I have to ask you to tell me how it is you wish to pay.
Colin Barrett is the awardwinning author of Young Skins. This short story is from The Broken Spiral anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, edited by RM Clarke and featuring writing from Sinead Gleeson, Roisin O’Donnell, June Caldwell, Pat McCabe, Louise O’Neill, Claire Hennessy, Mia Gallagher and many more. All proceeds of the book sales go to the DRCC. thebrokenspiralbook.com