The Palace, a short story by Cathy Sweeney
A sickness is spreading in the kingdom as a couple’s relationship comes under strain
Cathy Sweeney: Modern Times, her debut short story collection, is published by The Stinging Fly Press. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times
The palace was sick. No one believed it, but it was true.
The first symptoms appeared in the bricks at the top of the tower. A dark discolouration spread through them and they became chalky in texture and began to crumble. Architects were called in. They had never seen anything like it before and had no idea what to do.
When it became clear that the discolouration was spreading, the king took action. The upper section of the tower was removed – at least three metres of it – and the remaining stone was painted with a powerful chemical seal. The tower did not look as stately as it had before, but people got used to it. The king gave a great speech. I don’t remember all of it, but he finished by saying that a limb is not the body and that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Everyone cheered wildly and waved flags and the incident with the tower was soon forgotten.
This was in spring.
The next outbreak of symptoms occurred in summer. The water in the ornamental pond became rancid and all the fish died. The smell in the park was unbearable and people began to wear masks over their mouths. The king gave the order to drain the pond and fill it with a white chemical substance. Afterwards he made a good speech about the necessity of plucking weeds so that flowers can grow. Everyone clapped but an unpleasant smell lingered in the air and the playground that the king had built was under-utilised.
My wife dates our own trouble from that time, but I think this is an exaggeration.
No one had yet made the connection between the crumbling tower and the rancid ornamental pond. They were still viewed as two separate incidents.
In autumn the sickness spread. The marble pillars in the cloister began to tilt and had to be demolished before they fell over and killed someone. After that the statues in the great hall became mottled with cankers that were unresponsive to treatment. They were removed. A rumour spread that the king was superstitious about destroying the statues – they were all of his ancestors – and so he had them sealed up in a specially constructed steel sarcophagus. I don’t know if this is true, but after that the situation deteriorated. The queen’s salon was blown up in a controlled explosion. A maid said that she had seen snakes writhing under the bed, but a committee of investigation cast doubts on her testimony. It was claimed that the maid sought personal publicity in the media. Likewise, the statues above the windows of the exterior of the palace were sprayed with a chemical following reports of desiccation. Unfortunately the chemical spray contained high doses of acid that dissolved the features of the statuary into gelatinous lumps.
Soon reports of the sickness were breaking in the news on a daily basis. The king gave a rousing speech about battling the forces of evil that had created the sickness and people screamed “Long live the King” until they were hoarse. Video screens were set up all over the palace so that everyone could watch the battle being waged on the sickness.
My wife and I visited a therapist who asked us to write down on a piece of paper what would make us happy. We then had to show each other the pieces of paper. My wife wrote meaning and I wrote money.
After the central gallery was razed, I lost interest in the sickness. Many people believed that the central gallery had not been sick at all but was razed because the queen disliked the furnishings, tapestries and silverware that adorned it. They had been selected by the previous queen, the king’s mother. I don’t know if this is true. My time was taken up with the price of bread – which had gone up again – and the difficulty of commuting to work when so many roads within the inner and outer limits of the palace were closed. Not to mention the trouble with my wife.
The king made more speeches, but each one contradicted the previous one. At the height of winter, when snow and ice covered the ground and a record number of people had been admitted to hospital, the queen gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. Photographs of the king and queen with the tiny prince and princess flashed out from the screens that had been erected all over the palace. Everyone was delighted. The king began giving televised messages instead of speeches. He wore casual clothes and spoke on topics such as male grooming and golf. Sometimes the queen also gave televised messages. She was a keen amateur pastry chef and an advocate for animal rights.
Soon after that I got a promotion at work and I joined the local golf club. My wife signed up for cookery classes and began volunteering one day a week at the cat sanctuary. Before we knew it, our trouble had disappeared – well maybe not disappeared – but we stopped worrying about it as much as we used to.
Spring came again. The great hall collapsed overnight, killing three and wounding seven. The next day the refurbished central gallery was opened to the public. My wife and I went to see it. We had lunch in the garden in the newly named People’s Pavilion. I had Ultimate Roast Chicken. It was high in calories, but I didn’t mind as I had been to the gym that morning. My wife had the Green Salad with Option of Tuna. She said it was excellent. On the way home we glimpsed the queen in one of the upper windows. We reckoned she was probably in the nursery putting the twins to bed. I said her hair looked glamorous and my wife informed me that it was called an upstyle.
No one mentions the sickness anymore. Some people say it is worse beyond the outer limits of the palace, but there are always those who like to take a negative view.
From Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney published by The Stinging Fly Press, at €15. Available in all good bookshops and on stingingfly.org