‘The Writers’ Quarter’: a new story by Louise O’Neill

The author of ‘Only Ever Yours’ and ‘Asking for It’ continues Dublin in the Coming Times, our series imagining what the Irish capital will look like years, even centuries from now

The Writers’ Quarter: a man is strapped to a chair, his head hanging down, a gas mask attached to his mouth. His body shudders, words dripping into his subconscious, one by one. Photograph: Juan Monino/Getty

The Writers’ Quarter: a man is strapped to a chair, his head hanging down, a gas mask attached to his mouth. His body shudders, words dripping into his subconscious, one by one. Photograph: Juan Monino/Getty

 

I wake and I am cold.

I wake and I am hungry.

I wake and I start to search for the words, for the stories.

“Veronica.” I grab her shoulder and squeeze. “Veronica. Wake up.”

Her eyes flicker, like she is dropping inside herself. Then she smiles.

“Do you have something?”

“Yes,” she whispers.

“Is it any good?”

She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to. We both know the answer.

I rifle through the small pile of clothes next to the mattress, sniffing the armpits of a grubby fleece before pulling it on over my head, throwing a stick of deodorant to Veronica. Hurry on, I urge her silently. We don’t have much time.

“Going somewhere, girls?”

Dawn is breaking through the windows, dirty and grey, folding like smoke around his emaciated body. He’s sitting on his own mattress, ink-stained fingers holding a cigarette to his mouth. He breathes in.

“I asked a question,” he exhales loudly, “Are you going somewhere?”

“Grogan’s,” Veronica blurts out. She never could keep a secret.

He coughs up a gob of phlegm and spits it on the floor. “In to see Fahy, I suppose.” Neither of us denies it and he gives a hard laugh. “Prostitution is what that is. You may as well be selling your bodies on the street corner.” He looks at me. “You’d be good at that, Leonora.”

“Fuck you.”

“No,” he replies, “Fuck you. I am an artist, the rest of us here are real artists, and you are making a mockery of us all.”

“We haven’t eaten in . . .”

“Shut up. You should be doing this for the love of it, not for,” he breaks off, his face pursing in a moue of disgust, “money.”

Silence. I can see Veronica hold her breath. She agrees with him, I can tell. She wants to be like him. Like the rest of them.

I put my hand in hers, our fingers intertwining. I do it to remind her of me. To remind her of my hunger.

“Let’s go,” I say. “It’s time.” We take the train to the city centre. Veronica falls asleep, her head slumping on to my shoulder. I stare out the window, counting the empty housing estates. Row after row, like skittles waiting to be knocked down. They built them and no one came. Anyone who could afford a house of their own wanted to stay inside the city walls. They would be safe there. Safer, at least.

“Veronica . . .” I nudge her head off my shoulder, a little rougher than I should. “We’re here.”

“Documents, please.” The guard is leaning against the high stone wall. He is well fed, like everyone behind the walls, his gold-buttoned jacket snug around his waist.

We hand the ID cards to him, waiting until he scans the barcode.

“Business in the Writers’ Quarter?”

“We’re here to see Fahy.”

He smirks and signals to the sentinel encased in the tower above him to open the gates. We hurry up South King Street, turn on to South William Street. It’s so quiet in here, and clean, the cobbled streets lined with iron-cast lamps and leafy trees. Behind each of the shop windows sits a person, man, woman, man, woman, pale skin and dyed red hair, typing furiously on computers.

“Omigod.” A family of five have stopped outside one window, the smallest child breathing against the glass and drawing love hearts in the condensation.

“Like, oh my God,” the mother says again. “I would totally, like, die to know what he’s writing right now. The Irish are such amazing storytellers, aren’t they Chad? Chad?”

The man next to her nods, lifting his baseball cap to scratch his head.

“Totally amazing,” she continues. “They just really value the art of literature here.”

Our eyes meet as we pass, and she clutches her bag a little closer to her chest, murmuring something under her breath to her husband.

“Would you get in here . . .” Fahy is standing outside the side entrance to Grogan’s. Waiting for us, as if he knew we would be back, no matter what we said the last time. “You’re scaring the tourists.”

“That means you too,” he says to Veronica. She’s trailing her fingertips over a poster plastered on the door, mouthing the words. Summer Blockbuster! Over a million copies sold! Bartholomew Jacobs does it again!

“They changed the ending.”

“Had to, darling.” Fahy gives her a snaggle-toothed smile. “It was too bleak. Give the readers what they want, you know? Something to remember for next time.”

Inside, Fahy herds us into a snug. Veronica and I sit on stools at a round wooden table, two glasses of tap water in front of us. Fahy doesn’t sit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sitting.

“Three cents a word.”

“Fuck off, Fahy.”

“Language, Leonora. Please. That’s not very ladylike.”

“How do you expect us to eat on three cents a word?”

He shrugs. “Go somewhere else if you’re not happy with it, doll.”

There is nowhere else. And we both know it.

“Three cents a word,” I say, and I can’t look at Veronica. I can’t. “And how much for Veronica?”

“That was for Veronica.”

“Fahy, come on – ”

“Shut your mouth. Veronica’s stories sell. Yours don’t. They’re too . . . experimental. No one knows what the fuck is going on.”

“My last one won two – ”

“Leonora, my love. No one cares about fucking awards. They want book sales. Movie deals. Posters on every pub wall in town.” He looks at his watch. “I’ve only one appointment today, and he should be here in a few minutes. Be ready.” He draws a red velvet curtain to hide the snug – and us – from view, as if we’re caged birds that he wants to silence for the night. I can hear Veronica’s breath becoming shallow. I wish I could tell her I’m sorry. I wish I could tell her she didn’t have to do this.

A door bangs open.

“Are you Fahy?” It’s a man’s voice, nasal. Moneyed.

“And you’re Mario, I presume?”

The other man doesn’t reply.

“So,” Fahy says, “what are you here for?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” “You idiot” goes unsaid. “I’m here to take the Muse.”

“Poem, short story or novel?”

“Novel.”

We can hear the rustling of paper notes as Fahy counts out the fee. It takes him a long time. Three cents a word. I say to myself, over and over. Three cents a word. Three cents a word.

“Sit here,” Fahy orders him, and then it is quiet. We wait. After a few minutes he draws back the curtain. There is a tall, lean man strapped to a hardback chair, his head hanging down, a gas mask attached to his mouth.

“He’ll be under for three hours,” Fahy says. “Make sure you’re finished by then.”

Neither of us moves.

“Veronica . . .” His voice drops, scraping against his throat. “Don’t mess me about with this. Get your ass over there.”

She swallows hard and moves her stool closer to the unconscious man. Fahy stands next to him. I can smell smoke underneath the expensive cologne he wears.

“Come on. We haven’t got all day.”

Veronica clears her throat, and it’s as if she’s awakening her voice. And she begins.

I close my eyes for a second, listening to her story; her beautiful, lyrical story.

“Oh, Veronica.” The words slip from my mouth. She stops and I open my eyes to find her staring at me.

She looks at me like she hates me.

“Don’t distract her,” Fahy says with a tsk of annoyance. “You’ve only got three hours, Veronica: keep talking.” She turns away from us. Away from me.

“Don’t be soft, doll.” Fahy tucks a piece of hair behind my ear, and I try not to wince. “We all need to eat. At least she’s doing something she loves. This shit is easy for people like ye.”

I watch Veronica, watch her as she spins magic with her tongue. She whispers into Mario’s ear and his body shudders, the words dripping into his subconscious, one by one.

He’ll probably be called a genius for this.

And he’ll probably believe it.

“Lucky,” Fahy says with a laugh. “You writers don’t know how lucky you are.”

Dublin in the Coming Times: The series and how it works

The RoseTo Ireland in the Coming Times

Roddy Doyle has invited writers and artists to contribute short stories reimagining the city. Some of their work will be published in The Irish Times over the coming months.

Free creative-writing workshops are running over the course of the year for adults in six Dublin public libraries, in Donaghmede, Fighting Words, Science Gallery, Little Museum of Dublin, Axis Ballymun and the Ark.

The project, which is in partnership with Dublin Unesco City of Literature, is intended to enable Dublin’s citizens to participate in illustrating a vision of the city as a place that, although it might change and adapt to new circumstances, will continue as a living, creative environment and a place for the storyteller and poet. We hope to publish selections from the stories that are created.

Seán Love

Executive director, Fighting Words

dublincityofliterature.ie, dublincitypubliclibraries.ie, fightingwords.ie

Dublin in the Coming Times is being promoted by Dublin’s Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, a Dublin City University programme with the UN University; email dublin.orla@gmail.com

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