The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is an award-winning anthology of short stories collecting work by women writers from the North of Ireland, and a companion piece to Gleeson's earlier award-winning anthology The Long Gaze Back. Here, she gathers work by twenty-five female luminaries, whose lives and works cover three centuries, capturing experiences that are both vivid and varied, despite their shared geographical heritage.
Here, we present The Speaking and the Dead, a tale from Belfast-based author Tara West.
There are always suicides at these things, Elaine thinks, pressing gold hoops into her long lobes. She steps up to the mirror above the empty grate and slashes peachy lipstick across her mouth, ignoring the rest of her face and hair. She has been to see Jolene the Psychic Medium before; suicides always come through at Jolene’s shows. Depressed people seem much more dependable in death than they were in life. Or maybe they are just like Jolene. Maybe they’re attracted by her friendly aura, or blue aura, or whatever it is.
Elaine checks her bag: purse, phone, keys, Lambert & Butler, vodka in a Sprite bottle, then pulls down a slat in the blinds to check the street for her lift. Behind her, Paul snorts and snuffles on the settee, tattooed elbow over his eyes. Her husband spends every Saturday afternoon drinking at the club and every Saturday night snoring on the settee. They speak more to the dog than to each other these days. She tries to imagine what it would be like if he choked on one of those snores. Lighting a cigarette and sighing out smoke, she turns back to the window.
Suicides seem happy to explain things to Jolene, things they couldn’t explain to the ones left behind, as Jolene calls them, as though the dead are just calling in from Benidorm, and not, as Elaine suspects, from emptiness. If they’ve gone anywhere at all.
Or maybe they know Jolene will protect them, because the ones left behind can’t be trusted to speak to them directly. They get emotional, and maybe the ones who’ve passed to the other side don’t want that. Elaine doesn’t want that either. She doesn’t want to cry in front of everyone. Elaine doesn’t even cry at the backstories on X Factor, when her friend Jacqui can hardly swallow vodka for the lump in her throat. The bottle always ends up drained though.
A small red car pulls up outside, thumping with Jacqui’s music: Neil Shite Diamond. The car toots urgently, as though Elaine is the one who’s late. She yanks the blinds closed, stubs out her cigarette and leaves the room without looking back. In the hall, she fondles their dog’s white muzzle and straggly ears. Poor old Pepper and his swampy clouds of stink. He lifts his milky eyes to her and farts airily.
Elaine ushers the dog into the living room. It’s warmer in there. And Pepper will give Paul something to really choke on.
Jacqui and her daughter Lauren fill the front seats of the car like inflatables after a day at the beach. Neil Shite Diamond sings in place of a greeting and the car creaks and dings as Elaine heaves herself in. She silently compares her own substantial frame to the women in front. She nudges ahead in the slimming stakes, but Jacqui wins on points for being a martyr to her thyroid.
Over the years their friendship has grown into an unspoken competition, fought in the arenas of weight, food, poverty, victimhood and whatever else could be construed. Jolene offers them more chances to get ahead. Who, if either of them, would be contacted? Who would come through from the other side? Would it be yet another of Jacqui’s attention-seeking distant relatives, the ones with mysterious new qualities of love and forgiveness? Or would it be Elaine’s son Matt, who killed himself when he was eighteen?
Elaine delves into her bag and pushes the contents around. She has seen every kind of medium: amateurs in living rooms, stars in big hotels, Romany in fairground tents and squinty oddballs over Skype. All sorts have come through to talk: a neighbour’s violent ex-husband, an Indian-sounding stranger, her mother’s childhood friend, an old teacher, but never Matt. Maybe tonight he’ll come through. Jolene is said to be the best psychic medium around.
‘So where’s Fuckface?’ Jacqui asks Elaine, as Lauren mashes the car into gear. They drive quickly through the estate, Lauren’s lumpy gear changes rocking them in their seats. Elaine hands across two cigarettes and Jacqui inserts one in her daughter’s mouth.
‘Asleep on the settee,’ Elaine says. ‘Where’s Ballbag?’
‘Round his ma’s,’ Jacqui says, lighting up. ‘Complaining because I never give him liver. I says the only liver I’ll ever fry will be his. Didn’t I, Lauren?’
Hooting at her own joke, Jacqui swaps the unlit cigarette in Lauren’s mouth for her lit one. She’s wearing her blingy earrings and sparkly top, the one she reserves for ‘do’s’. She reminds Elaine of a Christmas bauble.
Swaddled in a hoodie and jogging bottoms that reveal her cellulite, Lauren doesn’t speak. She was born into a sulk and never shook it off. Jacqui natters and laughs at her own jokes on the way to the hotel. That’s one of the things Elaine likes about her. There’s no pressure for her to talk when she’s with Jacqui. Jacqui fills the gaps.
They wait in a queue of cars at the hotel and Jacqui folds her arms and complains about the disabled, the old, the people who park over two spaces and the people who aren’t long-time fans like her and Elaine. She demands that her daughter drops them right outside the door, and Lauren brakes with belligerence when they reach the glass entrance. A horn blasts behind them and they swing round to see a white limo, the driver making shooing movements with his fingers.
‘Oh my God, it’s Jolene!’ Jacqui squawks, her thin hair swinging. ‘We can’t keep Jolene back. Move the car, Lauren! Move!’
Jacqui twinkles her fingers at the limo as Lauren shunts the car forward, braking with added sarcasm.
Pushing the door open with a foot, Jacqui uses the doorframe to haul her sparkles out. Elaine follows, holding her handbag close. She has only ever seen Jolene onstage before, where she seemed to glow. She has never seen her ‘in real life’.
A chauffeur opens the limo door and Jolene emerges, followed by her manager, a small man in a dark suit with short white hair. Jolene wears white jeans, a white leather belt with a silver buckle; her loose black curls fall over a white, floaty blouse. She looks serene; professional make-up has softened her hard features. The manager accompanies her into the packed and noisy hotel lobby, and Elaine and Jacqui join the rest of the audience filing into a huge conference room, gawking and rubbernecking at Jolene.
She looks a lot smaller when she’s not on stage. If it wasn’t for all the white, Elaine would lose her in the crowd.
Elaine and Jacqui have four glasses of Diet Coke each, topped up with handbag vodka stored on the floor below their chairs. Curled into her seat, Lauren eats Maltesers and thumbs sourly at her phone. She hasn’t looked up since they sat down, eight rows back from the temporary stage. Around them, the audience chats and cackles. It’s overwhelmingly female and faces are flushed and bright. Two men test the sound system, the quickest one-twos Elaine has ever heard. She wouldn’t like to face so many women, hope hanging in the air like static.
The audience ‘oohs’ as the lights dim and Elaine grips her ticket, feeling her heart thump-start in her chest. The ticket says Jolene is ‘One of Ireland’s Most Gifted Psychic Mediums’. Elaine’s ticket number is 289. It cost £18. She glances up as Jacqui joins the audience in enthusiastic applause. Jolene is walking on stage, her clothes bright under the spotlight. Elaine twists her ticket to the light. At the bottom it says in small silver letters: ‘A fun-filled night of astonishing entertainment!’
She never noticed that before. It must have been Jolene’s manager put that on, maybe to attract more people or something. Jolene wouldn’t put that on. Jolene’s hardly having a giggle up there. She wouldn’t think this was fun or entertainment. Rubbish singers on X Factor, that’s fun. Old episodes of Porridge and Peter Kay and children disco dancing, that’s entertainment. You wouldn’t call this fun or entertainment, all these women in the dark, desperate to know.
Jolene adjusts the small mic that is clipped to her floaty blouse and the sound system pops and squeals as she welcomes everyone. The crowd settles into a rustling quiet. Jacqui sits very straight, although she still looks like a ball. She leans this way and that, neck straining.
‘I’m behind a pair of Hattie fucken Jacques here,’ she whispers. ‘Can’t see a thing.’
Onstage, Jolene closes her eyes, presses her forefingers to her temples and splays her hands. The audience is silent. Elaine pinions her palm with her thumbnail.
‘Yes,’ Jolene says in her sharp Belfast accent. ‘OK, now. I’m getting something.’
There is no sound, apart from the crunch of Maltesers. Elaine lifts her drink and hits her teeth on the glass.
‘Does anyone … can anyone…’ Jolene’s eyes spring open and she scans the room. ‘Yes. There is someone here with us.’ She presses her fingers to her temples and closes her eyes again.
‘Someone is coming through. I … I can see the letters. B. And E. An older woman. B and E … Betty? Beth?’
There is muttering in the audience. Elaine sets her drink down and pushes her palms into her armpits.
‘It’s an older lady,’ Jolene says, eyes still closed. ‘And she’s looking for someone. A younger woman. A daughter, is it? Is there a woman here whose mother was called Betty? Beth?’
No one responds beyond murmuring.
‘It’s very important. I have a mother here. I think she’s a mother. Who is she looking for? Her name is Beth or Betty.’
Silence – then a voice chirrups from the back of the room. The soundman jogs across and hands the mic to a small, brittle, blonde woman.
‘HELLO,’ the woman booms, almost eating the mic. The audience ducks at the squealing mic and the soundman moves it away from her mouth. ‘Sorry,’ she says, the mic squealing again. ‘My mother was Bella. She passed away last year.’
‘What’s your name, love?’ Jolene asks.
‘Of course. A beautiful name.’ Jolene smiles beatifically. ‘Your mummy was really into her cleaning, wasn’t she, Angela?’
Angela nods, placing a hand over her eyes.
‘She was a real neat freak, wasn’t she, Angela?’ Jolene gives a soft laugh. ‘The type who scrubbed the front step?’
Angela can be heard to sob. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, she’s come through for you tonight, Angela.’ Jolene presses a finger against a temple. ‘And she left you … she left you … a piece of jewellery. Would that be right, Angela?’
Angela nods, sobs held tight in her shoulders.
‘It was gold, right, Angela?’
‘Beth is glad you have it now—’
‘Bella,’ Angela says.
‘Yes. She gives you that with love, Angela.’
Jacqui leans forward to the floor, and Elaine holds out her glass to have it topped up with handbag vodka.
‘I swear that woman came through last time,’ Jacqui throws back to Elaine.
‘Hogging broadband,’ Lauren mumbles, without looking up from her phone.
‘Wait,’ Jolene says brightly. ‘There’s someone with her, Angela. Someone else who has passed to the other side. A man. Is that her husband? A brother? Maybe a neighbour? Does that make sense?’
Angela breathes shakily into the mic. ‘That could be my daddy. He passed away fifteen years ago.’
‘Well, they’re together now, Angela.’ Jolene gives her warmest smile. ‘Your mummy isn’t on her own. And she’s smiling, Angela. She’s not suffering. She’s watching over you. She’ll always be watching over you.’
Angela holds a crumpled tissue to her mouth.
‘She has to go now, Angela,’ Jolene says softly. ‘But she’s still smiling. She has a lovely smile.’
The mic fizzles as Angela takes her seat, a tissue pressed to her mouth. Elaine takes a good few gulps of vodka as the soundman moves away and the audience applauds.
‘Thank you so much, Angela,’ Jolene says, pacing the stage. ‘We understand your pain. We’ve all been there. Thank you for sharing with us tonight.’
Jacqui is getting fidgety. She’s going to have a relative coming through soon. Elaine rolls her eyes.
Jolene walks the stage, fingers to temples. ‘They’re coming through thick and fast tonight. Yes, I have a woman. She’s had a very hard time. I can see the letter L. L or I. Who knows a woman who had difficulties? An L or I in her name. L and I? Who knows this woman?’
The room rustles and heads turn, looking for the owner of L and/or I. Elaine notices her glass steaming up as she drinks.
‘It could have been a recent death,’ Jolene says. ‘Or it could have been years ago. Who knows her? Someone must know her, that’s why she’s here tonight. She needs to speak. L or I in her name.’
No one responds.
‘She has grey-brown hair. Blue eyes? Yes, blue eyes. And she’s worried about something. Something that was left unsaid. Who knows someone with an L or I in her name?’
Jolene shades her eyes, as though the spotlight stops her from seeing the audience. There are no raised hands. The silence goes on.
Jacqui bounces to her feet, her head barely reaching above the Hattie Jacques in front. She gives her twinkly wave. ‘Me! I know her!’
‘Ah,’ Jolene says, walking back across the stage. ‘I knew it would be this side of the room. She was guiding me over this way. What was her name, was it Elaine maybe?’
Elaine starts in her seat, but hasn’t time to think as the soundman pushes along the row and steps on her toes as he holds the mic up to Jacqui’s mouth. She takes it like a pro.
‘Her name was Lorraine,’ Jacqui says.
Jolene smiles approvingly. ‘Yes, that’s it. Lorraine. Lorraine’s here with us tonight. And what’s your name?’
Elaine retracts from the soundman’s Lynx-smelling body. Jolene must know Jacqui’s name by now. Jacqui has claimed more dead people over the years than a morgue.
‘My name’s Jacqui,’ Jacqui trills. ‘Lorraine was my second cousin.’
By the time the interval comes, Jacqui has claimed Lorraine, a painter and decorator named Phil and a pipe-smoking man known as Lorenzo.
Elaine clasps her bag under her arm as she, Jacqui, Lauren and a chatty, perfumed mob cram in cigarettes outside the entrance. Jacqui is complaining about her alcoholic neighbours as Elaine nods along.
There was only one suicide in the first half. Someone who had ‘died by his own hand’. Elaine had felt sweat spring onto her top lip. She was ready to stand, take the mic, tell Jolene everything. She just needed to know for sure. But his name began with G and his sister was in the audience and she claimed the suicide as Gavin.
Why? Why Gavin and not Matt? Where was Matt? She knew where his body was, but where was he? Was he nothing now? She needed him to come through. She needed to speak to him, to know why he hadn’t talked to her, why he hadn’t asked her for help – she was his mother; she was there to help. She could have done something, why didn’t he speak to her? Maybe she should have tried harder to talk to him? What happened, Matt? Where did you go?
Back in their row, they settle more drinks below their seats and Jacqui shoves Elaine with a sparkly arm, offering a tube of Pringles.
Elaine takes a few of the crisps. Jacqui and her dead relatives. Jacqui and Lorraine and the never-heard-of-before Phil and Lorenzo and God knows how many others. You win, Jacqui.
‘Fancy a KFC after?’ Jacqui asks.
‘Alright,’ Elaine says.
An hour into the second half, after Cal (drowning), Ruth (alcoholism), Jean (cancer) and Aodheen (complications), another young man comes through. There is some confusion; Jolene knows there was a deep sadness surrounding the end of his life, but she isn’t sure what happened. He was a wild one, he loved a laugh. A woman near the front stands up: it was her nephew. He died of an accidental drug overdose.
Elaine checks her watch. She could’ve been this drunk at home and enjoying some Dr Hook while she was at it. She might give Jolene a miss next time.
With warmth, sympathy and efficiency, Jolene dispenses with Stevo the druggie and his auntie Cathy, and walks around the stage rubbing her neck, as if to loosen tired muscles. The show will end soon.
Jacqui drains the last of her drink and sighs. ‘Aye-aye-aye.’
Jolene plants a hand on her forehead. ‘I’m sorry. I feel the spirits moving on now. This is how it goes. They come to speak to the ones left behind and then they move on. But remember, if your loved one hasn’t come through tonight, it doesn’t mean they won’t ever. There is always next time. I’m also available for private consultations. Lift a flyer on the way out and I’ll be there for you.’
Jolene stops talking and presses a finger to a temple.
‘Wait,’ she says. ‘I have someone else here, it’s a man, he’s quite young. I see the letter A. He seems happy, which is strange, because he didn’t get to live out his life as he hoped. Does anyone know a young man with an A in his name?’
There is a general murmur, but fewer faces turn to look – they’ve had enough. Elaine pushes her thumbnail into her hand. Could this be him? Matt wasn’t happy, he hadn’t been for a long time. He was silent and angry, although as a boy he had been sunshine and smiles, always making her laugh. Maybe that’s what Jolene’s manager meant by entertainment? That the people you love can make you laugh? No, that can’t be right. Could it be him?
‘Does anyone know him? An A and I think, yes, there’s a T in his name. He’s looking for a woman, but I can’t tell what the relationship is. He’s smiling; he seems like a happy soul. Who knows him?’
Elaine perches on the edge of her chair. Could he be happy now he’s dead? Is it a relief for him to be dead? When he wasn’t surly and silent, he was in a rage; he screamed at Elaine and Paul, always stayed in his room. The school complained and he stopped going. Paul said it was his age, said he was worse when he was a teenager, giving back cheek, lighting fires, making trouble. Elaine would have been relieved if Matt had lit fires, been brought home by the police, got drunk and vomited in the linen basket, that would have been normal. But maybe Paul was right. Maybe it was his age.
Matt had tied an extension cord to the door knob and fed it through the banister so there would be enough of a drop to break his neck.
They got Pepper that year, a collie-looking mongrel. Elaine gripped his fur every night till she slept. She and Paul were breathless with pain. Soundless. How they loved that dog.
‘There must be someone here who knows this young man,’ Jolene says, shielding her eyes with her hand. ‘An A and a T in his name?’
Elaine isn’t sure. She’s never been sure.
The audience stirs, but in a way that suggests their backsides are sore, they have kids to get back to, TV shows to watch.
No matter how many letters almost form his name, Elaine has always held back. And then someone stands up before her and claims him for their own. But maybe that’s why he never comes through. Maybe you have to be willing to meet them halfway? Maybe this time…
Jacqui bounces up. ‘I know him.’
Elaine kicks over her glass.
Eyebrows rise as the soundman makes his way over and hands Jacqui the mic. The Hattie Jacques protest.
‘His name’s Anthony,’ Jacqui says.
‘Oh,’ says Jolene, frowning a little. ‘So, how well did you know Anthony?’
‘He was my cousin’s stepson.’
‘I can see a football top…’
‘He was buried in it.’
‘Well, all he says is … Anthony’s a bit of a joker…’
‘That’s our Anthony, alright.’
‘He says, well, he says, see you soon?’ Jolene shrugs. ‘He’s waving and smiling and he says see you soon.’
Titters ripple through the audience.
Jacqui hands the mic back to the soundman and sits down, unperturbed.
Elaine lifts her handbag from the floor and sweeps off drips of Diet Coke. What was she thinking, meeting Matt halfway? She was stupid. Drunk. All these people were here to be entertained. This is for fun, this is a game – even Jacqui knows that. Matt has gone to emptiness, is emptiness, and her desperation would serve as amusement for everybody else. She always hesitated because she never really believed he would come. She just can’t let go of the hope.
The audience claps and whoops as Jolene smiles and thanks everyone for coming. She takes several bows and reminds them all to look out for her next tour, then the spotlight goes out and clunks are heard as mics are switched off. Jolene becomes a shadow retreating across the stage as the audience rises to leave.
Someone taps Jacqui on the shoulder, and she turns to face a hard-faced woman in the row behind. ‘This isn’t a competition, you know,’ the woman says.
Jacqui pulls her sparkly top down over her middle and folds her arms. ‘Well, imagine coming through and nobody wanting you,’ she says. ‘If nobody else claims them, I’ll take them. I wouldn’t have them going back to wherever they came from feeling like nobody wanted them.’
The hard-faced woman harrumphs down her nose and stalks away.
The stage is dark, and no one else seems to notice that Jolene has reappeared. Elaine draws her eyes away from Jacqui and leans to the side, straining to see. Jolene is speaking, but the audience is dispersing and shuffling towards the exit.
‘Come on,’ Jacqui says, orientating her roundness towards the door. ‘KFC time. Let’s go.’
‘Wait,’ Elaine says, twisting her way along the row.
‘Where you going?’ Jacqui calls after her. ‘The door’s this way. I’m starving.’
Elaine joins several other women at the front as Jolene shakes her head on the dim stage.
‘He has grey hair,’ Jolene says, her voice thin and small. ‘I can’t see him very well, but I know he has tattoos. Who knows a man with tattoos?’
‘Ah, like, everybody?’ comes a voice from behind Elaine.
‘He wants to talk to a woman,’ Jolene says, almost pleading. ‘Does anyone know him? There are tattoos on his elbow. And sadness. That’s all I see.’
Elaine feels a presence closing in.
‘There you are,’ Jacqui announces, linking her arm through Elaine’s. ‘You don’t get your money back if nobody comes through for you, you know. Come on. Lauren’s away to get the car.’
When Elaine looks back at the stage, Jolene is being escorted away by her manager.
Elaine doesn’t feel like a KFC now, and Jacqui tuts and folds her sparkly arms. They drop her home, and Neil Shite Diamond thumps down the street and round the corner. Elaine waves, but Jacqui doesn’t. Dieting is still a competition.
In the hall, Elaine drops her Coke-soaked handbag and opens the living room door. It smells like booze breath and dog farts, and Pepper’s tail thumps happily against the floor. He tries to heave himself up, but arthritis makes him slow. Elaine squeezes her behind onto the settee beside the still-sleeping Paul and the dog collapses on her feet.
Paul’s snoring has stopped and his stomach rises and falls; a slow, familiar rhythm. One arm is by his side and the other is over his middle, so she can’t see his tattoos. She tucks her fingers around his.
About The Author: Called a ‘true original’ by Glenn Patterson, Tara West had already established a career as an advertising copywriter in Belfast when she wrote her first novel, Fodder. The book was published by Blackstaff Press to widespread critical acclaim and established her reputation as a talented new Irish voice. Her second novel, Poets Are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan, was published by Liberties Press in 2013 and was described by Ian Sansom as ‘The funniest book written by a Northern Irish author this century’. Liberties will publish her memoir about depression and recovery, Happy Dark, in 2016.
The Glass Shore (published by New Island Press) is out now.