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from Dinosaurs on Other Planets


Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin is the author of the short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, and various anthologies. McLaughlin has won the Windham Campbell Prize, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition, the Willesden Short Story Prize, the Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Festival short story competition. She lives in County Cork, Ireland.

Danielle was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press and in the UK and US in 2016 by John Murray and Random House. The collection won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection 2016. In 2019 she was awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. She was Writer in Residence at UCC for 2018-2019. She was the winner of the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2019.  Her debut novel The Art of Falling is published in January 2021 by Random House in the US and in February 2021 by John Murray in the UK and Ireland.

Along the Heron-Studded River

Danielle McLaughlin

He gripped the ice-scraper in his gloved hands, pulled it back and forth across the windscreen. A mist of ice particles rose up, settled upon the car bonnet. It was dark yet, but the sun was beginning to rise, tingeing the white fields pink. All around him the land was hard and still, the ditch that separated their property from the farm next door brittlegrassed and silver. In the distance he could see the line of trees that flanked the river, their branches dusted with a light powdering of snow. A heron stood beside the small ornamental pond, stabbing the frozen surface with its beak. The previous Saturday, Cathy had driven to the city and had returned with half a dozen koi, some of them bronze and tea-coloured, others grey. He had watched her release them, dazed and startled, into the pond. Dropping the ice-scraper, he clapped his hands and the heron rose up and flew away.

The house was a dormer, facing south towards the river, set into a hollow in the field. From where he stood in the driveway, it looked like a Christmas ornament, frost clinging to the roof, condensation rounding the squares of light in the windows. He could see Cathy moving about the kitchen in her dressing gown, Gracie on her hip, preparing breakfast.

‘Did you get any sleep?’ he had asked earlier.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘plenty,’ but he had felt her slip from their bed during the night, had heard her feet on the floorboards as she went downstairs. He knew she would be on the phone to Martha, her sister, who lived in Castleisland. What Martha made of these late night phone calls, he didn’t know. Martha spoke to him only when matters concerning Cathy or Gracie required it, grudgingly even then, and once a month she posted a cheque for the crèche fees.

He finished the windscreen, leaving the engine running so the car might heat up, and went back into the house. In the hall he removed his wet gloves and put them to dry on the radiator. He could hear his wife and daughter in the kitchen singing Incy Wincy Spider. He watched them through the door, their forms distorted by the patterned glass. Cathy was making porridge. She balanced the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot and shimmied low to the floor, her dressing gown enfolding Gracie like a tent. Gracie screamed and wriggled out, then immediately crawled back in again, pulling the dressing gown tight about her. She poked her face through a gap between buttons and giggled. And as he entered the room, he felt something seep away, like the slow hiss of air from a puncture.

Cathy stepped over her daughter and crossed the kitchen to kiss him on the cheek. There were dark circles under her eyes. She took both his hands in hers and rubbed them gently, frowning at their coldness.

‘Is it bad?’ she said, inclining her head towards the window.

‘Bad enough. You’ll need to be careful going to the crèche later.’

‘It’ll have thawed by then. Do you want coffee?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ll get some at the office.’

Gracie toddled across the kitchen to reclaim her mother. Cathy scooped her up and she clung, limpet-like, to her neck. Over on the hob, the porridge spluttered in its pot. ‘I’ll do that,’ he said, as he saw Cathy turn. ‘You sit down.’

He poured porridge into two bowls and carried them to the table. Cathy lowered Gracie, kicking and protesting, into her high chair and fastened the straps. ‘Martha’s asked us to go stay with her for a few days,’ she said.

He pulled out a chair beside her. ‘When?’

‘She thought next week might be good. There’s a festival on, and a few of the cousins will be around.’ She stirred some milk into the porridge, blew gently on a spoonful before putting it to Gracie’s lips. He watched the child clamp her mouth shut, contort her small body so she was facing the other direction.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I worry about you being there on your own.’

‘We won’t be on our own, we’ll be with Martha.’ She took Gracie’s chin in her hand and gently tilted it back towards the spoon. ’You could come down at the weekend, stay for a few days.’

‘Did Martha say that?’ He knew how Martha felt about him. It was the same way he felt about Martha.

‘You know she’s always asking us to visit.’

You, he thought, she’s always asking you to visit, but just then Gracie released a mouthful of porridge she had quarantined in her cheek. He watched Cathy’s hand dart out and catch it on the spoon. Her own porridge was untouched, solidifying into a cold, grey disc.

‘Here,’ he said, reaching for the spoon. ‘Let me feed her, you eat your breakfast,’ but she shook her head.

‘I can manage,’ she said, ‘anyway, you need to get to work.’

He got up from his chair and went over to the window. Outside, light was spreading from the east. The garden was spiky with the stalks of leafless plants and a mound of fermented lawn cuttings leaned, white-capped, against the fence. Gracie’s tricycle, left out overnight, was frosted too, snatches of purple breaking through here and there.

It was on a morning like this, white with a hush upon the fields, that they had found the site. They had travelled from Dublin the evening before, the only accommodation a B&B in a village ten miles away, where he had made cautious love to Cathy beneath thin sheets and wiry blankets. She was in the early stages of pregnancy and he had moved inside her with a new restraint, terrified that he might harm the baby, not understanding how very safe his daughter was then, how very protected. The next morning, they met the auctioneer at the field, the farmland all around them in folds of white hills like a bridal gown, jewelled with frost. Small dark birds, feathers puffed against the cold, darted in and out of hedgerows.

‘Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’ Cathy had whispered, ‘it’s like Narnia.’

‘Do you think you could live here?’ he remembered asking, as they walked behind the auctioneer to where their car was parked in the laneway. ‘Yes,’ she had answered, ‘yes, I think I could.’

He looked at his watch and saw that it was almost eight. He went over to kiss Cathy and as she lifted her face to his, porridge slid from the spoon and dropped onto the tray of the high chair. Gracie studied it, poked it, traced spirals with her fingers round and round the tray. Cathy just shrugged, mopped up the porridge with the sleeve of her dressing gown. There were mornings when he was unsettled by her eagerness to please him, by the transparency of her efforts to affect happiness. This morning she seemed more relaxed, brighter, her smile as she said goodbye less forced.

But a few minutes later as he sat in his car, key in the ignition, she appeared at the front door. She picked her way across the gravelled driveway in thin, fabric slippers, arms wrapped around herself to fend off the cold.

‘You don’t have to go to Manchester this month, do you?’ she said, as he rolled down the window.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and he saw relief in her face as she waved him off.

He drove out the gate and down the lane, shattering membranes of ice stretched across the puddles, and turned onto the main road. At Twomey’s bridge, a buckled fender and side-panel lay bone-white in the verge, like skeletons along an ancient silk route, a warning to other travellers. His phone sat on the dash. He liked to keep it where he could see it, though he knew it would not ring. Once he joined the river road he was out of coverage until he reached the dual carriageway. The river road was a portal between worlds: his home on one side, the city on the other, and in the middle a no-man’s-land of space and time when his wife and daughter were beyond his grasp, unreachable.

Mist rose from the river, ghosted through black and empty trees. The herons that lived along the bank were out in force, balanced on spindly legs. They stood motionless, their long, curved necks thrust forward, as if they too, like the trees and the grass, had been stilled by the frost. The road was rough and uneven. Every spring, the Council sent out men and machines with truckloads of asphalt to lay a new surface. And every winter the river tore it away again, so that, come February, what remained was not so much a road but a dirt track.

His office was in a nineteen-seventies square-fronted building in the city centre. Steps, pock-marked with gum and doused in bleach, lead to a foyer hung with advertisements for various financial products. He saw Cahill, his manager, waiting in the lift lobby and decided to take the stairs. Cahill, he knew, was losing patience. He had considered talking to him but the time had never seemed right and now he thought the time might have passed. Lately he had noticed a change in the way Cahill spoke to him, and if they passed each other in the corridors or in the canteen, Cahill mostly looked away.

His cubicle was on the fourth floor, in a long, rectangular room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. More glass separated the office space from the stairwell and the staff canteen. He switched on his computer and saw Cahill had included him on an e-mail about the trip to Manchester, scheduled for the following week. He clicked ‘reply’, typed a couple of sentences and stopped. For a while, he stared at the screen without typing anything, then saved the reply to ‘drafts’ to finish later.

He made a mug of coffee in the canteen and brought it back to his desk. The woman in the next cubicle raised her head above the partition. ‘Cahill was looking for you,’ she said, in the sing-song, lisping voice that grated on him, and then she went back to work, synthetic nails scuttling click click across her keyboard. He opened his e-mails and resumed the reply to Cahill. He read over what he had written, added a word or two, then closed it and started on something else.

At 11.35am his mobile rang. It was Martha. ‘I’m worried,’ she said.

He had told Martha time and again that he worked in an open-plan office.

‘Hold on,’ he said. He got up and went out to the lobby. He pictured Martha on the other end of the phone, her cheeks sucked hollow in annoyance at being kept waiting, tugging at the buttons of her cardigan as if even they had offended her. Between the lifts and the cleaning supplies cupboard was a narrow recessed space. He had discovered that if he pressed close against the wall, he could see his cubicle through the glass, but could not easily be seen himself.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘go ahead.’

‘Have you noticed anything lately?’

‘Nothing worth talking about.’

‘That means you’ve noticed something.’

He wondered how two people who both loved Cathy could dislike each other so very much. ‘She doesn’t go jogging anymore,’ he said, ‘but that’s mostly down to the weather.’

‘Anything else?’

He imagined Martha’s fidgeting becoming fiercer, a button popping off her cardigan, rolling across her kitchen floor. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was about to betray his wife. ‘She’s skipped her meds a couple of times, but only a couple. And she’s tired, but then Gracie’s been a handful lately.’

There was silence for a moment and then Martha said, ‘Gracie isn’t at the crèche today.’

‘How do you know?’ ‘I rang the crèche and they told me.’

‘You had no business ringing them.’ ‘I ring all the time,’ Martha said, ‘somebody has to. Did you know she forgot to collect Gracie twice last week? They had to phone her when she didn’t show.’

‘She was probably just late,’ he said, ‘late isn’t forgetting.’

‘She was over an hour late. And yesterday? when they were changing Gracie? Her dress was filthy. Filthy and frayed along one side, and she wasn’t even wearing a vest.’

He rested his forehead against the wood of the supplies cupboard, inhaled its smells of bleach and disinfectant. Every small thing had been taken from his wife’s possession, laid bare under a harsh and artificial light; every failing paraded before a fairground mirror, magnified and distorted, until even the smallest lapse came to signal catastrophe. ‘They told you all that?’ he said, ‘They had no right. That stuff’s private.’

‘I don’t give a shit about your privacy. Your daughter isn’t at the crèche today, you need to start thinking about that.’

Over the top of the cupboard, he saw Cahill weaving through the maze of cubicles heading for his desk. He saw him rest his hands on the back of the empty chair and look around.

‘Did you hear me?’ Martha said. ‘Are they sure she’s not at the crèche?’

‘Of course they’re bloody well sure, they sign the children in, they sign the children out. Your daughter isn’t there.’

He could see Cahill bent over the desk, scribbling something. ‘I’ll ring Cathy now,’ he said.

‘You think I haven’t tried that? I’ve been ringing this past hour.’

‘She might be upstairs, she mightn’t have heard the phone. Sometimes she takes her bath while Gracie’s at the crèche.’

‘I told you,’ Martha said, and he pictured her knuckles growing white as her grip tightened on the handset, ‘Gracie’s not at the crèche.’

‘I’ll give it ten minutes and try her then.’

‘Well, let me know how you get on.’

‘I will,’ he said, ‘and thank you, Martha,’ but she had hung up.

He dialled Cathy’s mobile but it went to voicemail. The landline also rang out. When he returned to his desk, the woman in the next cubicle appeared again above the partition. ‘Cahill,’ she said, nodding at a post-it stuck to his computer screen. He peeled it off and read it. He was to bring last month’s figures to the lunchtime meeting about Manchester. He crumpled the note into a ball and dropped it in the bin. He tried Cathy’s number again. He thought of ringing the crèche, asking if Gracie had arrived in the meantime, but decided against it.

He took the stairs to the third floor to collect some documents and when he got back, he saw he had a missed call from Martha. He looked around the office. Cahill was standing a little way off, talking to one of the IT people. He went back out to the lobby and dialled Martha’s number and, when she didn’t answer, Cathy’s. When there was still no reply, he returned to his desk, took his jacket from the back of his chair, and left the office. He drove out of the city, past tourists shivering around the war memorial statue, past the park where mothers in hats and scarves chatted over buggies, and took the exit for the dual carriageway. Shortly after he turned onto the river road, Martha rang but the line was patchy, interspersed with bursts of static, and then there was nothing. It was not raining but drops from overhead branches fell in an insistent patter upon the windscreen. Nature had swung on its hinges: the thaw had started and once it had started there was nothing that could stop it. Frost was melting from the trees along the river bank, revealing strips of torn plastic and other debris wound around their trunks in times of flood. There had been an un-silvering: the whiteness had receded, leaving soiled browns, mildewed greens. From a low-lying branch, a plastic bag hung heavy with river water. He remembered a summer at his grandparents’ farm as a child, when he had found a bag, a knotted pouch of water, by the edge of a stream. Opening it, he had discovered half a dozen slimy, hairless pups, their eyes tight shut.

There was an incident the previous November that he had kept from Martha. Cathy, he guessed, had kept it from her too, because if Martha knew, Cathy and Gracie would be living in Castleisland now, and he would be living by himself in the house above the river. He had arrived home one evening to find the front door open, leaves blowing about the hall. ‘Cathy?’ he called, putting down his briefcase. In the kitchen, a bag of flour had been pulled from a cupboard and upended. Gracie was under the table in just a nappy, digging jam from a jar with a fork and smearing it on the floor. She was utterly absorbed, the kitchen quiet apart from the sound of the fork striking the tiles. It was only when she looked up and saw him that she began to bawl. ‘Where’s Mummy?’ he tried, picking her up and going from room to room, but she had only cried louder.

He dressed her in clothes pulled from the laundry basket, and got a torch from under the stairs. Cathy’s phone was on top of the kitchen table, her car parked in the driveway. He searched the garden first, quickly, because he did not expect to find Cathy there. The shed when he checked it was padlocked on the outside as usual. Gracie had stopped crying, distracted by the novelty of being outdoors in the dark. She waddled ahead of him, chasing the torch’s circle of light, jumping on it, shrieking when it slid from under her feet. He climbed over the ditch into the farm next door, lifting Gracie in after him. He hoisted her onto his shoulders, steadying her with one hand, his other hand sweeping the torch across the shadowy grass as they made their way from field to field.

From the farm, they crossed the road to the stretch of marshy ground beside the river. The countryside at night was a different creature, the soft ground sucking at their shoes, the air thick with midges. As they got closer to the river, he noticed movement ahead, black, lumbering shapes at the edge of the trees. It was a herd of cattle, the white patches of their hides emerging like apparitions from the darkness. They were gathered in a circle, heads dipped low, steam billowing from their noses. ‘Moo!’ Gracie shouted, ‘moo! moo!’ and they stumbled apart to reveal Cathy sitting on a metal feeding trough, the ground all around her pulped muddy by hooves. She was dressed in a skirt, a shortsleeved blouse and slippers, and when he got nearer he saw that her arms and legs were torn by briars and she was bleeding from a cut on her ankle. She looked up at him and then she looked away. Later that night, after he had bathed her and dabbed antiseptic on her cuts, after he had put her to bed and placed Gracie, sleeping, in the crook of her arm, still she wouldn’t look at him.

Passing through Lindon’s Cross, the car slid and crossed the centre line before he managed to right it again. A heron spread its wings and rose up, came low through the trees, onto the road. It flew so close he feared it might strike the windscreen, but it rose higher and for a moment flew ahead of the car, a silent out-rider, before rising higher again, higher than seemed plausible for such a large bird, and disappearing behind a copse of trees. He touched a hand to his face and realised that he was crying. If he got home and they were safe, he would never leave them again. He would stay with them, he would not go to the office and Cahill could do what he liked. It didn’t matter anymore what Cahill thought or didn’t think; it was impossible to imagine anything that mattered less than Cahill. They would manage, he would find a way, he would talk to Martha.

When he turned into the driveway, he saw that the ground surrounding the pond had been disturbed. Sods of red clay had been hacked from the lawn, their scalps of white grass run through with blades of green. A number of wooden posts had been brought from the shed and lay in a pile beside a pick axe and a roll of wire mesh left behind by the builder. He stopped the car and got out. The pond itself was a mess of earth and grass, too muddied to allow sight of any fish. Part of the concrete surround was cracked, the ground beside it swampy where the water was slowly seeping away. He looked towards the house and realised that Cathy’s car was missing.

He became conscious of the sound of his own breathing, of the ticks and shudders of the settling car engine. He had the sensation of being underwater, of straining against some vast, sucking tide. And then Gracie came barrelling around the corner of the house. She made her way across the lawn, slipping on the wet grass, falling, getting up again. She was wearing a red dress with pink puffy sleeves, the belt flapping around her, and her Tinker Bell sandals. He ran to her and swung her up into his arms, this child he had driven away from this morning, this child he was entrusted to protect from everything and everyone. He clasped her tight, so tight that her chatter was muffled against his shirt. When he lifted his cheek from her hair, he saw Cathy walking up the garden towards them. She was carrying one of Gracie’s sandals that had come off when she fell.

‘Why are you home?’ she said. She was wearing wellington boots and a dress she had bought for a cousin’s wedding the year before, a summer dress in flimsy material patterned in blue and yellow parrots. He saw how much looser it hung on her now, how her collarbone pressed sharply against her skin, as if it might break through.

‘I forgot a file,’ he said.

‘What a day for it to happen,’ she said, ‘with the roads so bad. We didn’t even go to the crèche, did we, Gracie? We went to the end of the lane and turned back.’

‘Where’s your car?’

She was easing the sandal back on her daughter’s foot, fastening the strap. ‘It’s round the back by the shed. I was using it to move the posts, they were too heavy to carry.’

Gracie wriggled out of his arms and went over to the pond. ‘Poor fishy,’ she said. She knelt on the concrete surround and dipped her arm in the water, wetting the sleeve of her dress to the shoulder. She lifted out a dead, grey fish. Holding it by the tail, she swung it back and forth like a pendulum.

‘That damn bird again,’ Cathy said. She took the fish from her daughter and laid it down on the grass. ‘We saw him through the window and ran out.’ She pointed to a gash in the fish’s neck, just below the gills. ‘He dropped it, but we were too late. Two more are missing. Maybe three.’

‘Bad birdie,’ Gracie said, ‘bad, bad birdie,’ and she stamped her foot.

He wanted to say that it was winter, that the bird was only doing what it always did, what it had to do. That there had never been any hope for those unwitting koi, here in this desolate place where even the river fish struggled to survive. Cathy picked up the axe. ‘What are you doing?’ he said.

‘We’re going to keep the fish safe. We’re going to build them a cage, like in the zoo. Right, Gracie?’ When she brought the axe down, the end lodged in the lawn and she leaned on the handle, worked it like a lever, until another sod broke away. She flipped it over to reveal a tangle of roots on the underside. She was not wearing a coat or even a cardigan and her arms were purple and goose-bumped. So too were Gracie’s, he realised. The hem of her dress had trailed in the pond and the wet was soaking upwards.

‘Let’s leave it a while and go inside,’ he said.

Cathy stopped hacking at the lawn. He saw how she was looking at him, confusion in her face, trying to work out if she had displeased him. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, ‘it’s cold, that’s all. We can see about it later.’ He took Gracie by the hand and began to walk towards the house, Cathy at his side.

‘I rang earlier,’ he said, ‘I tried a few times.’

‘Did you? We’ve been out here most of the morning, haven’t we, Gracie?’

Gracie nodded solemnly at her mother. ‘Poor fishy,’ she said again.

At the front door, Cathy took off her boots, left them on the step. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ she said, ‘about the crèche. It’s a lot of money for Martha to come up with every month. And we don’t really need it anymore, do we? I mean, I’m fine now, I can manage.’ She ruffled her daughter’s hair. ‘We had fun this morning, didn’t we? Just Mummy and Gracie?’

‘We don’t need to decide about the crèche now,’ he said, ‘we’ll talk about it over the weekend.’

Inside the house, Gracie toddled down the hall after her mother. He glanced at his watch, saw that the Manchester meeting was about to start.

‘You might as well stay for lunch now that you’re here,’ Cathy said.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘why not.’

Upstairs in their bedroom, he took off his jacket and threw it on the bed. In the ensuite bathroom, he opened the cabinet and took out the box containing Cathy’s medication. He counted the pills in their blister pack: exactly the right number, neither too many, nor too few. He splashed water on his face and lay for a while on the bed with his eyes closed. In the inside pocket of his jacket, his phone beeped. He had three messages: a text from the in-house travel department, with booking references for flights and hotels: three nights in Manchester and then—something that had not been mentioned previously—two in Birmingham; a brusque voicemail from Martha, saying she was on her way to check on Cathy, and one from Cahill, asking where the hell he was. He switched off the phone, put it back in his jacket pocket and went downstairs.

In the kitchen, Cathy was frying onions and cubes of bacon in a pan. ‘I thought we’d have omelettes,’ she said, ‘something quick, so you can get back to the office.’ She stood Gracie on a stool beside her and rolled up the child’s sleeves. He watched Gracie smash an egg against the edge of the bowl. Half of it slipped over the rim onto the countertop, the rest, studded with fragments of shell, slid into the bowl. Cathy dipped a finger into the raw egg, fished out shards of shell. There was a determined cheerfulness to the way she moved between hob and cupboard, gathering ingredients, a grim precision to the way she chopped another onion. He noticed that she had applied lipstick while he was upstairs, and her hair was brushed. ‘Why don’t we eat in the dining room for a change?’ she said. ‘Gracie’s going to help me set the table, aren’t you, Gracie?’ and she lifted the child down from the stool and led her away by the hand.

He stayed by himself in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the omelettes, every so often shaking the pan to stop them catching. Through the window, he saw the frost retreating towards the mountains to the west, remnants of it forming an erratic patchwork on the bonnet of Cathy’s car outside the shed. After a few moments, he took the pan off the heat and went to the door of the dining room, a rarely-used room on the other side of the hall.

Cathy was at the end of the table, bent over a large silver tray. It was something they had found in a market in Dublin before they married and it held items of crystal they had received as wedding presents. Cathy picked up a glass, held it to the light, ran a finger along the rim to check for cracks. She polished it with a tea towel, then set it down on the table and took up another. Gracie was arranging red table napkins, folding them and folding them again, pressing them down, protesting as they sprung open when released. Cathy looked up and smiled. ‘I thought we’d open a bottle of wine,’ she said, ‘you could have a glass with your lunch, one glass won’t make any difference.’

‘I guess not,’ he said. Through the dining-room window, he saw Martha’s silver Volvo turn into the driveway. It came to a halt by the ruined pond, and he watched as Martha rolled down the window, stared for a while, before continuing on towards the house. ‘What a lovely surprise,’ Cathy said, ‘and she’s just in time for lunch.’ She left the crystal and went past him into the hall to welcome her sister.

Gracie, finished with the napkins, slid down from her chair. She was looking, not at her father, but about the room, ready for whatever opportunity might next present itself. There was a determined jut to her chin that didn’t come from his side of the family, and that always reminded him, not so much of Cathy but of Martha. She headed now, with purpose, towards the tray of crystal. In an instant, she had reached up a small hand and grabbed the corner of a linen napkin on which rested a tall decanter in blue cut-glass. She tugged at the napkin and the decanter, unbalanced, began to topple sideways. ‘Gracie!’ he heard Martha shout from behind him. But he was watching, as he was always watching, and he was there, just in time to catch it before it fell.