Fiction | The Killer Moves Among Us by Anna Walsh

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Paul Henry - Landscape with Cottage [c.1929-34]

Anna Walsh


The Killer Moves Among Us

 

Paula took a cold beer from the fridge and looked out the window. The rain pissed down mutinous as spit, the wintry sky and wet cobblestones dissolving into a single dark smudge. It was only four o’clock, and she had already done something wrong.
…….It wasn’t a huge deal. This new agent, the one she’d had for only a year, was annoyed at Paula for refusing to attend an awards night in Dublin. From the very beginning Paula had told Maggie that her whole thing was refusing to go to any kind of literary event, especially Irish ones. People only ever ask me stupid questions there, she’d said, and I don’t like being reminded of my awful childhood. Maggie had bawled her out on the phone, telling Paula things were different now, that she couldn’t be difficult like this anymore, she had to go and at least pretend to give a shit about her estranged homeplace. Paula’s response was that she could not and would not, and that she was going to go drink herself to death now, thank you very much. When frustration hit the upper limits of Maggie’s vowels, Paula ended the call. Hell would freeze over before she stood in a room with hundreds of people she didn’t know. Edinburgh already felt like the last outpost, the rain morphing to snow, to hail, then back to rain within the hour. Paula got another beer from the fridge.
…….She spent the weekend working on her new novel, an indictment of the criminal justice system by way of various charming rogues, mavericks and thieves being punished far more harshly than their crimes deserved. This most recent book was going well, her twelfth (fourteenth, if you counted her first two, written in cursive when she was twelve). The Killer in the Fens was the working title, but would have to change soon as she was not going to the Fens and wasn’t going to research them either, and The Killer in Insh Marshes didn’t sound as good. Her official excuse was that her bones would hurt too much to stay near the wetlands, but the reality was that she just didn’t care enough. Bella had recently moved to Glasgow, and Paula longed to follow her. There had been a point where she thought they might move in together, but as usual, things got fucked up and now Paula was in her natural state, hiding from the world, waiting for it to blow over.
…….It had been a terrible few months for Paula, sleeping all day, writing and drinking all night. She always fell back into these cycles of guilt and terror, refusing to leave her spacious apartment on Stephen’s Street. Groceries came every two weeks, and she compulsively ordered DVDs and second-hand books online. Any spare time went on YouTube, watching long video essays and films so old that nobody cared about the copyright.
…….She didn’t usually have such an intensive writing schedule but it was the only way to keep Bella out of her mind. It wasn’t fair. All these violent, abusive boyfriends and husbands that her partners tended towards, and Paula was the one condemned, left to lick her wounds by herself. Nothing would please her more than to get the train to Glasgow and sweep Bella off her feet, but Paula knew the pleasure of this scenario lay in its impossibility. At one point it could have been possible, but at the crucial moment she slipped back into her old ways and fucked it.
…….Instead she was ignoring everyone and writing two thousand words a night, her sense for how things needed to come together by now a kind of muscle memory. She didn’t need to plot anymore, not since the first four books. Back then she spent months in the planning stage, trying to lay clues and red herrings, plotting the most thrilling possible end to whatever bloodied mess she’d created. Her first three books centred on a female detective, a young working-class woman making her way up the ranks of the Irish Gardaí only to encounter obstacles every step of the way. The detective investigated child abuse and sexual assault (Paula didn’t research the internal systems of the Gardaí and had wildly misrepresented the level of care and compassion available to these specific victims), and gang-affiliated murders. When she got her first book deal in the nineties she was living in France, hiding away in a small village, checking the Irish news once a week at the internet cafe. By then she had changed her name twice, settling on the name Paula Raff to write under.
……..She closed her eyes and felt the flashes coming again, the awful noise and mess when Shay had come in on top of them out of nowhere. His face contorted with rage, how big he seemed next to Bella. How like a monster he came towards Paula with his hands raised. She was going to disappear again, she would go finish her book in the cottage and afterwards, finally move somewhere warm again. Years of being this way, being tied up in fear, had cosseted Paula. Having to talk to writers and editors at an event would put her in the ground. She emailed Maggie and said she would be unavailable for the next month, writing somewhere without internet, and booked the ferry to Ireland.
…….The ferry was quiet, muddled with older women and young, stressed families. Paula swayed beside a younger couple at the bar. They looked like artists she had fallen in with in the eighties – piercings and tattoos everywhere, bright, ugly clothing. They seemed besotted with one another, laughing at the novelty of being on a ferry at stupid o’clock. Paula felt giddy herself and velvety with Diazepam, buying two whiskies for the couple when she paid for her beer. The taller one said a suspicious thank you, and the other stared at Paula. Instantly Paula berated herself and made her way back to her seat. She resolved to stay at her seat and do her work, not to get silly or grabby or talk to anyone. She took out her laptop and stared out the small porthole. The water looked depthless, like the thin delicate surface of a toy, sun slicing across the horizon. She was almost excited to get away from Scotland. The papers said nothing and that reassured her, but she couldn’t shake the dread, the fear that soon they would say something. It had to pass, over time.
…….Reading over her latest edits, she sipped the cold pint. The ferry hummed and she could feel herself returning to normal, to the midway settling of nerves that her fourth drink always brought. She checked her bank balance. If anything did come up, she would have enough to leave and make do, for at least a while.
…….When Paula woke her laptop was dead. The barista was shaking her gently by the shoulder, saying they had arrived in Belfast. Paula gathered her things and swallowed the warm, yeasty remains of her pint. Making her way down to the coach, the blue stairs coiled before her, panic climbing up her throat. She wasn’t sure she had everything and was too embarrassed and cloudy to check. Stepping onto the coach, she felt quickly for the essentials: charger, wallet, notebooks. Her phone and passport in her pocket. She dozed again in the seat, and what felt like a minute later she got off in the square in Belfast. Google maps illuminated the walk to the Sligo bus, on which she fell into a dead sleep for the journey.
…….The bus jolted still in Enniskillen. Groggy, she went into a pub and ordered a coffee and a pint. Afterwards, she bought six cans from the off-licence next door, ordered a taxi then smoked three cigarettes as she waited. When she got into the back of the taxi, a quick surge of shame at how fearful she was, at how long it had been since being in a car with someone else. Never mind, Paula told herself, getting to the cottage was the objective. Nobody knew her here, she knew her family never left Dublin, and she’d never met anyone she knew in the West.
…….Paula always forgot how much the country had changed in twenty years. Expecting a small, dusty road, she drove along the town and saw a bright future, a life of relative ease and luxury to what she had known in the eighties and nineties. She hadn’t kept track of anyone from back then but was aware that most had left; gone to England or America or nascent commuter towns outside of Dublin. Those who could not or would not leave, like her mother and brothers, compressed under the conditions, became hard boiled – the year before Paula left home, she remembered, she suggested a weekend trip outside Dublin, somewhere along the coast. Ridiculed, the family had gone to her grandparents in Glasnevin instead, living as they normally would but under a stricter regime.
…….When she pulled up to the cottage she felt the usual panic, that someone would find her, turn her in. She opened the warm Tuborg and drank deeply. The cottage was clean and comfortable as always, and when she turned on the heat and started her second can, the pain in her chest began to ease. Paula felt safe in the cottage. Every time she needed to get away from everything, she came to the cottage. Her old agent had been the only one she told, but Maggie had no idea Paula even owned a property, much less in the country she refused to visit on official business. It was funny to her that she came back here to feel truly safe, pocketed inside the small building, just herself and her books and a television-VHS combo she’d bought with the advance of her first book. She’d bought the cottage later that year too, needing somewhere close to write, to sign contracts and be somewhat available. Her first six months using the French postal system had cost her half a manuscript, and part of her was too cautious to go too far. Sometimes, when she thought about it, Paula worried there was part of her that wanted to be caught.
…….Looking around the room, she admired the books and old magazines, the working fireplace. She unpacked her books and laptop and left them in a mess on the table, then threw the suitcase into the bedroom. Paula felt she was doing well to be here, to have left her flat instead of wallowing, making it a priority to recuperate. Despite everything in her past she was still a human, still deserving of some quality of life, like anyone else. Paula had no defined political will because she spent all of her time worrying about herself and her books, but she did oppose the death penalty, and thought it was important to at least try to stay alive, to not give up. Flicking through an old Muriel Spark paperback she resisted the urge to look again at the headline from 1990, the one that had decided everything, Young Man Found In Hallway, just a small box on the fifth page of the Dublin Herald. Unnamed in the paper and forgotten immediately, the young man had nevertheless been someone, a good friend named Harry, and Harry had been found dead in an abandoned building near Ballymun.
…….She could not think of Harry now while she sat in the house in Sligo alive and well. It made her want to rip her skin off, skip out again and go further afield, Spain, maybe back to France. Heat, and to feel safe. That was all she wanted. Rest from terrible things that were her fault. Once again the awful scene with Bella took over, Shay home early from the gig, walking in on the two of them and everyone’s wild instinct taking over – Bella screaming, Shay shouting and holding Paula by the throat, squeezing the breath from her … The way the cheese knife was dotted in bits of blue cheese when she jammed it somewhere, into his cheek, his eyeball, somewhere unspeakably vulnerable that only a killer would aim for. That’s what she was. Paula knew she was nothing but a killer, and what she meant by safe was a desire for others to be safe from her, locked away in her flats and different countries. Her mother had told her all the time she was a burden, a shameful nothing, even before the first time she had killed someone.
…….Her earliest kill was when she was nine years old, ragged and bold and running the streets of Stoneybatter telling everyone to call her Paul, an adventurous young boy who played pranks and stole apples. Her whole family hated this and forced her to wear ugly little dresses but Paul prevailed, skipping along kissing animals and generally doing exactly as he pleased, his energy boundless. One day Paul played a prank on their neighbour, Mrs Thompson who was sometimes unwell. Paul knocked on her door and hid out of sight, beside her terracotta pots and daffodils. When she answered the door, inquisitive and sweet, Paul jumped out and shouted ‘boo!’ Mrs Thompson had jumped back, Paula remembered, as if she were suddenly young again, laughing and telling Paul to run off and scare someone else. That night was the third-worst of Paula’s life – her mother beating her, telling her that she was ruining the family going on like this, terrorising sick people, bringing shame on the whole family. The next night was the second-worst, when Paula’s mother dragged her into the kitchen and told her she had killed poor Mrs Thompson, that their neighbour had taken a heart attack that morning and died. Paula killed Paul too that night, and, consumed with guilt, kept a vigil every night for Mrs Thompson until she became too sick to go to school. The worst worst night was when she woke up to Harry lying across from her on the step, ashy and still.
…….Pins and needles pricked her hands again, and familiar sharp pain sliced across her chest. It was insane to live like this, she knew, but Paula, fifty-one in two months, had ruined her own life now three times over. She had been doing okay for the last twenty years, avoiding any real danger and resisting the inevitable pull of violence, but she regretted getting involved with Bella. Paula refused to think about what her involvement had done to Bella’s life, couldn’t bear to imagine what she felt about her now. Bella hadn’t been in touch since that night, and Paula was hardening herself once again to a solitary future. For the next few weeks her phone stayed off and she watched the emails piling up, only allowing herself to think about anything when she was adequately blunted. It was then too that she allowed herself to cry, feeling her body ache for Bella’s soft hands.
…….Over the weeks the book fattened. A romantic subplot emerged in the second act, something Paula had never done before. Her detectives and criminals led lonely lives, the ambient melancholy of their lives stylistic and initially, unconscious. At first she didn’t recognise the romance for what it was and thought she had mixed in a character from another book. When she read back over it properly, she decided to keep it. Paula could see the emerging flaws of the book and knew they were sentimental, but she couldn’t realise a satisfactory end without this new and tender apparition. She let her imagination and skill take over and give life to a dangerous love, to two people whose story was as simple as the fact that they never should have met, but did. Her own love pulsed as she wrote gooey dialogue, easily inventing jealousies, violent intrusions, all those issues that appear when two fools in love are suddenly exposed to conditions outside their private romance.
…….The urgency to check the headlines every day started to fade, and her chest pains eased. These were some of the signs that she was improving, that she would be feeling a little better soon. Usually she suffered intensely for at least a few months, and after that the exhaustion and Paula’s age did its work, her body unable to withstand the hyper-vigilance for extended periods.
…….It was a sunny six weeks later when Paula turned her phone back on. The first draft more or less done, she had felt the sudden release of pressure that always came after writing the final scene. Dozens of messages came up on the screen, all from Bella. At first Paula couldn’t interpret the words – thanking her for protecting her from Shay, how she was staying with her mother while she figured out leaving him, after all his crying that night there had been minimal stitches. How she was so worried about Paula. Paula who had seemed to go into a trance after defending Bella, Paula who had left after the altercation and was now refusing to speak to her or let Bella know she was okay, or where she was. The room dissolved around her with the words thank you for helping me and I finally know how I want to live and where are you? I miss you. Shay was dead. Paula knew, felt that she had murdered him that night, mashed the knife into his eyes and his neck and anywhere else engorged with aggression. Shay had to be dead because Paula had lived it, had felt the life drain from him as she stabbed him over and over again – she thought of the blood, all of the red bursting blood.
…….She tried to straighten her thoughts. Harry appeared again, covered in blood now, not white and waxy like before, on the concrete steps with a needle beside him. Paula rolling off her own step in a haze, blood on her too somehow and the world ending when she realised he wasn’t breathing. Paula put her phone down and retched into the kitchen sink. Shay was dead, and Harry, Mrs Thompson, all. Paula knew one thing didn’t cancel out another. But she drank some water, and read the messages again. If she hadn’t killed Shay. The guilty thought moved through and up her throat like a serpent. What was her life, her twenty-five years of hiding, if she had not killed a person she thought she had, in cold blood simply because of her nature, which was evil? Her phone vibrated and she spoke for the first time in days, reading aloud a new message from Bella.
…….“I miss you so much. He’s living with his mam now and I’m going to keep the flat.”
…….She thought of Harry, unable to remember now exactly how she had actually killed him – all she could remember of that time was heroin. Heroin and haze, blood on the steps (but why was there blood? She did not always remember blood, if anything that day there had been an absence – his skin white like marble). Then leaving the country in the middle of withdrawal, almost dying herself. She felt like she was going to faint – little Paul skipping along, saying boo to a neighbour who had laughed, had laughed in response to a child’s prank.
…….Her phone beeped again. Another request from Bella, asking Paula not to feel bad or beat herself up over what happened. Bella said she was grateful that someone had finally frightened Shay, had fought back and made Bella realise that her own life was worth more than what Shay told her it was. She wanted to make sure Paula wasn’t punishing herself. Paula read the message slowly, her insides heaving. The idea that she would not punish herself. She thought again of all of them, the dead and the living, her life, the way it worked and the way it didn’t. The nights alone, thinking of the women she desired. Her mother’s face contorted in anger. Didn’t she deserve it anyway? Wasn’t it just as bad, Paula thought, to have felt as though she could have done it? The thoughts became staticky, bubbling up her throat once more. She sat on the floor, looking around her warm kitchen. To live as she did, as a fugitive – to kill, to have seen it, felt it a thousand times over. Paula began to cry. Evidence, just more evidence, and building up.

Anna Walsh is an Irish writer based in Glasgow. Their poetry and prose have been published by The Stinging Fly, Extra Teeth, Cipher Press and others. They are currently editing the first anthology of Irish trans writing and completing several books. They are represented by Kat Aitken, and have work forthcoming with Neon Hemlock, Architecture Ireland and more.


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