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“Then Later, His Ghost”: a short story by Sarah Hall

Christmas coming, a man and a woman in a lonely longbarn expecting a child, a post-apocalyptic landscape, a journey out into the tempest. An exclusive short story by Sarah Hall.


Illustration: Matt Saunders / Handsome Frank

The wind was coming from the east when he woke. The windows on that side of the house boxed and clattered in their frames, even behind the stormboards, and the corrugated metal sheet over the coop in the garden was creaking and hawing, as though it might rip out of its rivets and fly off. The wind bellowed. All the structures it hit or ran through sang and moaned. December 23rd. The morning was dark, or it was still night. He lay unmoving beneath the blankets, feet cold in his boots, his chest sore from breathing unheated air. The fire had gone out; the wood had burned too high with the pull up the chimney, or the flames had been extinguished by gusts. It was hard keeping it in overnight. Coal was much better; it burned hotter and longer, but it was hard to find and too heavy to carry.

He pulled the blankets over his face. Get up, he thought. If he didn’t get up it would be the beginning of the end. People who stayed inside got into trouble. No one was going to help them. Part of him understood – who wanted to die outside, tossed about like a piece of litter, stripped of clothing by the hands of the wind, then lodged somewhere, dirt blowing dunes over your corpse? Crawling into a calm little shelter was preferable.

Something hard clattered along the roof, scuttling over the slates, and was borne away. There was a great ooming sound above, almost oceanic, the top of the sky heaving and breaking. Whatever had been kept in check by the old Gulf Stream was now able to push back, unfurl and lash around. A bully of a wind. No wonder people had once created aerial gods, fiends of the air or the mountaintops. Even he took it personally, sometimes – yelling uselessly at the force, his voice tiny and whipped away. Not often though, it didn’t really help. When it came from the east a lot of the remaining house roofs went, and whole walls could topple – another reason not to stay inside too much. You had to be alert to the collapses. He turned on his side and shivered as the cold crept down his neck. The sofa he was lying on felt damp. The cushion he was using as a pillow smelled of wet mortar. He didn’t usually sleep in this room, but Helene was now in his.

Another sizeable object crashed past the house, splintering against the gable and flying off in separate pieces. He’d heard the wind shifting and strengthening during the night, though he was used to sleeping with the sound percussing his dreams. He couldn’t remember the last still day, the trees standing upright and placid, the air itself seeming to vanish, to not exist. Stillness seemed like a childhood myth, like the glory of August hay-timing, or Father Christmas. Last night he’d slept restlessly; his dreams were turbulent – wars, animals stampeding, Helene being swept away. After a night like that it was hard to get up. Other days he almost liked the climate. He liked being one of the only ones left in the town, the impetus; he liked letting go of the ropes strung between buildings and jumping so his coat could sail him several feet forward, flying like a spectre.

Get up, he thought. And then, because it was proving difficult, he thought, Buffalo. He pictured the buffalo. It was enormous and black-brown. It had a giant head and the shoulders of a weightlifter, a tapered back end, small, upturned horns. It looked permanently, structurally braced. He sat up, moved the blankets away, and then stood. He found the torch next to the sofa and switched it on. The cold made him feel older and stiffer. He moved around and lifted his legs gymnastically to get his blood moving. He did some lunges. There was a portable gas stove in the corner of the room and he set the torch next to it, ignited the ring, boiled water and made tea. He drank the tea black. There were no smuts in the grate. Perhaps he’d leave the fire a day to save fuel – the temperature was about four or five degrees, he guessed, manageable. So long as Helene was warm enough.

He took the torch and moved through the building, to the room where she slept. It was warm. She slept with the little tilly lamp on. She didn’t like the dark. Her fire was still glowing orange. She was sound asleep. She was lying on her side and her belly mound was vast under her jumper. He picked up the cast-off blanket from the floor and draped it back over her. She didn’t move. She seemed peaceful, though her eyes were moving rapidly behind her eyelids. The wind was quieter this side of the house, the leeside. It whistled and whined as it slipstreamed away. Little skitters of soot came down the chimney and sparks rose from the cradle. He looked at Helene sleeping. Her hair was cut quite short, like his, but hers curled and was black. When they were open her eyes were extremely pretty, gold-coloured, gold to green. He imagined climbing on to the bed next to her and putting his arm over her shoulder. Sometimes when he was checking on her she woke up and looked at him. Mostly she knew he was just checking, bringing her tea, or some food, or more wood for the fire. But sometimes she looked afraid. He knew she worried about the baby coming; that frightened him too. He was practical, and he’d found a medical book, but still. Helene was very quiet mostly. She’d done well, he thought, lasting it out, but she didn’t seem to think so. He thought probably she hadn’t developed any methods to help, like picturing the buffalo, and he worried about her. She was probably thirty, or thirty-five. She’d been an English teacher, though not his; she liked sardines in tomato sauce, which was good because he had lots of tins. She was very polite and always thanked him for the food. That’s all right, he’d say, and sometimes he’d almost add, Miss. She never said anything about what had happened to her, or the baby, but he could guess. No one would choose that now. He had found her in the Catholic cathedral, what was left of it. There were two dead bodies nearby, both men; they looked freshly dead when he uncovered their faces. She was looking up at the circular hole where the rose window had been. She wasn’t praying or crying.

He left some tea for her in a metal cup with a lid, and some sardines, and went back to his room. He did a stock check. He did this every day, unnecessarily, but it made him feel calmer. Calor gas bottles, food, clothes, batteries, duct tape, painkillers, knives, rope. The cans were piled in such a way that he could count them by tens. This house still had water, a slow trickling stream that was often tinted and tasted earthy. He still hadn’t worked out if it had its own well. But it made life easier – he didn’t have to rig up a rain­water funnel. He’d been collecting packets of baby formula too, but when he’d showed Helene she’d just looked sad.

There was a box with more delicate things inside, frivolous things, he sometimes thought, other times, precious. Photographs – of his mother, and his little brother in school football strip – his passport, though it was useless now, and the pages he’d been collecting for Helene. She loved reading, and he didn’t have much to read in the house. He’d been hunting for the play for a month or two and it was a very difficult task. So many books had been destroyed. Once the buildings were breeched nothing paper lasted; it warped and rotted, the ink smudged. Sometimes just a paragraph, or a line, was all he could hope for. So dear the love my people bore me, nor set a mark so bloody on the business: but with fairer colours painted their foul ends. In few, they hurried us aboard a bark, bore us some leagues to sea, where they’d prepared a rotten carcass of a boat, not rigg’d . . .

****

The town’s library had been demolished in the first big storms. No wonder: it had been built in the Sixties, part of the civic centre. The older the building, the longer it lasted, generally: people had gotten very bad at construction, he thought, or lazy. He was good at salvaging. He was good at it because he was good at moving around outside. He wasn’t timid, but he never took anything for granted. He wore the rucksack strapped tight to his body, like a packed parachute, taped up his arms and legs, tested the ropes, and always looked in every direction for airborne debris. He never assumed it was safe.

He took a tin of sockeye salmon out of the stack, opened it and ate it cold. Ulcers starred his tongue. He probably needed some fruit, but he’d rather give the fruit to Helene. He was hungry and he ate too fast. In winter having two meals was important – breakfast and dinner – even if they were small. This was the fourth winter. Last Christmas he hadn’t really celebrated because he was by himself, but having Helene made things nicer. He scraped the last flakes out of the tin with his nail and ate them. He drank the oil, which made him gag. He saved the tin – while they were still greasy they were good for making flour and water dumplings over the fire, though the dumplings tasted fishy. As well as the surprise gift, he’d been planning their Christmas meal. He’d had a tin of smoked pheasant pâté for two years, too much of a boon to eat by himself. There was a jar of redcurrant. A jar of boiled potatoes. And a tin of actual Christmas pudding. They would have it all warmed. Two courses. He even had a miniature whisky with which to set fire to the pudding.

He went to the back of the house, peered through a gap in the stormboards and watched the dawn struggling to arrive. Daylight usually meant the wind eased slightly, but not today. The light was pulsing, murky yellow aurorae. There were the usual items speeding past on the current – rags, bits of tree, transmuted unknowable things. Sometimes he was amazed there were enough objects left to loosen and scatter about. Sometimes he wondered whether these were just the same million shoes and bottles and cartons in flight, circling the globe endlessly, like tides of scrap. The clouds passed fat and fast overhead, and were sucked into a vortex on the horizon, disappearing into nothing. There was sleetish rain, travelling horizontally, almost too quickly to see. It was a bad idea to go out today – too big a wind. His rule was nothing more than a ninety, or what he gauged to be a ninety. But he wanted to find the last few pages.

He went back to his room and got ready. He put on hefty waterproof trousers and jacket. He cleaned and put on the goggles. He pulled the hood of the jacket up, yanked the toggles and tied them tightly. He taped the neck. He taped his cuffs and his ankles, his knees and his elbows. He put on gloves but left them untaped so he could take them off if he found any more books; he would need his fingers to be nimble, to flick through and tear out. It might mean he would lose one glove, or both, but he’d risk it. When he was done he felt almost airtight, like some kind of diver, a storm-diver, he thought. But it was better not to get too heroic. For a while he’d worn a helmet, but it had made him feel too bulky, too heavy, not adapted. He weighted the rucksack down with the red stone – he didn’t like to think of it as his lucky stone, because he wasn’t superstitious, but secretly he did think it was lucky. It was egg-shaped, banded with pink and white – some kind of polished gneiss. It had been in the geology lab at school and he’d later found it, looking through the wreckage. It sat in the bottom of the rucksack like a ballast, leaving enough room for anything that he discovered on his excursions and wanted to bring back. He had plastic wrapping for anything delicate. He was good at discerning what was useful and what was not; he hadn’t brought back many useless things, though the temptation was to save beautiful items, or money. His mother had always joked his birthdays were easy – as a kid he didn’t need many toys, field comforts, or gadgets. His mother had died in the flu pandemic. So had his little brother.

****

There were two doors to the house – one on the north side and one on the west. He stood by the west door and thought, Buffalo. He opened the door and felt the draw of air, then opened it wider and moved into the alcove behind the storm door. The storm door opened inwards and could be locked either side. He moved the bolt, forced himself out into the buffeting air, planted his feet and fastened it behind him. Either side of the house, the wind tore past, conveying junk, going about its demolition. Behind him, the house felt solid. It’d been a good choice – a squat, single-storey longbarn on the low-lying outskirts of town, with shutters and big outer doors. He’d modified it a bit, nailing, building break-walls. The coop in the garden was more hopeful than practical. This was his fifth house. The first – his mother’s, a white Thirties semi – had gone down as easily as straw, along with the rest of the row. The brick terraces had proved more durable, he’d lived in two, but they were high-ceilinged; once the big windows and roofs gave out they were easy for the wind to dismantle. Before the barn he’d been sharing with a man called Craig in a rank bunker near the market, a sort of utility storage. It was a horrible, rat-like existence – dark, desperate, scavenging. Craig was much older than him, but wasn’t clever or good at planning. Things had turned bad. He got out as soon as he could and wasn’t sorry. A lighthouse would have been best, round, aerodynamic, deep-sunk into rock, made to withstand batterings. But the coast was impossible – the surges were terrifying. Before everything had gone down he’d seen news footage; he couldn’t quite believe the towering swells. He had nightmares about those waves reaching inland.

He inched along the barn wall, towards the open. He’d planned a route through town. He would keep to the west side of streets wherever he could, for protection, but that meant being in the path of anything collapsing. In the past he’d outrun avalanching walls, he’d been picked up and flung against hard surfaces and rubble heaps, his collarbone and his wrist had been fractured. There were only so many near misses. He would need to judge the soundness of structures, only venture inside a building if the risks seemed low. He would go into the Golden Triangle – some of the big Victorian houses there were still holding and they were more likely to have what he was looking for. At the corner of the house he knelt, tensed his neck and shoulder muscles and put his head out into the rushing wind. The force was immense. He checked for large oncoming objects, then began to crawl along the ground. Staying low reduced the possibility of being knocked over, or decapitated. What had once been the longbarn’s garden was now stripped bald of grass. Clods of earth tumbled past him. The wind shunted his backside and slid him forward. He flattened out and moved like a lizard, towards the farm buildings and the first rope. He had different techniques, depending on the situation. Sometimes he crawled miles. Sometimes he crouched like an ape and lumbered. Other times he made dashes, if there were intermittent blasts, cannonballing the lulls, but he could get caught out doing that. Sometimes it was better to walk into the wind head on, sometimes leaning back against it and digging your heels in was best.

It had been a while since he’d been out in anything as strong. It was terrifying and exhilarating. The fury bent him over when he tried to stand, so he stayed low, a creature of stealth and avoidance. He clung to the cord that ran between the buildings. He’d tested the bindings only a few days ago, but still he gave a good yank to make sure it hadn’t begun to untether. This rope he’d put up himself, and he trusted it. A lot of the ones in town he’d redone too. He traversed it slowly while the wind bore between the buildings. After the farm, there was a dangerous open stretch. The Huff, he called it, because the weather always seemed filthy-tempered there. It had been a famous racecourse. Then the town started properly: its suburbs, its alleys and piles of stone. Once it was a town of magnificent trees. Plane trees, beeches, oaks. The big avenues had been lined by them, their leaves on fire in autumn, raining pollen in spring. Now they were mostly gone – uprooted and dying. There was a lot of firewood to haul away, though. He hardly ever saw anyone else taking it. He could probably count on one hand the number of people he saw in a month. Occasionally, a big armoured vehicle passed through, military – its windows covered in metal grilles. The soldiers never came out. A lot of people had gone west because it was supposed to be milder, there was supposed to be more protection and organisation. He’d never wanted to leave. He didn’t believe it anyway.

When he got to The Huff he almost changed his mind and went back. The air above was thick with dirt, a great sweeping cloud of it. Every few moments something rattled, fluttered or spun past, bounced off the ground and was lobbed upwards. On tamer days he’d sledged across the stretch on a big metal tray, putting his heels down to slow the contraption and flinging himself sideways to get off. Today, no larks, he’d be lucky not to break his neck. Crossing it would mean agreeing with the wind rather than fighting it, becoming one of many hurled items, colliding with others, abraded, like a pellet in a shaker. It was too wide a tract of land to rope; he had to go without moorings.

There was no let-up, so he gave himself a moment or two to prepare and then he let go of the farm walls and began to crawl across. He tried to move his limbs quickly to keep up with the thrust of the current, but it was too strong. Within moments the wind had taken him, lifting his back end and tossing him over. He felt the red stone slam into his spine. He started tobogganing, feet first. He tucked his head in, rolled on his side, brought his knees up and felt himself scraping along. The ground was hard and bumpy and vibrated his bones. He put his hands down and felt debris filling his cuffs. Something sharp caught his anklebone and stung. Shit, he thought, shitshitshit. He went with it, there was nothing he could do, and after a while managed to slow himself and regain some control. But still he was propelled. He hoofed his boots down and tried to brake. He was nearly at the edge of the racecourse, where the old, outer flint wall of the town began. The wind shoved him hard again and he went tumbling forward. His shoulder and knee hit the pointed stones. He lay for a moment, dazed and brunted against the structure, dirt pattering around him. It was hard to breathe. The air tasted of soil.

He spat, turned his head. When he opened his eyes one pane of the goggles was cracked, splitting his view. He was all right, but he had to move. He crawled along the boundary wall, around trolleys and piles of swept rubbish. His knee throbbed. A superbruise. At the first gap he went through. He sat up, leant against the sharp flint and caught his breath. He cleaned his goggles, emptied his gloves. Reckless idiot, he thought. Don’t fuck it up. He did want to live – moments like this reminded him. Moments like this made him feel more real than he ever had before. He became more skilful because of them. He evolved.

The boundary wall was twelve feet thick. Whoever had built it had meant business. Sections had been restored when he was a kid. It was holding up well. He looked at the town. Something catastrophic had passed over; that’s how it looked now. Razed. Roofs and upper floors were gone; cars were parked on their backs, their windscreens smashed. The big storms had left domino rubble in every direction, scattered fans of bricks and tiles, bouquets of splintered wood. Old maps meant nothing. New streets had been made, buildings rearranged. He had to keep relearning its form as its composition shifted.

He got up, crouched low, surveyed the route and limped off. It was a mile to the Golden Triangle. He saw no one. He kept to the safer routes and used the secure ropes when he had to, hauling himself hand over hand. He squinted through the broken goggles, seeing an odd spider-like creature in front of him, but he didn’t take them off – the last thing he needed was to be blinded. The ruins were depressing, but he occasionally saw miraculous things in them. An animal, though they were rare. There were no birds, not even distressed gulls; nothing could cope in the torrid air. The rats had done OK, anything living below ground level. Cats and dogs were few, and always emaciated and wretched. There was no food, nothing growing, not much to kill. People’s survival instincts were worse, he often thought, but they could at least use can openers. Two years ago he’d seen a stag. It was standing on the football field in front of him, reddish, six points on each antler. It was standing perfectly still, like something from the middle of a forest, and it didn’t panic or run. It was standing as if it had always stood there, as if tree after tree had been stripped away around it, until the forest was gone and there was nothing left to shield it.

He’d seen awful things too. A man sliced in half by a flying glass pane, his entrails worming from his stomach. Craig’s broken skull. The good things had to be held in the mind, and remembered, and celebrated. That was why he had to get the pages for Helene and why they would have a nice Christmas.

****

He made his way slowly through the town, forcing his body against the blast. He kept leeside wherever he could and watched for flying timber and rockslides. He crossed the little park at the edge of the Golden Triangle. There were stumps where the central pavilion had stood. The trees lying on the ground were scoured bare. Sleet had begun to gather along their trunks. He hoped it wouldn’t turn to snow and lie; it was hard enough keeping his footing. When he got to the Victorian district he was surprised to see smoke leaking from one of the heaps. He made his way over, cautiously, but it was just a random fire burning along a beam, some stray electrical spark, perhaps, or friction. Two rows away the houses were in better shape. Some only had holes in the roofs and lopped-off chimneys. The windows were mostly out. He could hop through the bays if the lintels were safe.

He always called out to make sure they were empty first. It wasn’t really etiquette. It wasn’t really robbing. It was retrieval of what had been abandoned. He’d been in some of them before, checking for food, batteries, essentials. They had been lovely places once, owned by doctors and lawyers, he imagined. There were remnants – cast-iron fireplaces, painted tiles; even some crescents of stained glass hanging on above the door frames. Damp and fungus and lichen grew inside the walls. He tried a couple, searching through the downstairs rooms – he never went upstairs if he could help it, it was too dangerous. The wind moaned through the rooms, shifting wet curtains and making the peeling wallpaper flicker. There were pulpy masses on the shelves, rotting covers, the sour smell of macerating paper.

He stepped among the detritus, broken glass and broken furniture, digging through piles, tossing collapsed volumes aside. He’d been dreaming about finding a complete works – that would really be something special – bound in plastic perhaps, unviolated. But, like Bibles, they were the first to go, their pages wafer-thin and frail. He’d studied the play in school, not with any particular enjoyment. He could remember bits of it, the parts he’d had to read out. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d with raven’s feather from unwholesome fen drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye . . . Perhaps Helene had taught it. Reading it again might help her, if she could begin to think differently. She could read it while she nursed the baby. She could think about the good things that remained. All he needed were the last two acts. He’d found sections of the rest, dried the pages, sorted the scenes and put them in order, as best he could. There’d been some extensive gluing – it wasn’t an attractive gift, by any stretch.

After ten or eleven houses he was starting to lose hope and worry about the daylight. The wind was not letting up: if anything it was gaining power. There had been a couple of worryingly big bangs nearby, something shattering. He went back out on to the street and made his way further into the Golden Triangle. There was a big house further along, free-standing, walled. It had upper bays as well as lower. A vicarage, maybe. Part of the roof was gone. The gate was padlocked but the frame had come away from the post and he forced his way through the gap. In the garden the plant pots and urns were smashed apart but one of the small fruit trees was still standing, defiantly, petrified black globes hanging from its lower branches. He went through the lower window, down a hallway. He knew, even before he got to the big room at the back of the house, that he was going to find what he was looking for. Fortune favours the brave, he thought. He forced a swollen door into a parlour. The walls had once been red but were now darker, browny, like blood that had dried. There was a fireplace, heaped full of clinker and charred wood, pieces of chimney brick and sleeving. There was a man sitting in a chair, a corpse. His eyelids were shrinking back; some wisps of hair left on his head. The skin was yellow and tight and retreating off the bone. A blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. There was no bad smell. He didn’t look too closely.

He went to the shelves. There were rows and rows of hardbacks. He could even read the titles on some of the spines. There was a collection of Shakespeares, mottled, mould blooming along them, but readable. He found it in the middle. He took off his gloves and opened it carefully; the edges of the paper were moist, stuck, and they tore slightly when moved, but it held together. He flicked gently to the end. I’ll deliver all; and promise you calm seas, auspicious gales and sail so expeditious that shall catch your royal fleet far off.

He smiled. He took off his rucksack, wrapped the book in a plastic bag and a towel and put it inside one of the small compartments. He put the rucksack back on, clicked the straps across his chest, drew them tight, and put on his gloves. It would be a good house to go through for other things, but he didn’t want to get caught out and not be able to get across town and over The Huff to the longbarn. He didn’t want to leave Helene alone longer than he had to. She might be having the baby. He would come back, after Christmas, and search properly.

He closed the door on the dead man. On the way out he saw his reflection in the dusty, cracked hall mirror. The hood was drawn tightly around his head; he was earless and bug-eyed, like an alien. The metallic tape around his neck looked like grey scales. His face was filthy and covered with cuts. He put out his sore tongue. Suppose he wasn’t really human any more, he thought. Suppose he was a kind of demon, made in this place. How would he know? But he felt human; he remembered feeling human. His knee hurt. And he could use a can opener. And he liked Christmas. He turned away from the mirror and climbed back out of the window. Snow was driving past on the wind.

Sarah Hall is a Man Booker-shortlisted author and the winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award. Her latest book is the short story collection “The Beautiful Indifference” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

JOHNNY SAVAGE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Kevin Barry’s chaotic journey from “stoner entrepreneur” to Ireland’s most unpredictable novelist

Ghosts, raves and the soul of John Lennon: Tom Gatti interviews the winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize.

Walking to school in the 1970s, Kevin Barry would step over gutters running red with blood. This was a decade before Limerick earned the moniker “Stab City” for its gang feuds and knife crime – which eventually escalated into full-on drug wars, with drive-by AK-47 shootings and hand grenades lobbed into sitting rooms. In Barry’s time, though, most of the violence was directed at livestock. Limerick was then known as “Pigtown”, with seven or eight slaughterhouses downtown, and the noise of their bloody business (“awful squealings as the pigs get electrocuted”) was part of the daily soundtrack. A magnificent river, the Shannon, ran through the city but, perversely, Limerick was built with its back turned on the water, while its streets streamed with blood.

Pigtown stayed with him. In his first novel, City of Bohane, a savagely funny dystopian western set in Ireland in 2053, the meat wagons carry “peeled heads of sheep, and the veined fleshy haunches of pigs, and the glistening trays of livers and spleens”.

A hundred miles and four counties north of Limerick, Barry, aged 46, is sitting in his writer’s shed. Out front is his home for the past nine years, a sturdy, two-storey former barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary, built in the 1840s on the edge of the village of Ballinafad, in Sligo. The ancient stove is seeping warmth and well-being. He is measured and contemplative, quite different from the garrulous, high-energy persona I had encountered at literary events over the preceding six months, talking about his novel Beatlebone. There’s still an impishness in the eyebrows when a notion tickles him, but when the talk gets autobiographical and the years peel back, Barry’s volume level drops so low that he worries my dictation machine won’t pick it up. Outside, this Sunday afternoon in April has a damp chill familiar to the north-west.

Writers and tourist boards generally agree on the “untamed” beauty of Ireland’s western seaboard. From Cork in the south to Limerick in the middle to Sligo in the north, Kevin Barry has made it his territory, in life and in fiction – and he can tell you that the brochures aren’t always right. The narrator of his story “Fjord of Killary”, having recently turned 40, decides to flee the city and buy an old hotel on the coast, thus making a “new man” of himself: “I was thinking, the west of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from little gaps in the drystone walls . . .” But the ocean turns out to “gibber” rather than murmur. He has to listen to his young Belarusian staff “fucking each other at all angles of the clock”. And then he is subjected to a highly localised flood of apocalyptic proportions.

“If I had to describe the west of Ireland character in one word it would be ‘rattled’,” Barry says. “A bit thrown off your curves. There’s the huge fucking presence of this big, black, throbbing ocean, which has an extreme effect on our psychology. And the weather it’s putting across us all the time . . . it’s a fundamental part of what makes us who we are. It’s an extreme place.”

Barry lives on the edge of a four-mile-long lake, and it rains almost 300 days a year. He calls it “the Sligo swamp”. When I telephone him a few weeks later there is hail coming down the chimney. “You feel like you’re being assaulted by the sky gods,” he says.

In Barry’s fiction, everything starts with place. Exploring the north-west alone on his bicycle, he often picks up “reverberations”: human feelings that he believes have settled into the earth of a particular place. Sometimes they are benevolent. Often they are not. The Tajo Gorge in Ronda, Andalusia, sent him into the “absolute fucking pits” (he later learned that on this spot during the Spanish Civil War, 300 men were made to jump to their death). He never feels right around the Ox Mountains between Sligo and Mayo. Hills tend to trap bad vibes: in various stories they are “malevolent”; they “brood”, looking on, “unimpressed”. On a melancholy day they are “blue-bleak”; on a bad day, “like a crouched beast”, “devil-haunted”, or even “homicidal”.

It was just such an eerie, haunted feeling that Barry experienced on summer cycling trips around Clew Bay, an other-worldly flooded valley whose lopsided drumlin hills break the surface to form more than 150 islands. That feeling was enough to start him thinking about a story. And then he remembered a piece of trivia lodged somewhere in his brain: one of these islands was owned by a Beatle.

***

In 1967, Dorinish island, owned by the Westport Harbour Board in County Mayo, went up for sale. Someone saw an advertisement in a London evening newspaper and showed it to John Lennon, who was interested in his Irish roots (his great-grandparents emigrated from County Down to Liverpool in 1848) and had long wanted an island of his own. He sent the Beatles aide Alistair Taylor to the auction in Westport and Taylor returned with the deeds to Dorinish, for £1,550.

Lennon visited that same year, spending a couple of hours on the island, enquiring about drainage schemes and drawing up plans for a fantastical house. In the summer of 1968 he returned briefly with Yoko Ono, arriving on Dorinish by helicopter after a night at the Great Western Hotel in
Mulranny (a night that may or may not have involved him singing Irish rebel songs and giving the first public playback of a new Beatles song called “Revolution”). Three years later, having got no further with his plans to build on the island, Lennon offered Sid Rawle (an Englishman known as “the King of the Hippies”) the opportunity to establish a free-living community there. The Diggers, with their tents and vegetable patches, lasted a year and a half. And then the story fizzled out.

Except, Barry thought, what if it didn’t? What if, in 1978, Lennon had returned to Clew Bay to spend three days on his island, to “scream his fucking lungs out” and clear his creative block? Beatlebone, Barry’s second novel, published last autumn, imagines he did just that – with the complicating factor that Lennon has no idea how to get there, or which island is his.

“I thought maybe I’d do a little radio documentary or write an essay or maybe a short story,” Barry recalls – “and eventually I found myself one dark, fateful morning scribbling down lines of dialogue and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to do this as a novel, aren’t I?’ That was terrifying. He’s such an iconic figure, to plonk him down in one of your stories unasked . . .” Still, he thought it could be done in six months. Four torturous years later, with his shed buried under 400,000 words of abandoned drafts, he had a novel of 50,000 words. He knew it was finished when he returned to his desk one day and found a black lizard crawling over the text: in gratitude, he wrote a lizard into the story. This is an example of the “occurrences of sympathetic magic” that Barry looks for in a project. “If they don’t come I believe myself to be in trouble.”

The final version of Beatlebone is in nine parts: one section reads like a radio play, others are close to stream-of-consciousness, and two-thirds of the way through the book Barry coolly presents a vivid, non-fiction, first-person essay about the creation of the novel and his own unsettling experience on the island. A month after publication, Beatlebone won the Goldsmiths Prize, established in 2013 in association with the New Statesman to reward innovative writing: “fiction at its most novel”.

A more timid novelist might have skirted around Lennon, looked at him through the eyes of the people he encounters and left him, respectfully, “unknowable”. Barry does the opposite. “I kept thinking of a deep fat fryer with a bubbling cauldron of oils, and that was the inside of Lennon’s head, and I was going to lower the reader down into it.” Barry’s Lennon is funny, stubborn, scabrous, tender, sentimental, “haunted by his own self”:

 

Love, blood, fate, death, sex, the void, mother, father, cunt and prick – these are the things on his mind.

Also –

How many more times are they going to ask me come on The fucking Muppet Show?

 

Watching talk-show clips from the 1970s, Barry realised that Lennon’s “mood is so capricious that he will go from very light and charming and funny one moment, to, half a sentence later, paranoid and dark and quite spiky”. In 1978 the man was 37 and a global star, but Barry approached his character by thinking about who Lennon was at 17, “before that whole great maelstrom of fame. He was just an art-college kid in Liverpool, down the pub. A bit shouty. Quite cool.”

The more Barry reveals of himself, the more the distance between him and Lennon seems to recede. He, too, was a working-class, arty, cocky teenager, precociously interested in music, living in a city that erred towards the lairy, especially on a Saturday night. At 17 Barry – who had already been through his Jackson Five stage (his first record purchase, aged five or six) and his mod phase (aged 12-13, he listened exclusively to the Jam for 18 months) – was a devotee of David Lynch and the Velvet Underground, had 18 inches of backcombed hair and wore a poncho. You sense that young Barry and young Lennon would have hit it off.

Barry grew up with three sisters and a brother: he was the youngest by six years and so, in the classic way, became “a wise­acre, a joker, just as a means of getting attention”. Their street exemplified the “heavy Catholic breeding” of the time: their neighbour on one side had seven children and the other four, so between the three houses there were 16. The noise was constant; they were out morning to night.

The popular mood in Limerick then was pro-republican. Barry wrote in a recent essay that at his secondary school, “classroom support for the IRA ran at 100 per cent”. He went on marches for the hunger strikers. Bobby Sands, who died aged 27, after 66 days without food, “occupied a place I would say precisely commensurate with that of Bob Marley: legends”.

His father was “quite a devout Catholic” but turned a blind eye when Barry shirked Mass. Having started out as a carpenter with the railways, the senior Barry was “the classic working-class chap who took night classes”. He moved into insurance, and when Kevin was two the family left their council house for a private house on a private estate. His parents supported the (then left-leaning) Fianna Fáil and took the Éamon de Valera-founded Irish Press. Other than newspapers, the reading matter was more or less confined to biographies of jockeys. Barry’s abilities, though, were noticed early on. “I was always told the same thing by my English teachers: that I wrote ‘off the cuff’. They used to always use that phrase precisely – which meant, I guess, naturally.”

“Whatever it is that you’re most scared of surfacing in your work,” Barry writes, in the essay chapter of Beatlebone, “you can be sure that it’s nearby.” Lennon’s mother was killed when he was 17; hit by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. Kevin Barry’s mother, Josephine, died when he was ten. In thinking about Lennon, Barry cannot keep his own loss off the page. And so, for the first time in his career, he finds himself writing – two short, abrupt paragraphs – about his mother. Saying more about the ­experience, even now, does not seem easy for him. He tells me that she died of a sudden heart attack. But his thoughts keep looping back to his work.

“I was coddled from the trauma of it, to some extent, by the fact of having older sisters who immediately went into matri­archal mode around me. It’s amazingly common with writers and artists, the early loss of a parent, and it does seem to cause some desire to create in response to it.” He remembers discovering “with a happy jolt”, as a Saul Bellow fanatic in his twenties, that this hero of his, too, had lost his own mother young (she died when Bellow was 17). And he is certain that it shaped Lennon’s art. “It’s awful to say you wouldn’t trade it. But I’m sure it’s a fundamental reason why I’m a writer. And I like what I do.”

In December 1980, a few months after Barry’s mother died, John Lennon was shot at the entrance to the Dakota building in New York. Barry was 11, buying sweets at the corner shop, when he saw a newspaper headline. He felt it keenly, as a second loss.

***

Barry has a work ethic that is partly built on guilt. Every morning, seven days a week, he takes the three steps from his back door to his shed, sits at his austere steel desk, and writes, preferably in longhand. He likes to do this when he is still not properly awake: “You’re not too self-conscious and you can just kind of scrawl, and get the weird stuff from the back of the brain out on to the page.” He claims that he operates a successful mental trick by telling himself that God doesn’t turn on the internet until noon, but then confesses that he will still do the “walk of shame” back into the house, upstairs, to check his phone a couple of times a morning. He once worked out that he checked his email about 150 times a day. Pre-wifi, he used to access the internet using a dongle; he resorted to locking it in the car outside.

Barry is an obsessive self-editor. He felt that Beatlebone was starting to work when he introduced the character of Cornelius, a local Irish fixer, whose bizarrely comical-philosophical exchanges with John form the engine of the book. They read like Barry at his most brilliantly off-the-cuff. But he revised these conversations 60 or 70 times each, acting them out in his shed, returning to them in different moods and at different times of day.

It is when editing this way that he feels “useful”: “I feel like I have a trade. The sculptor has a block of stone and you’re just cutting away to find the shape that’s in there.” To get 5,000 words he will write 12,000 and then cut. Only one or two out of every ten short stories he writes will make it out into the world.

There is a strict system (in keeping with his search for “sympathetic magic”) determining where each project belongs. On the desk in his shed is a play called Night Boat to Tangiers, a commission for Dublin’s ­Abbey Theatre, about an Irishman in Spain searching for his daughter, who has run off with “a band of crusties”. Barry is increasingly drawn to drama, which doesn’t rely on the tedious scaffolding of prose fiction. He shows me an A4 pad on which he has drawn stick men in an attempt to make the page his stage.

Upstairs inside the house is another neat and narrow desk, this one with a view over Lough Arrow, and the beginnings of a short story handwritten on a yellow legal pad.

“Updike had four desks,” he says, a little enviously. “He had a journalism desk, a criticism desk, a poetry desk . . . I admire that. I like writers who get their work done.” It took Barry a while to settle at the desk – roughly a decade – and thinking about his unsteady twenties has given him a guilt complex. He is making up for lost time.

Aged 19, in 1988, Barry enrolled at the University of Limerick to do the only arts subject they offered, European studies. Two weeks in to the course, he was offered a cub reporter’s job on the Limerick Tribune, and became the university’s quickest ever drop-out. He attended court sessions and council meetings: the insight into the runnings of a city was later invaluable when he was writing City of Bohane. His ear for comic ­dialogue was fine-tuned by listening to the local officials argue the days away, in the “flat, nutty, a hundred miles per hour” Limerick accent.

“You’d have particular councillors who would be larger-than-life characters – and great speechifiers – in their own minds. Shannon Airport was always a big issue: the US military were stopping there during the Gulf War. There were huge pro- and anti-war factions in the council, but then you’d seamlessly move on to the fucking pothole situation on O’Connell Street. It’s a comic and common Irish delusion that even in a small place you’re at the centre of the universe.” Ireland’s cities do not lack confidence. In 1919 Limerick briefly declared itself a Soviet state.

Before starting university, Barry had spent a summer with friends in London, staying in a squat off Tottenham Court Road. It turned out to be the second summer of love. “We went over with our Leonard Cohen cassettes and came back as full-on acid-house devotees with our bright orange jeans and bowl haircuts, and suddenly on acid and Ecstasy.” On his return, he busied himself introducing Limerick to house music and organising raves in the countryside (where he encountered the west of Ireland’s community of freaks: hangers-on from the Lennon era of Diggers and screamers). Barry belonged to what he calls the “stoner entrepreneur” school of business. He returned to London in the 1990s and set up a stall at Camden Market selling house and hip-hop mixtapes, recorded by a friend from New York pirate radio stations. At three for £5, they made “an absolute fucking fortune” as he did his best to ignore repeated summonses from Westminster Council.

In 1992 Barry moved to Cork and started freelancing for the local papers. He wrote a comic Saturday column that made him “world-famous in Cork”. Through the 1990s, he lived at roughly a dozen different addresses in the city. In an essay in April’s New Irish Writing issue of Granta magazine, he recalls one house in which his bedroom looked out over an expanse of countryside. Lads would go “lamping” there: hunting rabbits by night, in old Volkswagen Beetles with high-powered headlamps “and an extra seat strapped to the bonnet for the shooter”.

 

I’d lie there in the winter nights and listen to the gunshot blasts and watch the icicles

form inside my window frame. There was no central heating. I had sleeping bags, blankets and coats mounted a foot thick on top of me. I was determined to be to Cork what Saul Bellow had been to Chicago but it wasn’t working out so well. Not least, perhaps, because of the amount of hash I was smoking.

 

The cocktail of drugs, dance music and American literature was a potent one. Barry became the “nightclub correspondent” for a listings magazine – he didn’t see daylight for months on end. On Barrack Street he had “some of the most intense hallucinations of my life: I thought I was a traffic light”. He was devoted to Bellow and Don DeLillo and “very cheesed off with Irish literature”, which seemed uninterested in the language and life of the city. His own 4am writing sessions produced “moon-shot prose” that invariably lost its gleam by sunrise.

And then, one day in August 1999, walking on the beach in west Cork, Barry gave himself the mother of all motivational talks. “I said to myself, ‘Are you fucking serious? Are you actually going to commit to this?’”

Barry refers to this as his “writer’s birthday”. He gave up much of his freelance work and followed his girlfriend Olivia Smith, a legal scholar, to Edinburgh (they married much later, in 2010). He stuck to his desk, even though it felt as if he was “writing into a void”. He published a short story, “Miami Vice”, about a reluctant wife-swapper, in a 2001 anthology, but it was a further six years before his first collection was put out by an independent imprint, Stinging Fly. There Are Little Kingdoms was a startling and funny take on Ireland’s “townie” mentality, its settings neither urban nor rural, but belonging to what the author calls “the third sex”, its tone best described by Nabokov’s phrase “laughter in the dark”.

In a high-risk handbrake turn, Barry followed up his sketches of town life with a novel offering a retro-futuristic vision of a city in the west of Ireland riven with gang warfare, dressed in zoot suits, speaking in a bastard Irish pidgin and set to a dub reggae soundtrack. Barry can talk Joyce and Beckett with the best of them, but his deepest influences come from the films he fell in love with as a teenager – the strange visions of David Lynch and Wim Wenders – and, in the case of City of Bohane, box sets such as HBO’s Wild West series Deadwood. “I robbed so much from it,” he says, “they could almost have sued me.”

Little Kingdoms had helped him win Ireland’s prestigious award for young writers, the Rooney Prize for Literature, but City of Bohane upped the stakes, taking the little-known but highly coveted International IMPAC Dublin Award, which, at €100,000 (over £79,000 at today’s exchange rates), is a considerably fatter envelope than the Booker. The villagers back home in Sligo (he moved there in 2007) hadn’t been sure what to make of Barry. “What is it you write, exactly?” the postmistress had asked him. But when he returned after the announcement, there was bunting up in the village. It turned out they had a writer of stature in their midst.

***

When Barry feels creatively stuck, usually around 4pm, he takes a ritual walk down to the lake. Having talked enough, we leave the shed and tramp out together into the damp afternoon. The cows in the field across the road eyeball us: if we were in a Barry story they’d possibly have murderous intent. On one side of the path we pass a cemetery with a romantically ruined church; on the other is a megalithic burial tomb. Death is all around, and it is oddly comforting. The lake is fringed with golden reeds and a little, dirty slick of oil shimmers by a jetty. Lough Arrow has the highest incidence of UFO sightings in Europe (thanks mainly to one diligent spotter, the late Betty Meyler) but Barry has never seen one. Nor has he picked up any particularly troubling “reverberations” – though the area has suffered violence. In the 1920s the IRA torched the roof of Barry’s barracks. Courteously, the republicans had given the RIC officers a week’s notice.

Birdsong surrounds us. Barry tells me that the lake gets curlews, sparrowhawks, choughs. A wren sitting on a stone wall, he says, is a gorgeous thing. A magpie attacking a young hare – which he has witnessed – is spectacular. A crow down your chimney, and in your bedroom, is horrifying. (“I did not cover myself in glory,” he says, which means his wife caught it while he hid under the duvet.) That progression – from the slightly twee rural image of a wren on a wall to the comic terror of battling, hungover, with a demented, feathered home intruder – strikes me as a good illustration of the off-centre nature of his fiction. When I call Roddy Doyle, the author of The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, at home in Dublin, he tells me that Barry’s work is “so utterly Irish and rejecting it at the same time. The classic geography is there: the coastal features, the small town, the farm, the pub. He has all these postcards at his disposal. But he gets a marker down and draws his own things on the postcards. He scrambles what’s expected. The small towns are still there – but now there’s wifi. I think Kevin got there before a lot of people.”

There has been much talk recently of a “new wave” of Irish fiction: writers such as Sara Baume and Colin Barrett who have been nurtured by the country’s fertile ­microclimate of journals, prizes, festivals and small presses. Asked about the boom by the Guardian last year, Barry expressed pleasure that a sense of radicalism is starting to re-emerge: “We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built [Ireland’s] reputation in the first half of the 20th century.” Some think it was the financial crash of 2008 that re-energised the scene, the money-hungry boom having neutered artistic ambitions. But Barry, who did his hardest, loneliest graft in the Celtic Tiger years, should take some credit. He showed how you could write against the grain and get away with it.

The sky has cleared and the afternoon makes a bid for freedom. As we circle back towards the barracks, a rainbow appears, one end plunging into the middle of the lake. “When I get back here,” he says, “there’s a sense of the breath slowing down again, and a calm, and it definitely feels like a benevolent place.”

It’s what Lennon may have been looking for on Dorinish – a placid solitude that he could puncture with his primal screaming, learnt from Arthur Janov in California. (The bruising song “Mother”, with its roaring coda, emerged from their sessions.) When Barry went to the island, he screamed, too, in a half-serious way, but so far that has been his only experiment with therapy. “I’d love to go but I won’t. The worst thing that could happen would be if they fixed me. If I was suddenly perfectly stable and rational I’d never write another fucking word again.”

The risk of retirement or Zen retreat is small. He is about to start work on a sequel to City of Bohane, and the first novel is in development for television. There are three plays in various states (they will start to emerge later this year) and a screenplay about a down-on-their-luck trainer and jockey who are a father and son. He has the second volume of his annual literature and arts anthology, Winter Pages, to compile. There are stories to grapple with and
sympathetic magic to summon.

“I have this hysterical nervous energy – mad fucking jangly nerves – which turns out to be very useful for keeping a load of balls in the air,” he says. “You just have to keep moving. If I stopped I’d be fucked.”

“Beatlebone” will be published in paperback by Canongate on 30 June

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain