She had known in the end, of course, had climbed into the car with no more ceremony than if we had been going on a picnic. She said she was glad to be out, the fresh air was a joy. We might indeed have been going on a day trip, were we not in some scummy Irish bog in the middle of winter, and if Mikey the thug were not wearing a balaclava. But we were, and he was, and that was her last day on earth.
As we walked together away from the road, she pressed her last letter into my hand.
“You’ll see it gets there?” she asked me, her voice calm.
“Sure, I will, of course,” I said as I lit a cigarette and turned to check Mikey had seen nothing. “Like the other ones.”
She smiled. There was a world of warmth in it, so that my heart broke. I would have let her go and she knew it, but Mikey was fifty yards behind us all the way.
Letters addressed to her husband, Sir James Winston, Member of Parliament. Letters scribbled in the dimness of the coal shed whenever I brought her paper and held the door just ajar. It was while I watched her writing that I felt drawn to her, that my love took seed. It was on one of those occasions that I first took off my balaclava. That frightened her.
“Aren’t you afraid I will recognise you? When you… let me go?”
“Ah, no, I… trust you!”
Letters. Over a hundred of them. I never sent them; well, I couldn’t! The cops would trace them. By Jesus, Mikey would have shot the both of us there and then if he knew.
There is something else living in the coal shed now. I have never seen it, but I hear it. It paces around, outside the cottage. It scratches at the windows and throws sticks at the door. It moved in soon after she was gone, once Mikey left, but it was only there now and then at first. I was strong, fierce, a young man with a passion. I fought for the cause, for freedom, a united Ireland. Politicians! They sold us all out for government jobs and stackable pensions.
I could stand against it back when I was young, but now I am old and afraid. The creature is hungry, not a night passes that I don’t hear it. It is out in the daytime too, in case I try to leave. It climbs on the roof and scuttles about like a gigantic rat. It pushes dead birds down the chimney, flushing soot. I lie in bed, the covers pulled up tight over my head, while it hunts.
When I can bear it, I creep over to the dresser, pull out the shoe box. I pick each letter up and feel it, smell it, hoping for her scent; but after twenty-seven years they stink of the tobacco from my hands. Knowing each by heart, I no longer read them, simply linger over each one like a broken promise.
The letters tell a story. At first there was anger, and pleading, begging for the ransom be paid, then a brutal sadness. In the end she accepted everything and found peace. I think my kindness helped her.
“I’m not afraid any more,” she said to me one day as I brought her scrambled eggs. “Whatever comes, whatever happens, I will be strong, because of what I have known, and who I have loved.”
I wanted to touch her, and share that love with her, but I could not. We both knew that we dare not speak it.
That last day, she smiled with a vague nostalgia, as if to say it was me she was sorry for, who would have to live on without our moments together, our tiny intimacies, our daily routine.
The creature is no longer letting me out. I had loads of tins in the cupboard but they are nearly gone. I have mostly been surviving on pineapple chunks and condensed milk for a week. One night, two weeks back, I tried to sneak out, hoping for escape. In the dark, I smelt its fetid breath, felt its ice touch on my neck. I ran back to the cottage, to my bed, and stayed there for three days.
Mikey wanted to do it, of course, said I would not do a proper job, but he just wanted the pleasure of inflicting pain. I could never do that to her, take away her last dignity. When I drew the gun, she looked away to spare me the pain of seeing her eyes.
The last letter, pressed into my hand, was addressed to her husband, like the others had been. I was sore, at the time, that she continued to write to him when she had me. As the years went by, I came to realise it was just her way. We could not openly acknowledge our love, so she used the letters as her code, her cypher.
Lying under the sheet, I break open old butts and roll a miserable cigarette from third or fourth hand tobacco. It tastes like death, a familiar, sour flavour. I can hear the creature in the other room now. It is in the house; soon it will crawl under my bed, and I won’t be able to get up. Ah well, I will see her again soon. She will be waiting for me, to tell me how she loved me all along. To forgive me, and say she understood. To let me know the letters were meant for me all along.
Kieran Marsh lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He has completed two novels that were unloved by publishers and agents, and is now focussing on short stories. The medium is just as challenging but the timeframe is mercifully shorter.