Paul Doran writes short fiction, as well as articles and essays on everything from very fine literature to very trashy cinema. He has previously published fiction in The Honest Ulsterman, was longlisted for the Los Gatos Listowel Writers’ Festival Prize and co-wrote and directed the play ‘Horrible Noise: The Sights and Smells of Lester Bangs‘.
He edits The Bear – a website about books that is often confused with one about burly men – and lives in Belfast with his wife and son.
The television started a fire but it didn’t seem so serious at the time. It blacked up the wall then it was on the curtain. Somebody obviously knew what they were doing and put it out. There were other things to worry about: children running about, elderly sunk in corner chairs. Dan was storming between them all looking as though he might be lucky enough to bleed to death before he managed to hurt somebody.
He’d started off on the stairs, although that was something more like an accident. It seemed beyond his control anyway, whatever it was. What Marie told him apparently just switched something off deep within him and he went flat and straight down. He slid the length of the steps on his back as though he had been carved to do it. She had to step out of his way as his legs came jutting into the hallway. He was motionless there for a few moments – everyone was – before he stood up and started destroying the things in his house.
In the living room, he picked up a little statue and smashed it on the wall. He held onto whatever bits of it were left until he could crumble them away like salt. He lifted a solid round candle and hurled it at the window. It was a bottle of wine that he used on the TV. The table in the hallway somehow stayed standing as he kicked one of its legs away and a laugh came from the living room at the surprised look on his face. The kitchen was too full of people so he took his rampage upstairs.
One of them had put up a banner that morning. It read THE MILLIONAIRE’S ESTATE before the letters blew away one-by-one. By the time Mike spotted it from his window there wasn’t enough left to even guess at. One square N, a functional S and R. Anyone who found the jumble of them must have felt grateful that their own life had never run into whatever it was that had used them. Even so, the house seemed satisfied with itself.
‘You’ve dressed up,’ he said, and Diane ignored him.
She had. Probably he had too, without realising, but it would be lost here anyway. The best shoes. Trainers are the best shoes. A tracksuit that was a blue slice of a thing. A new hat pulled down to shape his skull. Wasted on these ones, no doubt, but a beautiful cut altogether. The t-shirt was vintage, as if that would make a difference.
The Arthurs had banged on their door the night before. Mike had been still up and drinking. He had been very nearly sleeping, though it was early enough. He had opened another beer and swigged at it to get things moving again. He’d picked up an old canvas – hardboard, in fact – and had started to work at it with a pallet knife. In the end he went too far and ruined it. Much too far. It had been a bad idea to even try when he was drunk. Diane had had things to do which at some point had taken her close enough to bed to just get in. It wasn’t late.
So the Arthurs banged the door and Mike went to answer it, he probably still had the pallet knife actually, and all three of them stood there looking at each other and holding corners of the same thought. This was the wrong house. At least, that was obvious to Mike.
Dan and Marie were wearing some thrown together coats on cardigans on pyjama legs. A raid of clothes rather than a wardrobe. Their expressions were even less well put-together. Dan wore a big grin but he was having trouble with it. It wouldn’t stretch properly across his face, and when he saw Mike it fell just a little. Only an unmistakable degree. Marie’s smile seemed to be running purely on the fumes of Dan’s, and she watched him closely.
‘You’re Mike,’ said Dan. ‘Isn’t that it?’
Mike nodded that that was right.
He was a head taller than most people and, standing on the doorstep, he must have made Dan feel that he was on his knees. He was used to frightening people, though he rarely enjoyed it. Even with his lazy low voice, and his flat temper, his size still struck people as an aggressive gesture. It didn’t help that most of the people around here didn’t know what real thieves and muggers looked like, so saw them on every corner, and especially saw them all, and worse, in Mike.
‘You’ll know my wife,’ said Dan. ‘That’s her. Marie. She’s just told me. We’ve won the lottery. And I’m Dan.’
Marie shouted and Mike jumped. It wasn’t so much the noise of it, or that it seemed to be directed only at the back of Dan’s head, but that it came from Marie was startling. She was occasionally in the street, watering plants, giving the car a nervous sponging as if it might suddenly rear up and shake her off. She wasn’t the kind to raise more than a whisper. Dan ignored her anyway and they just stood there. She watched Dan and Dan watched Mike and they all fell into the kind of silence you could swallow.
‘That’s some news,’ said Mike. He heard how miserly the words sounded as he said them.
Diane appeared behind him in the hall with some warm flush of sleep still around her. Dan’s smile was suddenly back to where it should have been, as if he had just awakened to the place. He rattled off the figure, the estimated jackpot, with Marie behind him nodding carefully. The amount was large enough to sound as good as meaningless. Somewhere in the vastness of the millions. Enough to buy a house in this street just to burn.
They stayed a moment, no talk of coming in, but they made Mike and Diane both promise to come to their party the next day. Both of them, Dan insisted, though he was clearly only speaking to Diane.
A Sunday party was what rich people did. Caterers. Cocktails. A full bar with waiters. Totally impromptu. Things like short notice didn’t matter to millionaires, Dan explained.
‘Doesn’t matter to money,’ he said. ‘Honey.’
He winked right at Diane. Mike wondered if he had an illness.
‘We’re going to that party,’ she said when the door was closed. She was already climbing the stairs and tying back her hair.
‘It’ll be a fucking nightmare.’
‘Just imagine how bad. We’re going.’
They could see from their own front room that it had already started. People had been floating in and out of the Arthurs’ house for an hour. None of them looked over across the street or took notice of the fine ribbon of smoke rising from Diane and Mike’s doorstep as it passed back and forth, elbow to elbow.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘This looks worse than your aunt’s.’
She ignored this.
‘And your aunt keeps telling people I’m a rapper.’
Diane almost snorted a laugh.
‘A fucking rapper. And your cousin Frank. The first time I met him he told me he thought I was meant to be black.’
‘He’s never heard of Eminem.’
‘He said the same thing at Christmas.’
‘Don’t let him make you feel special. Frank’s funny with everyone. He’s probably dangerous actually.’
‘Probably dangerous. Have you seen Frank? He’s not dangerous.’
‘Well, dangerous to himself. I mean, he should probably have been in trouble by now. With, like, the police, or a mob or something.’
‘They do happen.’
‘But not in real life.’
‘More than you’d imagine.’
‘Okay,’ said Mike.
‘You’d get on well in a mob, actually. Meet some like-minded people. New friends.’
She laughed at her own joke then hummed quietly for a moment.
‘Funny story about Frank. When I was maybe sixteen, seventeen, something like that, I was out clubbing with Louise…’
‘Clubbing? They had clubs out there?’
‘We had to get the bus. We were out and we were pissed and when it came time to head we had to wait in the station for ages. Then Frank showed up. He was dressed as if he was ready to hit the club himself, but this was – what? – two in the morning? – and it’s Frank so nothing he’s wearing is right anyway. All shiny shirt, but dirty, wrinkled up and that. These jeans that, I swear, if aunt Geri wasn’t so big in the arse I would’ve pegged as hers.’
‘She probably bought them for him.’
‘She definitely bought them for him. Can you imagine the clothes Frank would buy himself? He’d look like a fucking murder victim. But anyway, Frank turns up in this bus station, sober and ready to take somebody somewhere terrible, and he starts trying to talk Louise into going into the toilet with him.’
‘Wipe mine, I’ll wipe yours kind of thing?’
‘Louise walked right up to him and flattened his nose. Made it bleed and everything. And it must have hurt him, like, but he just let it run with blood and said nothing about it.
‘And he wouldn’t leave. He just stood watching us, all easy as if it had just been a joke. We tried to ignore him for a few minutes, although we could feel him listening to everything we were saying like he was memorising it. And he must have noticed that we were starting to edge away then because he called out to Louise:
Anyone ever sing you a song?
‘And she just gives him this look. He asks her again, did anyone ever sing you a song? She doesn’t answer, so he leans one knee toward the ground and he starts singing.’
‘Fucking champion. What did he sing?’
‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing, and he sang ALL of it.’
Mike laughed out loud.
‘Then, when we were both standing there, not even able to fucking laugh, he turns to me and says, “What about you? Anyone ever sing you a song?” “I’m your fucking cousin, Frank,” I shouted at him, and I don’t think Louise had realised that until then because she just cracked up and tried to punch him again. But she missed.’
‘Any port in a storm, I suppose.’
‘Family motto,’ Diane jabbed a thumb into Mike’s side. ‘Obviously.’
She stood up from the doorstep and brushed off the seat of her dress.
‘We’d better go to this party.’
Mike sighed and slowly pulled himself up, an elbow on the door frame and a heavy rock forward. It was nearly a spring afternoon but it looked like summer. Not warm, but clear, and now that all the guests seemed to be inside the Arthurs’ house there was a stillness in the street. Beautiful Sundays can suggest a lot but really they give you nothing.
They crossed the street.
‘You ring the doorbell.’
There were no caterers. No waiters. No string quartet or crystal bowls of caviar. There were none of the things that had probably kept Dan awake the night before, rolling about in his gold-fever. But there were plenty of people.
The front door opened into a living room and the overweight man who opened it was already drunk. He found something hilarious about their appearance at the door, but whatever it was he took it with him back through the party. The front room was the same size and shape as their own but, beyond it, the Arthurs’ house was clearly bigger. Everything in it was more modern. There were rooms off the main one and the kitchen seemed to be extended into a garden. Their own place had a strip of concrete at the back and most of that was in darkness. Dan and Marie were only supposed to have been rich for one day.
‘Do you think he’s gotten rid of Marie yet?’ Diane whispered.
Mike smiled at her but didn’t reply.
They found a tiny windowless room off from the living room. Anything that might have been in it before had been stripped out, leaving only a bare bulb and a long fold-out table which held dozens of bottles. Dan must have been at the supermarket first thing, buying by price, probably.
Mike lifted a bottle of whiskey and showed it to Diane. He liked to drink but it was Diane who knew what was worth drinking. She always had and got it from her father.
Mike had once spent a week in the country with Diane and her father, Hector, after her mother had been killed while kneeling in the garden, weeding. A car had clipped the gate so it swung back and hit her on the crown. Mike and Diane had only been together a few months, and Hector had always seemed unreachable, but he went along with them anyway. It was some town they’d never been before and would probably never see again. They didn’t want to run into any more memories than they were bound to bring with them.
As soon as they’d got on the road they had stopped again and stocked up on whiskeys, scotches, gin, rum, wine and some cases of German beer. Mike drove while Diane and Hector had started drinking in the back seat. They had proper glasses, and even sliced a lime with a penknife. The rest of the week had been dedicated to the spirits in the boot.
Diane glanced at the bottle Mike lifted from Dan and Marie’s table and shook her head.
‘I don’t care how much money you might have won,’ she said, ‘but if you bought this much alcohol and left it out for other people I’d leave you.’
She lifted a few bottles herself and set them all back down.
‘And if you spent all that money and came back with this shite I’d set my dad on you.’
She took it from him and put it back on the table. Hector might have poured it out the window, if there had been one. She took up a wooden case from the far end of the table and turned it over in her hands. The lid was nailed shut.
‘Hang on,’ she said. ‘This is what we’re drinking.’
She found a knife resting in the juice of a plate of limes. In two sharp moves the knife went under the lid and the wood splintered away from the box. She poured two glasses of scotch.
‘Mike,’ said Dan. He held up his glass and glanced at the man who had just been speaking. The men all looked to be roughly the same age, which was probably actually Mike’s age, but in a different way. One looked as if he had another’s hair, and they might all have bought their shirts together.
Dan rattled off a list of introductions. Mike missed most of them. He and Diane had a trick for extracting names from people you had forgotten at parties but he could never remember the mechanics of it when put on the spot.
‘Mike’s a neighbour,’ said Dan.
Terrence, to his right, nodded as if the word meant something else.
‘Hilarious thing,’ said Dan. ‘Last night, when Marie told me the news, about the numbers, I mean, about the money, the millions, the first thing I did was race across to Mike’s place and started hammering his door like I needed in for shit. Isn’t that right, Mike? I mean, I’d never been in his squat over there at all, ever, and for all I know he could have taken me for police or something, but something just got into me and I was there before I knew what it was.’
As Dan spoke, Terrence had taken a step back and was scanning Mike. Adding him up. Whatever it was he found in him, he had seen it plenty of times before. It was worth a sour-milk scowl, then as Dan mentioned the money again, it was worth a lot more.
‘I’d just fished the price of a bottle of cider from the back of the sofa and here comes Dan telling me he’s a bloody millionaire,’ said Mike. ‘First thing he’s ever said to me.’
One of the men laughed. Dan slapped him on the back and barked. He saw from Terrence he’d made a mistake.
‘You live across the street, Mike,’ said Terrence.
Mike couldn’t tell if it was a question or not.
‘My girlfriend, Diane, too.’
‘Just over there,’ said Terrence.
‘She’s here too, is she?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘You need to be more careful, Dan.’
‘You don’t know this pair. This bloke. This girl. You’ve probably got an eye on her, and that’s not my business, but they’re not right for this place. They could take you and not look back.’
Mike let him finish. He waited for this to become a joke. For Dan to laugh, then the others, then, surely, finally, Terrence. But they all nodded as Dan looked off through the window.
‘But listen,’ said Terrence. ‘I know a good man. Vinn. Hates it when you call him anything longer. Enough to make him smash teeth – and he could – but a big cricket man. Big rugby man. He’s your man for the money. He’ll sort it for you so your own wife won’t be able to touch you.’
Mike wanted to stop him. To go back a step and put him right. For Diane. He didn’t even want to be here and he was already being marked as a criminal. But the conversation had moved past it so fast the rest of them had probably forgotten it had happened.
‘He’s got a waiting list,’ Terrence was saying. ‘Two months. Two-and-a-half now, probably, but I’ll have a word in his ear and we’ll set up and appointment for tomorrow afternoon. Just you and me. We won’t worry about the missus. Which one of you has the ticket, by the way?’
‘She does,’ said Dan.
Dan thought about this.
‘You’ll need to find out and make sure you have it. Tonight. Then we’ll get things moving in the morning. This sum of yours is nothing to a good bloke in Vinn’s shoes. He’ll see that every month in commission. Bloody hell, he’ll spend that amount every month just trying to keep his girlfriend from blabbing to his wife again. It’s nothing to him. It’s less than nothing. You’re a fucking peasant to him at the moment. But let me have a word, we’ll speak to him tomorrow, and in no time you’ll have a nest-egg worth talking about. You’ll have a real life. He’s a big cricket man. A big rugby man. You’ll like him.’
One of the other men had a bloke too. A good one, though not in the same league as Vinn, obviously. Less of the group seemed to be listening, though they all kept nodding. Their glasses all got low and Dan picked up a bottle of whiskey from the windowsill. One by one, he topped them up. Mike caught a whiff of it before Dan got to his glass. The stuff smelled cheap. A lot thinner than the scotch.
Terrence swirled his glass and huffed at it. He gave an appreciative nod.
Mike drained the last of the scotch. Dan gave him a wink as he topped him up. A smile. He should have felt disgusted at himself for smiling back, but he wanted another drink.
He was about to leave when Marie joined them. Diane hovered by the door. She gave him a look to stop him from going anywhere – part fun, part forbidding. She was finding horrible pleasure in all of this. The eyes she made at him were the kind she might make in one of his better dreams, but there was nothing he wanted to share here. This was getting further and further away from being consensual.
Marie came over and stood beside Terrence and it looked as though he might bite her.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Dan.
‘What’s he told you all, then?’ she asked. She looked around each of the men in turn and caught no one. ‘Did he give you the grand total?’
None of the men answered. Dan shifted from foot to foot. Aside from Mike, only Terrence looked at her, and he was staring right into the meat of her eyes.
‘Too big to remember,’ offered Mike, and everybody looked as though they’d forgotten he was there.
‘I’m sure he’s as good as spending it already,’ she said. ‘Has he told you the plans for it? I’m sure they’re big. A house in Italy, is it? No, Spain. Near others who speak the language. A yacht, maybe? Is that it, Dan? Buy a bad football team so you can scream at them in person. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?’
‘Haven’t you got a friend to talk to?’ said Terrence.
‘Whatever he decides, you’ll hear about it before I do.’
‘If you want to be useful why don’t you go get the ticket?’ Dan said.
The men had started drinking faster and when the silence came upon them they all downed what they had at once. Marie smiled to herself.
‘Heavier,’ she said. ‘Empty glasses.’
She tipped back her own.
‘Dan. What have you got for us?’
‘Come with me,’ Dan said to Marie as he brushed past her. He turned at the door and waited for her to follow.
‘Come with me,’ he said again. ‘You need to get me the ticket.’
She started to go red even though she was grinning.
‘Let’s just take that bottle and get out of here,’ he said. Diane had been waiting for him at the table, grinning as he held up his empty glass.
‘We can’t take the scotch.’
‘Why not? We’re the only ones drinking it.’
‘Because it’s not ours and it’s fucking expensive for starts.’
‘Expensive? This pair have just won the fucking lottery.’
She shook her head, but she lifted the bottle again and poured them each another measure.
‘Well, we should get out of here, at least,’ said Mike. ‘Now, I mean.’
Diane might have nodded, it was something like that, with a smile, but it looked as though she was holding something then that she didn’t like.
‘These people are all…’ Mike looked around then lowered his voice. ‘I mean, they’re all lording about in there, those blokes, like they’re fucking heads of state.’
‘Did you tell them you’re a rapper? Did you tell them you know Eminem?’
‘They think I’m a fucking conman.’
‘No they don’t. Conmen dress better than you. I’m sure they’ve seen The Sting.’
‘There’s this one bloke in there, has me pegged as a gangster or something, meanwhile he’s trying to fleece Marie out of her money. He looks like he’s ready to marry Dan himself, just to get a cut and… fuck it.’
He took a big gulp of the scotch. Too big.
‘How did you find Terrence?’ she asked.
The whisky had just gone down and he had already caught a cough. Diane’s expression had changed in a second and he’d missed it.
‘Terrence? That’s the cunt I’m talking about.’
‘How did he seem?’
‘How the fuck do you know Terrence?’
‘You’re spitting more of that scotch than you’re drinking.’
He watched her face, as if it would show him something. She could probably tell exactly what he was thinking then. She could probably tell at just about any moment. But even with everything he suddenly knew about her down in the thick twists of his gullet, the things he hadn’t realised he had worried about until now, he had no idea what she was trying to tell him.
He had a desperate urge just then to lift her and carry her back across the road to their bedroom where he could keep her and have her, as if none of this was happening.
But now he had to know. And she probably wouldn’t have it.
‘How do you know Terrence?’
‘I know him from a few years ago.’ She let him catch her eye. Whatever it was she’d been planning to tell him faded from her face as its opposite number started to rise up in him.
‘He can be difficult,’ she shrugged.
Mike waited for more.
‘Things have been tough for him though. He’s done well. I think. I didn’t know he was a friend of Dan’s. Did you know that?’
‘I didn’t even know he existed until he tried to run me out just now. I didn’t even know bloody Dan. Should I know Terrence? Should I know something about him? Because he’s a terrible person. I know that much. Things obviously weren’t tough enough on him. Did you know that?’
Diane shook her head and looked at the table of drinks. She picked up a bottle of rum and examined the label.
‘You know him well though.’
She rolled her eyes.
‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘If you’re going to be like that.’
He knew something then, about what she was thinking, about what she wanted him to say now to make this much worse, and somehow make it his fault. He knew exactly what to say so he didn’t say it. Instead, he went to the table too and decided to make himself a drink.
For whole minutes then the sounds came from above. Thumps, crashes, scatterings of plaster and paint that touched nobody but made them all duck. The sound of many little gods fighting in one body. What Dan was destroying up there was anybody’s guess. If it had been beautiful at all once, it must look like a rich man’s dream of hell now.
Mike imagined where Diane might be.
The men who had been talking with Dan all stood in the hall by the door. The hairs, the shirts, Terrence. A discussion had them indignant. Big, bludgeon gestures pointed at something along the hall. It must have been Marie.
One by one, they followed their wives and kids out to their cars. Then it was just Marie and Terrence. And Mike.
Marie seemed surprised to see that Mike was still there, and not particularly happy about it, but Terrence just gave him a look as though he had finally proved a point. Something big toppled upstairs and Dan shouted. Footsteps across the ceiling. Marie walked slowly to Terrence, then together they joined Mike. He held his glass and took as long a drink as he could manage.
The hatred the pair had shown each other earlier seemed to have burned out. They stood together now, if not happily, at least past the point where one of them might attack. Dan lifted the first bottle to hand and poured some rum into a paper cup. She held out her glass and he trickled it into her wine.
Mike’s glass was about three-quarters empty now.
‘Do you want some of this?’
‘You’re obviously not fussy.’
He poured until the bottle glugged.
‘Fucking shame,’ he said.
‘He was going to do great things with that money,’ he said.
‘No he wasn’t. He’d have pissed it away.’
Terrence shook his head,
‘I was going to help him. Me and Vinn.’
‘I don’t know who Vinn is. But he’d be dead in a year anyway. Too stupid to be rich.’
‘Fucking good bloke.’
Mike listened to them, and heard Dan move back into the room above them. He sounded directionless, as if he had run out of possessions to smash. There was a dull thunk then a thud on the floor. Whatever he had tried to throw through the window had bounced straight back.
‘I’m not sure what made me say it,’ said Marie. She was quiet. Talking to herself. She turned in the hall and walked out through the open front door. Terrence watched her, then just stared at the space she left in the doorway. Outside, the afternoon had given up trying to turn blue and had slipped back into a late winter grey. Something else landed on the floor upstairs.
Terrence glanced up but must have been thinking about something else altogether. Some of the sharpness had left his face and the clench of his jaw gave a shudder. He looked as though a yawn might save him, or a piece of him at least.
‘Where’s Diane?’ he asked.
Mike’s eyes closed for a moment when he heard him say her name. Too long for a blink. When he focussed again, Terrence was staring at him. It might have been because he was drunk, but he couldn’t see anything in it. Maybe there was a sneer wired into the gums behind those teeth. It didn’t really matter.
‘I never thought…’ said Terrence. ‘When you said her name earlier. Funny, these… You’ve lost her, have you?’
He shook his head.
Terrence held his gaze a moment longer then let it go. He threw back his drink.
‘I’ll tell you something about Diane,’ he said. He didn’t look back at Mike again. He wouldn’t. ‘Diane would never pull something like that on you.’
Mike was ready for this to be over.
‘Although, it looks like you’ll do enough to yourself before long.’
Then Terrence went too. He left the house. The front door was still open and everything was touched with a draft. Upstairs, Dan had become quiet. Mike had managed to drain his glass. He filled it with rum and found himself climbing the stairs.
‘Dan’ he called.