Ophelia- James Hutcheon

As I stood that morning at the sash window, tying a black tie and looking out on bare marshlands, a heron flew past, primordial, so close that if the glass were gone I could have snared its trailing legs with the tie loop. I watched the bird sail silently over the marsh. It looked to me like a departing spirit, flying into the west, long sculls of wings sending it quickly over glinting silty water. A flat-bottomed car ferry traced the line of the bird’s flight with its chain, the only Stygian way from this islet back to the mainland. My reflection flattened a few wayward greying strands in the old scrollwork dress mirror and turned to leave.
The hotel bar was doing double duty as restaurant for breakfast, but business was slow. Just one vaguely familiar old man sat in the far corner by the sun-yellowed window, in a huddle of tweed. I approached. He chuckled into his chest.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” he said, with a low monotonous croak like a tracheotomy patient.
“Had to,” I shrugged.
His shrug trumped mine in its mass of checked overcoat. “You know what this means they’ll have to do.”
“Maybe. All the same though, he’s my brother.”
I lifted a menu off a neighbouring table and joined him. A full Irish was congealing in front of him with a cup of translucently weak tea.
“So what’s good?”
“All of it. For all the good it’ll do me.” He sniffed. “I’m only here because they say the storm is to close in today. Ophelia, they call her. Not often you see a hurricane in Fermanagh. Drowning herself in shallow water.”
He blew down at the steam of his tea, hardly seeming to dislodge it. “We might get the run of the place if they call off the ferry.”
I looked at the deserted dining room. Even the waitresses had gone off somewhere.
“Doesn’t look like you’ve much competition for beds.”
An eldritch kind of stillness sat over everything. The light outside the window had turned a purplish kind of blue. A storm coming. My phone buzzed. An unknown Belfast landline. One of the old crowd perhaps. I answered, excusing myself from the old man.
“Haggerty,” said the voice on the other end. Accused, rather.
I kept my tone flat. “Yes.”
“You’re back.”
“At—let it be remembered that I told you this—great personal danger to yourself.”
Out the window the sky roiled. The reed-strewn water underneath was dead calm, shining rough as quartz crystals in the late sunrise.
“I’ll remember you said so. But no help from my old muckers at the constabulary?”
“It’s a service now.”
“I’ll remember you said that too.”
“And that only makes a difference if everyone else isn’t just as much a tout as you are”, said the old man.
I looked a quick dagger at him. An inscrutable purple-veined smile was his only response. The faint feeling of recognition still gnawed at me, but I couldn’t place him.
“So what happens if they come for me?”
“I hear you’re in the Lusty Beg Hotel.”
How had he heard?
“That was a fair choice if it’s busy. Defensible. Ferry over the lough’s the only way there. But if you get stuck…”
And if he knew, who else did? Which of his informers had told him?
“Keep an eye on the boat and whoever it drops—and if it’s anyone you don’t want to see at close quarters, make sure they don’t find you.”
“Anyone in particular I should be worried about?”
A billow of laughter erupted from the little speaker, so much that I had to hold it at arm’s length. The old man’s smile grew. I held his stare and kept the phone pointed at him, as though offering him the line, until the barrage had subsided
“Take your pick, Haggerty, you fucking fool. Victims, friends, ambitious lads trying to make a name… If I were you, I’d let them think you’re there, leave lots of witnesses to the fact, then be somewhere else entirely. Take that ferry and burn it. Steal a fucking rowboat if you have to… Then remember to watch yourself on the mainland.”
I checked my watch. The funeral was in an hour. I’d need to get moving.
“Well thank you for the call, detective. But I’ll need to be off.”
“So be it, Bill. Just don’t get caught out there alone.” I hung up.
The hotel was deserted: no-one on the front desk, in the corridors or the ferryman’s hut at the front door; the little drive-on skiff was at the other side of the shallow reed-strewn lough surrounding the hotel. The sky was a watercolour painter’s rinsing glass, swirls of midnight blue and purple and green in the clouds. The wind was freshening. Hailstones strafed the water like rattling fits of automatic fire. The ferry’s cable whirred over the noise. Someone was coming.
I ducked reflexively and made for a stand of bushes at the water’s edge. On the water, inching towards the hotel, a Transit van wallowed on the chain ferry, a male silhouette in the driver’s seat.
I skirted the shore, keeping to cover. My suitcase was inside; I’d caught a boat from England in case of a strait like this, so I could bring something to defend myself, but would never get to the door without being spotted.
There was a small wooden rowing boat moored in the reeds. I kicked it loose, diving in and taking up the oars—but the wind howled and drove me straight back into land. Every oarstroke was rebuffed immediately, the little craft lolling like a drunkard’s tongue. All I managed to do was tire my arms and sicken my stomach. I abandoned the idea, wiping stinging hail out of my eyes. Wind whipped lake spray across my face, flattening reeds before it, making small leaves into spade-shaped throwing knives. I found myself remembering Mark, a friend from the old days: we’d played poker one night in a safehouse in a half-built estate, on camping stools with a storm lantern, and when we’d tired of the game he’d thrown the cards, skimming them with a flick of the wrist so hard that they stuck into doors and plasterboard walls.
The chain ferry was now empty, the van standing before the hotel’s open front door. The detective’s call began to feel like a coded warning. Who was in the van? Why had they tracked me here? The whole of the tiny islet seemed empty except for me and them. Who had warned off the staff? Or, as the old man had hoped, had they simply seen the weather and left us to it? As I slid around the wood-panelled side of one of the chalets, I saw a figure that looked like the blonde I’d met at check-in late last night. She stood with her back to me, one arm crossed over her body, the other propped from it at right angles, as though smoking. She gave no sign of having heard my shout, walking sidelong around the back of a chalet into the hotel proper.
I paused in the restaurant to the rear. No frontal assaults. I found the pristine kitchen, silent, keeping low beneath the scrubbed metal countertops. Mark stood at the door to the walk-in fridge.
“D’you know I can’t feel the cold anymore?” he said, back turned. “I used to feel nothing but. Layers and layers I’d need in the winter, even inside. Then the opposite in the summer, couldn’t cool off.”
He turned slowly. His face was blue and bloated. Except for a ragged hole over his right eye, black ooze within it, his white pupils and sagging pockets of distended, blubbery flesh.
“Aren’t you gonna say hello?”
He whipped a playing card at me. I flinched, eyes closed, but didn’t feel it hit. I reopened my eyes.
“You’re dead.”
“I fucking know.” He whipped another card, backhand. This time I watched it sail about three feet from him in a fraction of a second and then disappear as quickly as it had come.
“And I know you know,” he said, starting towards me out of the fridge. I stood from my crouch, backing to the door.
“At least you could’ve told them where I was.” He walked towards me, face expressionless. His mouth wasn’t moving as he spoke.
“Could’ve left me to an open coffin. By the time they’d found me I was fit for fuck all—had to be cremated. Burnt to fucking ashes in a daft wee pot…”
I made the door and ran outside to the smoking garden. The old man was there. This time I recognised him.
He chuckled. “How many of us are here?”
“You’re the second.”
“I was the first, but you didn’t see it at the time.”
And he had been the first. The old man had been a rat. The first command I ever got. I felt myself that age again: still too young to shave the wispy moustache off my face, a carnivorous child, pickled and twisted by dreams of power.
He sat impassive in his tweeds, looking at the storm.
“You think you’re so different now? There’s probably some callow little scumbag carrying a hammer just for you. A wee nemesis, shivering with the nerves like he’s just seen his first snatch.”
There were streaks of black-purple across his face, trauma marks, or just where he’d decomposed. There was black-purple in the sky too. I held onto the railing of the fence to keep my feet in the howling squall, howling like the end of the world. The flight of the last good souls from the earth.
Sam doffed his flat cap. The back of his head was gone. I ran.
The blonde girl was walking in the front door of the hotel. I called to her again but the wind ripped the words from me. I followed her. The foyer was empty and the stillness that descended when I closed the door was a physical shock, like a sudden deafness.
The little office behind the varnished reception desk was empty. I stood amid the keys and stationery, feeling like a man in his coffin while the worms made their piecemeal progress into the wood. A noise upstairs made me crouch—a loud careless movement up there. They had satisfied themselves I was no longer there. Or they no longer cared.
Back towards the kitchens, the wood panelling and carpets gave out to bare concrete walls and a floor painted incongruous racing green, scarred by the progress of trolleys and dragged furniture. In a passage smelling of boiled cabbage, roast dinners and dust was a service lift. I took it clatteringly up to the top floor and, clinging to the walls, leaving schoolhouse chalk marks over my suit, aimed for the sound.
I sidled along the corridor to a suite, unlocked. A song played quiet on a forgotten radio: a snatch of melody or two audible over the swirl of the storm outside, an open window across the room snapping its curtain. If I closed that window, sooner or later the radio would draw the boy’s ear. I closed it; the noise drop again came like a loss of cabin pressure. In the sudden vacuum, the radio was playing a song that I thought the world had forgotten. “Every loser wins,” it sang. I knew it instantly. The half-memory drew me to the bathroom, door open, low incandescent yellow lights around the marble sink. Someone lay in the bath. It was the blonde I’d seen at reception and at the back door—except it wasn’t her. It was another woman. She lay under the surface like the Ophelia in the painting, hands half-curled and floating to the surface in supplication. The water was red, clotted blood in streamers like trails of flowers across the surface. She looked glassily at me.
“Remember me?”
I nodded mutely.
“You killed me as much as any of the others. I was the last of yours, in fact.”
I supposed she must have been right. She’d been Mark’s girl; I went to see how she was the day after the funeral, let myself into the unlocked house, heard that song on the radio, found her upstairs in the bath—beyond comfort, beyond anything. Open mouth, ghostly pallour, faintly bored expression. I sat now as I had then, on the corner of the bath, and looked into her eyes. She smirked, dislodging bubbles from her lips.
“We’ve come for you at the end,” she said under the water, sounding clear inside my head without troubling with mouth or ears. “You know this by now.”
“Don’t I get to bury my brother?”
She shook her head.
“Not sure what kind of send-off you’ll get. Not many left to give you one. Not as nice as mine anyway.” True: her funeral had been an explosion of colour. A celebration of life. Too late to convince her it was worth celebrating.
I felt a shove—something pushed me over into the bath. Janet disappeared, though I still saw her in my mind’s eye as my vision blurred and consciousness faded. The bath filled with liquid tendrils again, and I grew dimly aware that they were coming from me. I never saw the boy, or felt the bullet.
The next thing I saw was my reflection in that same dress mirror. Behind it were a dozen or more faces, some battered, some missing teeth or nose or sections of flesh, all looking dispassionately at me. Not accusing, just stating a fact. They stared at me, I stared at them. The remembrance of sorrow, fading as all emotion fades, leaving emptiness.
I looked out the window at the clearing storm. The Transit van now back aboard the ferry, which started to whir again, heading for the mainland. Beside it, a boy in a white cap, the peak casting a shadow like the pointed bill of a water bird over his face. I knew that underneath, he would be beardless, cold-eyed, just as I was at his age. I followed him—and all the faces in the mirror followed me.

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