Peninsula

Peninsula

by John Herbert

They were both shocked when the letter arrived, the stationery matt and generous, unlike the crabbed hand it bore. The pages, when Róisín opened it, gave off the stale reek of cigarette smoke.

‘Who’s it from?’ Sheila asked rubbing her hair with a towel.

‘Only Guillame Le - fecking - Quennec,’ Róisín said with a grin. ‘Says he’d love to come and read at Peninsula next month from his new book.’

‘Go away.’ Sheila dropped the towel on the table and stared at her.

‘Can you believe it? Of all the people I wrote to. He barely gives an interview even.’

‘Let’s see it then.’ Sheila traversed the kitchen table, past the teapot, to look over her wife’s shoulder. ‘Could be a coup,’ she said, grinning. ‘An exclusive. Might get the national press there for something like that. He’s an interesting one, that lad.’

‘You’re telling me.’ Róisín dropped the letter on the table and sat down with a sigh. ‘But he’s not exactly who I’d imagined … He lives here though, y’know? The other side of the mountains, past Tralee.’

‘He’s popular at least,’ Sheila said. ‘You can’t find one of his books in the library – all of them reserved. Must be the shagging.’

‘Is he not a little smutty and sexist for us?’ Róisín asked. ‘It’s all bondage and orgies in the jungle with your man, isn’t it? Cork men aren’t exactly reading it for the satire, are they?’

‘He’s not someone I’d read myself, that’s for sure. Christ, but it sells though that stuff, for all the sex. It’s serious too in its way, controversial.’ Sheila said. ‘And he’s a name. Might draw a crowd, and couldn’t we do with one of those?’

Peninsula Books, Róisín’s book shop, though well regarded, struggled and relied on the tourists and the crews from the yachts moored in the harbour for custom. They were drawn by the cluster of tea shops and old pubs in the town, a half hour out of the village where Róisín and Sheila lived. Róisín kept the shop well stocked with the guide books and glossy coffee table tomes that sold. But the front table and the bigger shelves were the preserve of fiction and poetry. When she’d the money, after her mother died, Róisín converted the back room into a meeting space and installed her inherited antique dining table at its centre for the book and women’s groups she’d founded to meet, along with Peninsula’s small writer’s circle. Peninsula, Róisín told people, was not a small-town affair.

But when she’d told prim, neat Marie O’Donovan, another local woman who worked in the bank, about the shop’s troubles she’d smoothed the skirt of her suit.

‘It’s a good look at your accounts, I’ll need,’ she’d said.

The results had not been pretty.

‘Cashflow’s all there is too it,’ Marie had concluded, looking up from Róisín’s spreadsheet. ‘An injection’s what’s needed.’

The shop had showbiz connections at least. Jez Cleverley, the resident rock star, had signed copies of his autobiography the year before, all silver earrings and ripped jeans. He still dropped by once a week, adding a frisson of glamour to the tourists’ cagoules and cash. Tony, the reclusive actor who lived in a converted monastery up in the hills, visited too when he wasn’t on set. He’d give a poetry reading once a year in his plummy tones to drum up custom. But they needed a big hitter, someone to make the Dublin crowd with their second homes roundabout take notice. Le Quennec would do, sexist or not.

Róisín had written to every Irish or local writer she could conjure, hoping to lure one in with tales of the wild Atlantic and a west Cork welcome.

The bearded bards of Cork city, an hour away had begged busy schedules and bemoaned the length of the journey.

The bestseller from Wexford, long transplanted to London, was keen until breakfast television beckoned on the proposed date.

The middle-aged prize winner from Clare had written a sweet note telling them she wished she could do something, but her mammy wasn’t well and she was in the middle of a novel. She’d sent a picture though, with a handwritten note in thick marker pen. It now stood laminated at the till and Kathy, Róisín’s assistant, regarded it with the reverence afforded an icon.

Kathy herself was a mainstay of the writers’ group, producing screeds of florid prose about the myth-woven life of a Cork farmer perched on the tip of Europe and lived in hope of communing with the literary stars. Each morning, when Róisín arrived, Kathy was there already, buffing the cappuccino machine, asking ‘Any news?’ as she handed her a cup. Róisín had shaken her head for months before Le Quennec’s reply which, with some delight, she flipped on to the top of the machine the morning she got it. Kathy read:

Thank you for your kind invitation. I have been writing. If you still want me, I arrive June 20th. Please advise where to stay.
Le Quennec.

Róisín had not pegged Kathy for a whooper until she heard it.

‘He’ll certainly wake this town up a bit,’ she’d said, bouncing on the spot and waving the letter like a winning lottery ticket. She regaled any customer who came in that day with tales of an imminent blessing, a visitation from the literary gods.

Róisín knew that he was famous but had been put off by the furore of the man’s reputation, the smut and clamour of controversy that surrounded him. That night though, she sat down while Sheila was working late at the library, nestled under a blanket in her pyjamas with their laptop, watching a documentary about Le Quennec.

‘It is the domicile of vacuity,’ he declared from the screen when a timid Canadian student had asked him about the internet. The student, she learned, had also requested an interview as part of her dissertation and he’d turned up one day at her flat when he’d shunned all the newspapers, doling out opinions to her while a friend recorded. In the clip, Róisín watched as he railed against technology before standing in the student’s living room and stamping repeatedly on his iPhone, thinning greasy hair flying around him as he pulverised it before declaring, once he had gathered his breath: ‘Dylan went electric. Le Quennec, he goes analog.’ Brenda found herself smirking, despite her best intentions, at his theatrics, at the strength his rage gave him as he stomped upon the phone.

His novels were full of empty sex and detached male narrators, prone to abstract declarations of existential angst as their dystopic worlds collapsed. The apocalyptic, it seemed, was his thing if not her own.

In response to the latest terrorist atrocities in Paris, she read that he had declared France, ‘a decadent old whore who, when she displays her shrivelled dugs for the world to admire, is amazed when she is spat upon. Eirrean may have been abused but at least she has kept her dignity.’ He had left the country, the article claimed, to move to the Gaeltacht and to write in English. Here, he declared, there was a reason for people not to understand him.

Róisín had written back, with misgivings, that night, proffering a tidy fee.

We’re delighted that your'e coming, she wrote, wishing she believed it a little more. I’ve made a reservation for you at O’Mahoney’s. It’s the best hotel in town and, with the regatta on that weekend, I’m glad to have got you a good spot.

She wrote the cheque for his fee, a respectable sum right enough, and slapped the seal on the letter shut before she’d time to change her mind.

On the Monday before the writer’s arrival, Róisín got home from a ghostly quiet day at the shop to find another matt envelope waiting.

I am not fond of hotels in this country. They are too noisy for an artist. Do you have somewhere I can stay quietly?
Le Quennec

She waited until Sheila arrived back from running and was sat on the floor stretching, to tell her. She watched her wife as she lay with one foot extended, the back of her cropped head shining with sweat as she tried to pull her head down to her knee. ‘D’you think we could put him up?’ she asked.

‘No … fecking … way’ Sheila grunted, each word punctuated by an attempt to lean a little closer to the knee. ‘We’d probably end up in a story. And what would he make of the pair of us anyway?’ Sheila turned to see Róisín staring out of the window, trying to avoid her stare. ‘He’s a total perv,’ she said, softer, reaching round to lay a hand on one of Róisín’s knees. ‘And neither one of us would feel comfortable with him bumping around the spare room, would we?’

‘We could put up with it for a day or two, surely?’ Róisín said, putting her own hand on Sheila’s. ‘He can’t be that bad. And the tickets are sold.’

And so, after a glass of wine, and Sheila’s acquiescence, Róisín wrote with the offer of a bed.

Róisín was still at work, putting the final touches to the shop on the Friday evening he was due, the day before the reading. Sheila found herself fussing in the guest bedroom, laying out boxes of tissues and mineral water, smirking at the memory of her own ire when Róisín had told her the night before about the things she’d brought to spruce the spare room up – ‘It’s not a B & B we’re running, you know,’ she’d told her, examining the new hand towels. ‘He can take us as we are.’ And here she was fiddling and nervous.

She spotted the taxi pull up outside the cottage from the bedroom window and the balding little man who emerged from it in a grey leather jacket. He lit a cigarette as soon as he had dispatched the driver and stood next to a small wheeled case on the pavement, looking around him, wary as a wren.

He turned, surprised at the sound of the door, the thin strands of lank hair that hung to his shoulders following him a second later.

‘Monsieur Le Quennec?’ Sheila felt foolish at her accent, hearing the schoolgirl French in it.

He gave a sombre nod. ‘Le Quennec,’ he affirmed. His voice was hoarse and quiet.

‘Will you come in then when you’ve finished there?’ Sheila found herself gabbling, ‘We don’t smoke in the house but we’ve a lovely garden, and you’d be more than welcome to smoke out there…’

‘I thank you … Róisín? You are Róisín, yes?’ He stumbled with the stresses on the name. ‘You wrote to me about my work?’

‘Sheila,’ she said and rubbed her palm, sweaty with nerves, on her jeans before thrusting it out to him. ‘Sheila Donnelly. Róisín’s wife.’ She watched him closely for the glimmer of recognition or the flinch that sometimes followed. Nothing.

‘Bien,’ he said, taking her hand after a pause where he looked at her face and then the cottage, taking it all in. His hand was small in her own and she felt the thinness and the press of her grip on the bone. ‘Madame,’ he said, indicating with his hand, when she released it, that she should go first before hefting his bag up with a grunt and limping to the door under its burden.

‘Will you let me take that for you if you’re suffering there? I’m as strong as an ox, you know.’ Sheila slid a couple of her fingers into the handle of his bag, next to his own and took the weight of it and, as she came close to him, smelled the stale cigarette smoke and unwashed clothes and hair. The bag felt almost empty, the few belongings in it sliding audibly as she took the bag from him and headed up the stairs by the door. She heard the creak of his jacket, the wheeze and the unsteady steps behind her. She dropped the bag on the bed and gave it a pat.

‘The bathroom’s down the end of the corridor there,’ she said turning back to see him leaning on the door jamb, regarding the small room with its solid wardrobes. He walked further in and laid a hand on the dresser.

‘This,’ he said, ‘is excellent. I write here if I need it. Or maybe you have a table in your garden where Le Quennec can smoke?’ Le Quennec needs to smoke in order to think.’ He struck his bony chest and Sheila had to stifle as smirk.

Sheila puttered about the kitchen, making coffee and was relieved to hear the diesel chug of Róisín’s car. Le Quennec had installed himself at the garden table, head bowed over his notebook, tapping ash into a garish old dish her mother had brought her back from a holiday in Torremolinos. The air was thick and heavy with heat and the threat of rain.

‘Sorry,’ Róisín said, bustling in and hefting a handful of shopping bags on to the kitchen counter. She leant in to peck Sheila on her cheek. ‘Kathy was having fits about where to put the lectern and I thought I’d never get … Shite, that’s him isn’t it?’ She spotted the small man hunched over her table through the French doors.

Sheila brought the coffee out with Róisín in train and introduced her.

‘Enchantée Madame,’ he said to Róisín, raising himself with a pained grunt. ‘You do not mind, perhaps, if I spend the time here? I have thoughts, Madame, which cannot escape. The boredom of a car journey is good for thoughts. But not so good for the writing.’

‘You go for your life there, Monsieur Le Quennec. Will you have dinner here or would you prefer to go to the pub across the road, so?’

‘Le Quennec, he prefers the life privée if this is OK? I do not eat so much these days you will find, but if you had a little wine …’

He’d polished off a bottle of red, Róisín noticed, before she’d laid the cutlery out, the scribble of his chewed biro punctuated by the steady stream of smoke and sipping. His head came up only as long as it took him to find a lighter or for the intermittent coughing fits that they both heard from the living room as they perched at either end of the long sofa with their books, ‘To give him a little space,’ as Sheila had whispered.

The three of them dined on Quinlan’s lamb that Sheila had bought in town. Quinlan they knew from the marches and lobbying for the ‘Yes’ vote, himself a gay man who lived up in the hills with Byrne the beekeeper. Gay lambs, they’d joked, brought up by two loving fathers.

‘All organic,’ she told Le Quennec, ‘grass fed alright, up on the hills the other side of the bay.’

‘Is good, this organic,’ he said, savouring the morsel of pink lamb after studying it on the end of his fork for a moment, ‘for the taste. But it is a futile gesture against the destruction of the planet, no? Has gone too far. Try to explain to the newly rich Thai or Chinese why he can’t have his Mercedes and burgers, you know? All is screwed. But good lamb all the same.’ He raised his glass to them in salute.

‘Have you ever thought about writing, then, about the environment?’ Róisín asked and, as she did so, leant across the table to rescue the remaining half of the second bottle, ensuring Sheila’s glass and her own got refilled.

‘But I do already,’ he said, offering his palms in supplication. ‘What is writing about the sex if it is not writing about over-population? But my intention is not important. Barthes is right, of course. Meaning, it lives with the reader, not the writer. The press and the reader have decided what Le Quennec means. Now, I just add fuel to the fire.’

‘Surely not,’ Sheila said, putting her own fork down to look at him better. ‘Writing’s more than just throwing scraps to the wolves.’

‘A good phrase, madame.’

‘How can you go on with it though, if that’s what you think?’

‘But what else is there for the artist to do?’ He got up, taking his glass with him and opened the French doors, ‘You do not mind?’ He had already pulled his cigarettes from the pockets of his faded jeans and Róisín nodded, mouth full. ‘I try’ he said, and exhaled a long stream of smoke with a sigh, ‘to throw the wolves the less appealing scraps. They gobble them up – the more awful, the better. Then they grimace at the taste.’

‘Is that why you do it?’ Róisín lent back on her own chair, the better to see him, half-lit in the doorway. ‘Just to get a reaction – the prostitution and all that stuff in your books?’

‘Who could say?’ The cough broke through his smile, doubling him over, the already reddened face purpling with the effort until, after a fated pause where neither of them could keep their eyes from him, he gave one last bark that expelled a lump of phlegm. It stuck to one of the inner panes of the doors and left a trail as it slid down, like a slug’s track. Brenda saw Róisín look askance at her.

‘Excusez-moi,’ he said, ‘it is my affliction, this cough.’

When Sheila rose to run the next morning, Le Quennec had already returned to the table in the garden, his notebook, the size of a banker’s ledger, in front of him. He was there still when she returned and moved only to perch himself in the back of Róisín’s dilapidated Fiat for the journey to the shop.

‘You’ll have to hold on to yourself back there,’ she told him. ‘We’ll take the high road, so. Lovely views but it gets a little steep.’

The streets were already thronging when they got into town, couples decked out in colourful sailing waterproofs, designed for easy spotting if they were dumped into the slate grey Atlantic which shimmered as they’d crested the top of the peninsula on the way to the town.

Le Quennec lit up the moment they drew up to the back of the shop in the quiet back streets where the tourists didn’t stray. He stood, smoking in the back yard, a mess of old pots and weeds protruding among the damp compacted remnants of cardboard book boxes.

‘Is possible for the artist to be afraid when he faces the public,’ he said between heavy drags that made the coal of his cigarette protrude, long and fiery. ‘Here Le Quennec hides.’

Róisín had to talk Kathy out of going straight into the yard to introduce herself. ‘Give the man a minute,’ she told her, settling in behind the till and looking around.

‘It’s been manic in here,’ Kathy said, ‘A queue half an hour before I opened up. At least I can make the coffee now that you’re in. That one,’ she pointed to a severe looking woman with a haircut like an ageing Joan of Arc, ‘was insistent that I fetched her a mocha there and then. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. Dublin type,’ she whispered. Róisín nodded. ‘Would he like one himself?’

‘I’ll ask him, shall I?’ Sheila said and ducked out of the store cupboard and into the yard beyond it.

Le Quennec paced around the small yard and waved away the idea of coffee. ‘The people here are – how you say? – bourgeois, no?’

‘Not the ones that live here so much,’ Sheila said, pointing to herself with a laugh, in her faded jeans and old sweater. ‘But the visitors, I suppose, are. It’s the boats, you see. Boats and horses – got to have a lot of cash for all that.’

‘Excellent,’ he smiled back, revealing a row of crooked, yellowed teeth.

By 10am the shop could not contain another customer. A small crowd had formed outside where Róisín had wedged the door open. Kathy had to stand by the lectern, borrowed from the community centre, to keep enough space free after an irate Cavan man demanded, ‘But I’ll not be able to see your man from back there to talk to him, like. Will you make a little space up the front here?’

She backed him into a corner and stood her ground saying, ‘That, sir, is where he’s going to be reading from and some of the rest of the audience might like a look at him as well.’

‘Right you are,’ he said and stood two feet further back, pressed up against the Dubliner, still clasping her mocha, who tutted loudly at the imposition.

The applause was louder than Róisín had expected when he finally emerged, a whoop coming from the doorway where a gaggle of young kids stood, drinking fluorescent cans of energy drinks. Le Quennec waited, slack-armed at the lectern, blinking at the packed shop. He’d almost refused to perform if he couldn’t smoke as he read.

‘They’ll have the permit off me for trading if anyone smokes in here,’ she’d told him. ‘You’ve seen the pubs. You can’t have a smoke and a drink together inside. Anyway, I sell paper, for heaven’s sake. Fire and paper – not good.’

They compromised on a bottle of wine that Sheila dashed out to beg from Dan Flannery at the supermarket, long before the legal time for buying it.

Le Quennec drank steadily, in between poems from his first collection, We All Die Alone, about the morbidity of the suburbs and a piece that had grown famous, describing the accountancy of sin. The Cavan man spoke up at one such pause for wine, saying, ‘Give us something from, your novel, like.’

The crowd murmured their approval and Le Quennec raised a hand, ‘Bien sur, monsieur.’ The author inclined his head and gave a sharp, ironic bow to the man before brandishing an edition of Human Wrongs, that displayed a bare-breasted woman on a cover banned in Ireland and the U.S. After a couple of sentences, the tutting started and the crowd began to stir as what had started as a banal scene on a commuter train became, in his halting, matter-of-fact delivery, an orgy that ended with the willing asphyxiation of one of the passengers. By the close of the excerpt, Le Quennec had paused twice, interrupted by the shuffle of the crowd as local folks, clearly less familiar with his work, had left, only to be replaced by those who waited outside.

The applause this time was muted but interspersed by the same feral whoop from the back. Róisín spoke over the ebb of it. ‘Are there any questions for Monsiuer Le Quennec?’ she asked, standing on her tiptoes, to see to the back. ‘Yes sir, you with the very fine hat, stood there by the poetry.’

‘Well now, M. Le Quennec,’ O’Callagahn, one of her regulars said, coughing in embarrassment as the heads turned in his direction, ‘with all the gloominess and despair about humanity and all, are you not a little too enthused about … the making of the babies?’

The laughter rippled through the crowd but died out before it reached Le Quennec who stood impassive, sipping his wine. ‘It is not the babies, monsieur,’ he said after a moment of quiet thought, ‘that I am interested in. Non. The babies are, how do you say? Less related to the sex elsewhere in the world than they might be here in this charming, medieval country.’ It took the crowd a moment to feel the barb hidden in the bait. ‘For me, is no laughing matter. The sex is – if you have the looks – a free pleasure, at least for a short while. Which is why the church denies it to you. But it is short-lived, the body, at least as an instrument of pleasure. The body,’ and he held out his arms in cruciform, as if bearing witness to his own truth, ‘withers and the capacity to attract … fades. To deny the pleasures of the flesh, the flesh’s own desire to seek pleasure, is the greatest of human wrongs.’ He gave the crowd a mock toast and drained his glass then filled it once more.

‘And what about the right to life for the kids that comes with all that sex?’ The Cavan man barked at him a couple of metres from the lectern but loud enough to be heard at the back of the shop.

‘The right to life …’ Le Quennec paused as if in contemplation of a concept he had not encountered before. ‘This is most interesting. What of the right to a life without the children for those who wish it? Surely that is a greater right than the right to enslave others to your own morality?’

The Cavan man grunted in disdain. ‘You’re cocksure of yourself, like, I’ll give you that,’ he said and took a step closer to the lectern.

Le Quennec refilled his glass and drank from it, considering the observation as the man stood staring at him, the crowd silent. ‘The cock of Le Quennec,’ he said, stepping away from the lectern and grasping his crotch in puzzled appraisal, ‘is sure, oui. The cock of Le Quennec, it must be free.’

Róisín grimaced at Le Quennec’s fumbling with his fly. The man moved under the cover of the laughter and struck the writer with a punch square on the temple, his arm catching the full glass and sending an arc of wine high in the air and over the shelves and the crowd surrounding it. The liquid hit them, causing as much of a shriek as Le Quennec who struck first the shelves and then the floor.

Róisín and Sheila both lunged at the purple-faced man who loomed, shouting at the figure curled on the ground, ‘You’re not so sure now, like, are you?’ A thickset-yachtsmen in the crowd wrapped his arms around the man and clasped his thick wrists until the assailant quietened himself and stiffened like a caught fish. The crowd parted, muttering their disapproval as the yachtsman marched him, awkward, to the door.

The guards, Jimmy Connolly and his young assistant, Fran Doyle, were outside the shop keeping an eye on things, mostly looking for tourists they could give a ticket, when they heard the commotion. They moved to the doorway to see the Cavan man, being frogmarched out.

‘This one’s after hitting my author,’ Róisín told Jimmy pointing at the attacker, whose head shone bald in the sunlight as he bowed it, not wanting to make eye contact.

‘I’d do it again,’ he said at his shoes, ‘against that bloody heathen, like.’ The yachtsmen tightened his arms around him and the man gasped at the pressure on his rib cage.

‘Easy there, sir,’ Connolly told the yachtsman before lowering his voice to the man he held. ‘You’ve a choice now. I can either cuff you here, sir,’ he said, ‘and I’ll march you down the street to the station, or you can come of your own accord like a good man.’

‘I’ll come,’ he said, ‘if you get him off me. It’s the Lord’s work I’m doing, like,’ he said.

‘I don’t remember much punching in our church,’ Connolly observed, to himself as much as anyone and took his arm. ‘Will the pair of you come with me too for a moment while I get him down there?’ Róisín and the yachtsman followed the guard, an embarrassed metre behind.

Sheila watched them go, and realised the young guard stood still on the pavement. ‘Is your writer alright, so?’ Fran Doyle said and watched her glance at the pimples sprouting around his mouth and the cheeks which, Sheila noted, looked as if they’d not seen a razor. ‘The writer?’ he had to repeat.

‘Shite,’ Sheila said. ‘Sorry. I’ve no idea. I was so busy getting him out of there, I’d not the time to check.’

‘Best you go in and call a doctor or something,’ he told her, ‘while we have a word with your man there. We’ll be back once we’ve got him comfortable in the cells for a bit.’

The crowd had stayed and when Sheila made it back through the doors, Le Quennec was stood, clutching a tissue to his head, his shirt stained with what might have been blood or wine, reading a description, from Twilight of the Supermen, of a church that had collapsed in a Mexican earthquake. The words that reached her as she came in were, ‘… the putrescence of tangled and rotting limbs made it difficult, the rescuers said, to identify one person from the next.’

As he came to a halt before them, Le Quennec swayed at the lectern and a hush fell over the audience at the spectacle of the teetering artist before a ripple of applause spread, gentle and muted across the shop.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Kathy spoke over the last echoes of the clapping, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, on account of this morning’s rather unseemly events, Monsieur Le Quennec will not be taking any further questions but if you’d like a signed copy of Twilight of the Supermen or any of his other works, please pick one up from the display table and the author will sign purchased copies at the till.’ She led Le Quennec, who leaned on her arm, down to a stool she had prepared for him.

It was an hour before the crowd thinned to normality and he had signed the last of the books. Róisín returned to see the piles of empty cups and raised an eyebrow to Sheila who was working the coffee machine and taking money for other purchases. One woman remained, stood by the fiction shelves but not, Róisín noticed, browsing, watching the writer instead as he slid from the stool. Catching Róisín’s eye, she walked over, and she noticed the sleekness of the woman’s bob and the elegant coat. Not local, she thought.

‘Róisín Donnelly? Jenny Lenehan,’ she said and Róisín smiled and raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. ‘Munster Independent, in Limerick.’ She turned to speak across the shop so that Le Quennec, who was hobbling towards them, could hear, ‘Would you have two minutes for me to have a word with you, Mr Le Quennec, about what happened here this morning? And perhaps a word with yourself about the event and the shop more generally, Róisín?’

‘Madame,’ Le Quennec said, ‘I will be glad to speak. But in deux minutes. This is the longest Le Quennec has spent awake without the cigarette in years. I must smoke and piss. Then questions.’

‘Would you like one of us to go out there with you, now?’ Kathy asked, lifting her head from where she had been counting the remaining few copies on the display table.

‘Is best, how you say?’ Le Quennec touched his brow, ‘to lick the wounds, alone, no?’ He shuffled out of the door by the coffee machine and Róisín turned to Sheila, who was totalling her till receipts and adding them to the numbers from the other till.

‘Will I go out and check on him in a minute?’ she asked, not raising her head.

‘Would you?’ Róisín turned at the sound of the bell and the heavy footfalls that followed it. The guards were back.

‘How are you now?’ Guard Connolly asked, ‘and how’s your man faring there? Where is he?’

‘Out back having a smoke,’ Róisín told him. ‘He’s right enough. A bit shaky on his feet but that’s a hell of a belt he took there, and it’s not like he’s in the best of shape to start with.’

‘You mind if I have a wee word with you about what went on before your man comes back in? It just that the other fella – ’

‘This lady here, Jim,’ Sheila cut across him in a loud, friendly voice, ‘is with the newspapers. Jenny was it?’ she asked. ‘She wanted to ask a few questions too.’

‘Would you get that now?’ Connolly smiled at her. ‘Quite in demand, your man, now, isn’t he?’

Jenny smiled and offered her hand to the policeman. ‘We’re all local people here, Guard Connolly, is it? I’ve a Connolly cousin through marriage, lives up the road in Goleen. Anthony. Owns a garage on the edge of town. He wouldn’t be any relation now would he?’

The Cork game of six degrees of separation ensued as Jim admitted, by increments that the same Anthony, was a child of his aunt’s second marriage and before long they’d agreed to ask the questions together.

‘You fire away there now,’ Connolly said, ‘and we might all be out of here for our lunch after all. You make sure you get all this down, Fran,’ he said to his assistant who stood with his notebook already open.

Róisín and Sheila recounted as best they could the events of the morning and a little of Le Quennec’s reputation. Kathy, who had been serving the few remaining customers and tidying the shelves, chipped in with Le Quennec’s insistence that he continue the reading despite struggling to stand for a minute or two. ‘I think he fell into the shelves back there and that did for him as much as anything,’ she said. ‘There’s a few copies ruined by the wine that flew back there too.’

It was only when they had finished their account that Connolly said, ‘He’s taking his time, your man, isn’t he?’ and Sheila went out to look for him.

Her shout of ‘Come quick!’ had the rest of them piled up in the small stock cupboard and crowding the yard which was only large enough to accommodate Róisín and Jim Connolly alongside Sheila and the prone, pale figure of the author who lay awkward and blue-lipped, a rictus grimace on his face. His jeans, Róisín noticed, were stained and soaked where he had fallen in a puddle, still clutching an unlit cigarette in his hand which had soaked to a grey, bent mess. Connolly felt for a pulse and tried a few desultory breaths and chest compressions before sitting back on his haunches.

‘No breath in him,’ he said. ‘No pulse neither. You can call Dr Brennan, Róisín, if you would, but it’ll be to certify a death, I’m afraid.’ He lay the man’s head down, on the cracked concrete and stepped back to consider him for a moment.

Jenny Lenehan’s headline that week ran ‘The Death of the Author’ and followed a parade of television trucks and a murder enquiry. The truth of the matter was that Barry Lynch, an evangelical dentist from Killashandra, finally served two quiet years for involuntary manslaughter.

It was, though, the making of Peninsula Books. On the anniversary of Le Quennec’s death Róisín found herself, as on so many mornings before it, clearing up empty wine bottles and cigarette packs from the front step, all of them stuffed with the admiring notes of fans who visited on their perverse pilgrimage to the town. When she let herself back into the newly expanded shop, she stood for a moment, bin bag in hand, looking at the prominent display table at the front of the shop, piled with the new posthumous editions of the Frenchman’s works, bearing a sepia image of his grizzled locks. Le Quennec’s books – not least the posthumously published Yellow is the Colour of Death that he had been editing during his visit – sold better than anything else in the shop and, she supposed, had made her wealthy. She sighed, and carried the bag out to the back yard, flicked the switch on the espresso machine and readied herself for another busy day.

About the Author

John Herbert

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John Herbert has played rugby, poured pints and worked on doors in UK and Ireland. He stumbled upon a PhD in modern fiction at Birmingham University and has since graduated from New Writing South's Creative Writing Programme and Advanced Writers' Workshop. He was highly commended for the 2017 Brighton Prize for short fiction and is published in their print anthology in 2017 and 2018 as well as in The Forge Literary Magazine, Words for the Wild, DNA Magazine, Porridge and The Nottingham Review in 2018. He now teaches and writes in Brighton, UK and tweets @jherbertwriter.