Apart from the Crowd

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2008-08-12
  • Publisher: Downtown Press
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The talented and critically acclaimed author of "Pack Up the Moon" returns with this honest and heartfelt story of five friends who must sort out their messy lives by saving each other.


Chapter One

Only Twenty Miles

It was a rainy afternoon in South Kerry -- driving rain reminiscent of the opening credits of a Hollywood action or end-of-the-world movie, and, if given to fantasy, one might expect a muscular, sinewy and scantily dressed male to power through the deluge with a damp and distressed girl in his arms and a gun in his back pocket. What he would do with the girl or the gun, and what the girl and gun would have to do with the rain, would be left up to the imagination of the fantasist. Still, we can all agree that there really is nothing like the image of a wet man with a purpose to brighten up an otherwise boring indoor day.

Mary sat on her window seat and pulled the curtains back to watch water hit water and slide from the decks of the boats bobbing fiercely by the pier. Mr. Monkels, her large golden Labrador, lay with his head on her lap. He was peeved because rain meant no walk and he loved his walks, despite the fact that his advanced years meant that they were little more than a series of rests. Mary smiled at her hefty old friend.

"It's not the end of the world, Mr. Monkels -- there's always tomorrow."

Mr. Monkels remaining unimpressed. He sighed and this sigh turned to a grunt, which was then followed by a low wheezing sound that often made Mary wonder whether he had a form of dog asthma. Then again, as his age in dog years was the equivalent to eighty-one, it was a frigging miracle he could breathe unaided, never mind take a walk. Mary stroked his left ear, which although deaf still retained sensitivity to touch -- as opposed to his right ear, which although in perfect working order was partly missing following a nasty fishing accident seventeen years before.

Mr. Monkels had been a present from Mary's father to mark her twelfth year. He was only ten weeks old at the time of the accident and running madly around the deck of her uncle's boat while she concentrated on taking a black-and-white photo of a dead mackerel. Her cousin Ivan was practicing casting off. Accidentally and inexplicably, the hook had found itself imbedded in Mr. Monkels's ear. Unaware, Ivan cast off. Predictably, Mr. Monkels yelped so that Mary raised her head in time to see her puppy sail through the air like a furry big-eyed missile. Ivan managed to shout out "Jesus on a jet ski! Watch him go!" before the pup plummeted paws first and with a mighty splash into the water. He rose to the surface quickly, splashing and barking. After quickly commenting on the dog's grace and agility and under threat of a battering, Ivan rescued him soon after. Unfortunately, a large part of his ear was to be what Ivan would later term "a casualty of the sea."

Now she stroked his good ear, smiling at the memory of her puppy wagging his tail despite his near-death experience. She had thought back then that her animal either possessed Herculean bravery or was Daffy Duck stupid and, as it turned out, he was a little of both. She lost herself in his big brown cloudy eyes for a minute or two. His nose was dryer than she'd like. She picked up his head in her hands and slowly moved it onto a waiting pillow. Mr. Monkels moaned a little and briefly she wondered if, in promising her dog a tomorrow, she'd led him up the proverbial garden path.

The cottage was old and quaint, well insulated and warm, with a curious homely smell of many years of log fires and home cooking. This had been her primary reasoning behind purchasing the place. She liked the feel of it. The kitchen was an extension refurbished two years previously to suit Mary's taste and yet in keeping with the old-world feel of the place. She liked pottery and had indulged herself in various lamps, vases, plates and cups in the past few years. Once, she'd made the mistake of admitting to enjoying the feel of a heavy cup and the look of a round-based lamp to her best friend, Penny, who called her a total tosser before wondering aloud as to who the hell admits to liking the feel of a heavy cup or the look of a round-based lamp. Her friend had a point and Mary didn't mention her proclivity for pottery in those terms again.

The walls were painted a deep purple but the color was only partially visible under the multitude of black-framed photographs which lined her walls. As a teenager she had been consumed by photography, taking workshops after school and saving for a decent camera and darkroom equipment. Initially, she had shown a flair for black-and-white shots, managing to inject mystique and a certain beauty into even the most mundane of subjects. She discovered her love of portraits in her late teens and hounded her friends for their faces, managing to capture their essence in expression and time despite their annoyance. It was her son who had later inspired color with his jet-black hair, his pink cheeks, red full lips, his chubby white hands and his blue, blue eyes. A boy like Ben just didn't belong in black and white. Her sitting room had a gallery feel to it; ghosts of a different time leaped from every wall. Scattered photos of the objects and the people in her life living and dead surrounded her on all sides. One photo, the one above the clock, was of the dead mackerel she had photographed the day Mr. Monkels enacted his convincing impression of a torpedo -- its shiny skin shining in the sun and its black eye staring somehow managed to either captivate or disgust the most casual observer. Ivan had often described the feeling it instilled as being "outright weird," while her neighbor Mossy had excitedly described it as "pure evidence of transcendence" without ever explaining why. Another photo of a black cart laden with freshly cut white lilies spoke of the plainest beauty -- but mostly she liked it because it reminded her of the day that she and Robert, her first and arguably only dalliance with love, had gate-crashed a Gypsy funeral to get drunk on generosity and free beer. Her favorite photo, and for no real reason, was of a crystal bowl in a window streaming light. These images were interspersed with those of family and friends. Her father bent forward in deep concentration, head in hand, glasses at the tip of his nose and paper in hand. Her Auntie Sheila, apron on, hair pinned back, left hand in her pocket, right hand stirring a stew, and a grin on her face which suggested she'd just heard a dirty joke. Her cousin Ivan, tanned, lean and boyish in shorts and an old fishing cap, casting off. Her old boyfriend Robert with his shining black hair and big eyes smiling, linking Ivan, who was pulling her friend Penny's blond hair, and Adam, Penny's giant footballer boyfriend, laughing with his head held back. These were only some of the photos she surrounded herself with. She liked to be able to look upon her wall and see someone she loved. She found it comforting.

Of course, her son had a wall all to himself. It wasn't shrinelike, indicating an unhealthy reverence or fascination. They didn't stand out, instead they belonged, as though the wall's sole purpose had always been to house them. And so the visitor was treated to a gallery of her son's laughter, his tears, his tantrums, his joy and sadness, all captured in twelve 8 X 10 photos which represented five years of life.

Although there were only two bedrooms, Mary didn't need any more. She lived alone and had done so for five years. She turned to look at her son staring down at her from the wall and holding on to a squiggling Mr. Monkels. She smiled at him, now dead as long as he lived, he in turn smiling back at her, locked in time, forever a five-year-old, and forever smiling.

She checked the time and this revealed her hair dye had been in for well over half an hour. The dye was organic and smelled like shit in sunshine, and she wasn't sure if it was its strength or the onset of glaucoma that was bringing tears to Mr. Monkels's right eye. She checked her roots in the mirror and, upon confirming that they were sufficiently red, made her way upstairs to wash the color away. Later, she combed it out in front of her bathroom mirror before slapping moisturizer on her face and attempting to rub away the black rings around her eyes, with little or no success.Oh great, I look like a red-haired panda. Not exactly the look I was going for.She had been dying her hair red since the age of fifteen and, of those around her, very few remembered her natural mousy brown color and, although her hair color was fire-engine fake, it set off her pale skin and emerald eyes even when they were tired and betrayed her twenty-nine years.

She emptied the fridge of the food that had gone off during the four days she had been sequestered in her room, having endured a particularly nasty migraine. The rain continued to pour down from an open sky, rattling her windows before hitting the ground. The rain always reminded her of Ben but for no particular reason; it's not like he had really liked the rain or that they had shared any great memories that featured rain. It was possible that it was just those lazy indoor days that allowed her the time to remember him. Maybe it was the sound -- as though the world was weeping or the way it crept down her window like tears. She walked into her sitting room with the intention of playing some music, but instead found herself staring at a framed black-and-white photo on the corner wall of Robert, then a sixteen-year-old boy, standing by a lake holding up a large fish, grinning widely and with eyes so much like his son's. She viewed this boy and felt more like his mother than his teenage girlfriend. She often wondered what he would be like if he had lived past seventeen but had long ago resigned herself to the fact that she would never know.

Cheer up, Panda Face!she thought, upon catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror.

"There is nothing quite as aging as morbidness," she said aloud and with a smile.

Mr. Monkels groaned in agreement. She laughed a little and put on the Scissor Sisters. "After all, Mr. M, no one does happy like homos!" She chuckled at her own joke but her dog didn't share either her sense of humor or her taste in music, because his reaction was to bury his head under his considerably large-sized paws, reminding her that she needed to get his nails clipped.

She boiled the kettle to make a pot of tea and pulled out the biscuit tin. It was definitely a day for tea and biscuits. Ivan had dropped off a DVD earlier, and, having spent the previous four days in a darkened bedroom, she was looking forward to settling down to a pleasant evening in front of the TV. But first she'd empty the washing machine, despite encroaching exhaustion.

It was a cold and crisp March morning in upstate New York. Sam stood in the center of the room taking one long last look at the white walls, white painted wooden floor and white sheets covering a white bed complete with white blankets. Coincidentally, on this day the small cubed window looked out onto a white sky. The painting above the bed was of a white cumulus cloud with the merest hint of a deep blue sky in the background. Sam moved to sit on his white wicker chair so as to stare at the deviant color, pondering silently whether or not it symbolized his possible future -- like, for instance, blue skies ahead. Then again, a blue sky suggested a brightness that would be a large leap from the pile of shit from which he'd emerged. So instead and momentarily, he decided that it was more likely to be representative of that glimmer of hope those around him had often talked about. Although, and most likely, it meant nothing, the person who had bought the picture having never discussed its intent with the individual who hung it, who was most likely a workman with no interest in the musings of an addled brain. This deliberation was concluded with the notion that after two months in rehab, he had definitely experienced way too much therapy.

He turned his attention to his brown, battered and empty suitcase, opened out on and in contrast to his pristine bed, reminding him of the imperfect world outside.I'm never going to make it.

Eight weeks previously and the first time he'd awoken in this ridiculously white room, he had briefly believed himself to be dead. A lifelong atheist, his strongly held belief in nothing lapsed momentarily and he waited for the appearance of God, Saint Peter, Beelzebub or his long-gone Granny Baskin. The arrival of a large hulking gravel-voiced black man had come as a slight shock, his not having expected God, Saint Peter, Beelzebub or his long-gone Granny Baskin to manifest as an NBA basketball player.Holy shit!Then through his haze he heard the clicking sound of the door locking, and once the function of focus was achieved, he saw the NBA player crossing his arms and surveying the mess that lay twisted in front of him. And suddenly he knew exactly where he was.Ah crap!Death would have been the preferred choice. Then again, it would appear that cruelly the choice had not been his to make.

And so began his new life, one filled with vomit and excrement, crying and swearing, pleading and blackmail. The level of pain the body could feel as the heroin battled losing its grip was a shock. Childbirth couldn't be worse, of that he was sure, describing it to the NBA player as fucking torture in a whimpering, simpering tone that was unrecognizable even to himself. The hallucinations had been a welcome distraction, even the ones that freaked him out, like when he was sure that his own left arm had morphed into Cher and he'd chipped a knuckle driving her into the wall in an attempt to get her to stop singing "Just Like Jessie James."

"Holy fuck, I've just killed Cher!" Sam said in alarm.

"No, but you've made shit out of your hand," Danziger replied from a faraway place.

"Sonny's going to kill me," Sam said, shaking his head, and Danziger sighed.

"Let's just try to dial down the crazy," he instructed while tucking Sam into his bed like a father would a tired son.

The image of Danziger in a tutu was interesting, especially as he had flippers instead of feet.

"You're sure you're not wearing a tutu?" he asked.

"No, man, no tutu," Danziger sighed.

"If you say so, but your flippers are really fucked up," Sam said, gazing intently at Danziger's feet.

"Yeah, well, they're not alone." Danziger grinned.The kid has imagination. I'll give him that.

Sam would have thought that after all this time he'd be sick to death of all this white, but he wasn't. He would have believed that he'd crave some color, but he didn't. Originally desperate to leave, now he knew he could happily remain in his white cube forever, warm and safe, with no possibility of life interrupting. Yesterday he was calm, but today fear hung over him like an invisible lead coat -- his knees threatening to buckle.

Danziger, the NBA basketball player, in reality a male nurse in his early fifties, entered from the hall and tapped the inside of the door to signal his arrival.

"Today's the day." He grinned.

Sam just stared at his empty case, unsure how to respond, having lost all energy to pretend that going home was a choice he'd been given to make. Silence was best. Danziger had seen it all before, both of them were aware of that fact, and this knowledge weighed heavily in the air. Danziger sat on Sam's white bed.

"I know it's hard." He spoke as softly as a man who smoked forty cigarettes a day could.

"I know you know," Sam replied despondently.

"You're reliving your auspicious entrance into this fine facility?" Danziger said with mock gravitas betrayed by a grin.

"Yeah," Sam admitted. "I thought I'd died."

Danziger laughed at the memory of Sam screaming and begging his forgiveness for the actions of the white man.

"What?" Sam asked, smiling at his nurse's hearty chuckle.

"Anyone ever mention that you scream like a little girl?" he laughed, and Sam pretended to reach over to punch him.

They both sat silently, Danziger allowing Sam to acknowledge the road ending.

"Everyone feels scared, son," Danziger reminded him after a long few minutes. He knew that Sam liked it when he called him son.

"I know that too," Sam said with a smile that stubbornly refused to reach his eyes.

"Wow! You know a lot for an asshole."

Sam laughed and nodded because he was right on both counts and they slipped into a comfortable silence.

Mary hadn't slept well the previous night, having been woken by a strange dream in which she had seen a teenage boy with a hood pulled tight and covering his face. He was running and she could feel his heart beat so hard that her own began battering against her chest wall. She heard his feet pounding the street and watched him turn in time to witness those that followed emerge around a corner. His feet moved faster and faster but his steps seemed to be shorter and shorter until he was running in place. She woke with a start, damp and heart still racing.Morphine hangover, she thought, and it made sense, her having been on two injections a day for four days running.

A shower and a glass of water later, and having gargled with mouthwash, she returned to her bed accompanied by a terrible uneasy feeling which guaranteed that she would lie awake and wondering. She often had "feelings" and sometimes they had forecast something terrible, but mostly they came to nothing much. She wondered about her cryptic dream. Around three thirty, weary and yet alert, she wondered if it foretold something bad like the time she dreamed Tina Murphy The Hill was trapped inside a large angry-looking egg. At the time she had dismissed it as nothing more than her own propensity for weirdness -- however, the following week Tina Murphy The Hill collapsed at Weight Watchers and a day later had a ruptured ovary removed. Or, indeed, the time she saw Jimmy Jaw frantically searching for something in what appeared to be a large medical waste bin. Later that week he lost his little finger in a freak sawing accident. Not to mention awaking to the image of Sheena Shaw's cat Johnson on a flying carpet passing through clouds in the company of a sickly miniature pig, only to hear the very next day that he had been found throwing up bacon. The cat survived his encounter with food poisoning but Sheena's six-month-old carpet was described as smelling to high heaven and required replacing. She began listing some of the endless possibilities. Was the hooded boy a metaphor for a death?Poor Mr. Monkels!Worrying about Mr. Monkels took her to approximately three fifty, at which time, having registered that the link between a hooded boy and an ancient dog was tenuous, she switched her concern to whether or not it in some way signified Penny's disastrous love life? Then again, this disaster was ongoing.That could explain the running. Poor Penny!Then again, the kid was definitely a boy and not a girl, and, after all, Penny's love life might not have been the stuff of fairy tales but at least she had one. It was just after four fifteen when she began contemplating why she was alone.Am I frigid? No, I like to get laid just as much as the next person. It's very relaxing. Am I scared? Yes? No? Maybe. OK, this is getting too heavy. Change the subject. Am I a lunatic? Has grief driven me to the precipice of sanity?She smiled because in her head she was humming the tune to "She's a Maniac." And although her ramblings distracted her, they didn't seem to have an effect on her elevated pulse or awful sense of dread, so she refocused, concentrating on other concerns. Her dad had just had his heart checked and he was healthier than a fourteen-year-old. Ivan seemed happy and healthy; then again, he was still adjusting to life post a nasty separation. It had been over a year and he hadn't even attempted to find himself a girlfriend. It seemed a great waste to Mary as her cousin was kind, loving and not an ugly man. At around five she vowed to watch over him, knowing that Ivan wasn't built to be alone. At six she was still uneasy. Maybe the cause of her upset was the rain which had started to fall just after she had woken from the dream. The pier had flooded the year before and some of the cottages were badly damaged. She had miraculously escaped for no other reason than sheer luck and there was no way she would be lucky twice. It was a frigging miracle she'd been lucky once. Maybe it was the fear of flooding that was niggling deep down.Yeah, it must be that.

Despite her outward appearance, which suggested a calm and cool nature to those who loved her and possibly an impenetrable and cold one to those who didn't, Mary often worried about things that other people didn't. She would often daydream about terrible events that she would undoubtedly survive while those around would fall. The end of the world was her recurring nightmare; she'd be left to stand in the center of the universe alone, with nothing but thousands and thousands of miles of bodies and destruction enclosing her. She wasn't depressive or paranoid; she didn't suffer from any kind of insanity, morbidness or disturbing psychology. She was just aware that bad things happened and that they could happen to her. She didn't have the comfort of viewing death and disaster as some faraway notion to be tut-tutted about before being skipped over in favor of a conversation about shoes. It was a long-held belief by not only Mary but by many of the townspeople of Kenmare that she was a curse to those who loved her. She had long ago become used to being referred to as "Mary of the Sorrows." Of course, mostly it was a name intended to be used behind her back as opposed to her face, but sometimes an individual slipped, and more often than not she responded to the truncated version: "Mary of the..."

The name was born because people around her died. Her mother, her boyfriend and son couldn't survive her and she had long ago accepted her place in this world, which would be forever apart from the crowd. Her father had often attempted to dispel her theory by using his own survival as an example for the defense. She would smile at her dear old dad and make a joke so that he'd laugh and not worry about her and her fears. But it didn't help that she would most likely survive him too, and one day he would be a picture she would become lost in on a rainy day.

Mary put a neatly folded basket full of clean clothes under the stairs, having conceded a four-day headache culminating in a sleepless night meant she was just too jaded to iron. The phone rang in the distance and for a second she considered ignoring it, but curiosity was her vice.

"Hello?" she inquired, her high pitch suggesting she was slightly harassed.

"Jesus, have you seen the rain?" It was Penny.

"Yeah," she agreed, relieved to hear her friend's voice. "Mr. Monkels is like a pig." She laughed.

"Mr. Monkels smells like a pig," Penny retorted, and Mary laughed because she was right -- when that dog farted it brought tears to the human eye.

"Are you better?" Penny asked.

"Yeah," Mary agreed.

"No blind spots, facial paralysis or partial blindness?" Penny said airily.

"Nope, I'm back in black." Mary laughed.

"Excellent," her friend noted. "Why don't we celebrate and head over to Killarney and see a movie?"

Mary looked out the window again. "It's horrible out there. I was planning on a night in with a DVD, the rain at the window, dog on my lap and a pot of tea by my elbow."

Penny was disgusted as she had her heart set on the new George Clooney film. "I swear, you're such an old lady, Mary. How the hell are you ever going to meet someone if your idea of a great night is sitting in with a dog?"

"Oh, and going to the Killarney Cineplex is a great way to meet men?" Mary countered, grinning at the absurdity. "Besides, there's a lot to be said for staying in," she continued while attempting to remove a chocolate stain from her cardigan, armed with only saliva and her thumb. While doing so she realized that wearing a cardigan gave Penny's previous statement some credence so she took it off. She might be unwilling to look for love in a Cineplex but she wasn't inclined to turn into Miss Marple either.

"Why don't you come over?" she asked.

"Hmmm, let me see," Penny wondered aloud. "George Clooney or you and a dog?"

"What's the movie?" Mary asked, merely to satisfy curiosity.

"Who cares? I just want to look at something pretty," Penny answered, true to form.

"And I'm supposed to be the sad one!" Mary laughed, shaking her head to suggest a mock despair.

"Yeah, well, 'Penny of the Sorrows' doesn't have the same ring to it. Besides, there's nothing sad about wanting to watch that sexy bastard get up to a few tricks."

"I used to love him inER. He was so great with kids." Mary's voice suggested she was far away.

"Yeah, that's what's so appealing!" Penny said, laughing.

Silence followed as an impasse had been reached. Mary was desperate to stay within her four walls and Penny desperate to break free of hers.

"Come on, I have both a deep need to be shallow and a desperate need of distraction. If you drive I can have a drink," Penny pleaded.

Mary thought about it for a second before mumbling, "You always need distracting."

Penny would have pushed but she knew how Mary felt about crossing the mountain in the rain, and she was also mindful that, despite Mary's advice to the contrary, her head possibly felt like it had just been kicked.

"I have a bottle of wine in the fridge," Mary said, knowing that it would be the deciding factor on whether her friend would choose her over a movie star.

"All right," Penny conceded. "What's the DVD?"

Mary grabbed the video box on the coffee table while looking over to where Mr. Monkels now sat with his paws pressed against the window, much like a prisoner would hold on to bars.

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape," Mary said, reading the label.

"What's eating what?"

"It's directed by Lasse Hallström." Mary continued to read, deep down knowing her friend hadn't a clue or a care as to who Lasse Hallström was.


"He directedOnce Around." She read on.

Penny remained unimpressed.

"Which was a Sundance favorite apparently," Mary continued pathetically.

"Sundance means worthy and worthy means complete crap." Penny had an ability to inject disdain into her tone that was quite theatrical.

Mary smiled. "Yeah, well, this one mentions nothing about Sundance, it's about..." She read on silently and decided against going with the blurb.

Penny was busy weighing up her options. "The eating movie directed by a man who sounds like a weather system or George Clooney?" It was an unfair contest, but then again she didn't feel like facing the mountain alone and she had to get out of the house. Still, she needed more information before fully committing to a night in -- after all, she could always go to the pub.

Mary hadn't noticed the actors' names and, when she at last copped them, she knew the deal was sealed.

"Hah!" she noted triumphantly. "Starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio!" She could hear Penny stand up.

"Open the wine, I'm on my way."

Copyright 2006

Excerpted from Apart from the Crowd by Anna McPartlin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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