The following is from Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting. Murray is the author of three novels, including An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which was short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award; (2010) which was long-listed for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the NBCC Award; and The Mark and the Void (2015) which was the joint winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and named one of Time’s Top 10 Fiction Books of the year.
In the next town over, a man had killed his family. He ’d nailed the doors shut so they couldn’t get out; the neighbours heard them running through the rooms, screaming for mercy. When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.
Everyone was talking about it – about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had. Rumours swirled about affairs, addiction, hidden files on his computer.
Elaine just said she was surprised it didn’t happen more often. She thrust her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans and looked down the dreary main street of their town. I mean, she said, it’s some thing to do.
Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass’s eczema during an experiment. It was an accident; she’d cried more than Cass did, and insisted on going with her to the nurse. They’d been friends ever since. Every morning Cass called to Elaine’s house and they walked to school together. At lunchtime, they rolled up their long skirts and wandered around the supermarket, listening to music from Elaine’s phone, eating croissants from the bakery section that were gone by the time they got to the checkout. In the evening, they went to each other’s houses to study.
Cass felt she’d known Elaine for ever; it made no sense that they had not always been friends. Their lives were so similar it was almost eerie. Both girls came from well-known families in the town: Cass’s father, Dickie, owned the local Volkswagen dealership, while Elaine’s dad, Big Mike, was a businessman and cattle farmer. Both girls were of slightly above-average height; both were bright, in fact they were consistently at the top of their class. Both intended to leave here some day and never come back.
Elaine had golden hair, green eyes, a perfect figure. When she bought clothes online, they always fitted perfectly, as if they’d been made with her in mind. Writing about her in her journal, Cass used words like grace and style. She had what the French called je ne sais quoi. Even when she was clipping her toenails, she looked like she was eating a peach.
When Cass came round to Elaine’s house, they would sit in her bed room with the carousel lamp on and look at the Miss Universe Ireland website. Elaine was thinking seriously about entering, though not for the title itself so much as the opportunities it might offer. The previous year’s winner was now brand ambassador for a juice company.
Cass thought Elaine was prettier than any of the contestants pictured online. But it was tricky. Each of the girls competing to be Miss Universe Ireland, and from there to be Miss Universe for the world/universe overall, had an adversity they had overcome. One had been a refugee from a war in Africa. Another had needed surgery when she was a small girl. A very thin contestant had once been very fat. The adversity had to be something bad, like a learning disability, but not really bad, like being chained up in a basement for ten years by a paedophile. Cass’s eczema would be a perfect adversity; they wondered, if she held her skin up against Elaine’s long enough, whether she could pass it on to her. But it didn’t seem to work. Elaine said the adversity requirement was unfair. When you think about it, it’s almost like a kind of discrimination, she said.
The housekeeper knocked on the door to say it was time for Elaine’s swimming lesson. Elaine rolled her eyes. The swimming pool was always full of BandAids and old people. Coming from here, she said. If that isn’t an adversity, I don’t know what is.
Elaine hated their town. Everyone knew everyone, everybody knew your business; when you walked down the street people would slow down their cars to see who you were so they could wave at you. There were no proper shops; instead of McDonald’s and Starbucks, they had Binchy Burgers and Mangan’s Café, where the owners worked behind the counter and asked after your parents. You can’t even buy a sausage roll without having to tell someone your life story, she complained.
The smallness wouldn’t have been so bad if the townsfolk had had a little more sophistication. But their only interest, besides farming and the wellbeing of the microchip factory, was Gaelic games. Football, hurling, camogie, the county, the Cup, the under-21s – that was all any one ever talked about. Elaine hated GAA. She was bad at sports, in spite of her grace. She was always the last up the rope in gym class; in games, she confined herself to the sidelines, where she scowled, flicked her hair, and wafted reluctantly back and forth with the general direction of play, like a lovely frond at the bottom of a noisy, grunting ocean.
The Tidy Towns Committee, of which Cass’s mother was a member, was always shiteing on about the natural beauty of the area, but Elaine did not accept this. Nature in her eyes was almost as bad as sports. The way it kept growing ? The way things, like crops or whatever, would die and then next year they came back ? Did no one else get how creepy that was?
I’m not being negative, she said. I just want to live somewhere I can get good coffee and not have to see nature and everyone doesn’t look like they were made out of mashed potato.
Cass didn’t care for GAA either, and she agreed about the general lack of je ne sais quoi. For her, though, the presence of Elaine was enough to cancel out the town’s faults.
She had never felt so connected to someone. When they messaged each other at night – sometimes they’d stay up till two in the morning – they got so in synch it was almost like they were the same person. If Elaine texted Cass to say WTF was up with that jumper today, she would know immediately whose jumper she was talking about; a single, unexplained word, bagatelle or lickout, could make her laugh so loud that her dad would hear from across the landing and come in and tell her to go to sleep. In some ways, that was the best time of all – better even than being together. As she lay in bed, messages flying back and forth between them, Cass would feel like she was flying too, far above the town, in a pure space that belonged completely to her and her best friend.
Most days they went to Elaine’s after school, but sometimes, for a change of scene, Elaine would want to come to Cass’s instead. She liked to hang out in the kitchen talking to Imelda – that’s what she called Cass’s mother, ‘Imelda’, so casually and naturally that after a while Cass started doing it too. You are so working those jeggings, Imelda, she’d say. Oh, you think so? Cass’s mam/‘Imelda’ would say, and she’d lean over with impossible willow-like grace to examine the back of her own thighs. I wasn’t sure about the stripes. The stripes are what make it, Elaine would say conclusively, and Imelda would look happy.
Cass’s mother was a famous beauty. She too had blonde hair and green eyes. It’s so weird that she’s your mam, Elaine said. Doesn’t it make more sense that I should be her daughter?
Then we’d be sisters! Cass said.
No, I mean, instead of you, Elaine said.
Cass wasn’t sure what to do with that. But the fact remained that Elaine got on better with her mother than she did. Imelda liked to give Elaine face creams to try out; they traded beauty secrets and product advice. Cass was a bystander in these conversations. Nothing works on her skin, Imelda said, because of the eczema. It’s a real adversity, Elaine agreed.
Once, Imelda had taken the girls with her to Dublin for the pre-sales. The discounts hadn’t been put on the price tags yet; only platinum customers knew about them. This secret elevation over the other shoppers had made Elaine visibly giddy; she watched Imelda stalk the clothes rails, whipping pitilessly through the garments like an empress at the slave market, as if she could see the difference, like an aura around her, a platinum glow.
Cass did not totally get the Imelda-worship. In her view, Elaine was much prettier than her mother. Yeah, but your mam’s got to be at least, like, thirty-four, Elaine said. I mean, she’s really kept her looks.
Elaine felt that her own mother hadn’t aged well, and had once con fessed her ‘greatest fear’ was that her looks too would be transitory, and that she would spend the rest of her life as one of the lumpen potato people she saw shuttling their shopping trolleys through the Lidl car park.
It was true: even now, as a mother of two, Imelda had an electrifying effect on people. When she walked down the street women would cock their heads and gaze at her adoringly, as if at some dazzling athletic dis play. Men would stop, and stammer, their pupils dilating and their mouths quivering in half-formed O’s, as if trying to push out some ineffable word.
Cass’s own effect was not electrifying, and when she told people that Imelda was her mother, they would stare at her a moment as if trying to solve a puzzle, then pat her hand sympathetically, and say, It’s after your father you take, so.
Elaine said it wasn’t just about looks. Imelda also had mystique, magnetism.
I can’t believe she married your dad, she said candidly.
Cass too sometimes had trouble believing it – that her dad, who was so thoughtful, so sensitive, had fallen for Imelda’s 100 per cent superficial allure like every other chump. She didn’t want to devalue her mother in Elaine’s eyes. At the same time, she didn’t know how Elaine could think Imelda had mystique. To spend time with her mother was to get a running commentary on the contents of her mind – an incessant barrage of thoughts and sub-thoughts and random observations, each in itself insignificant but cumulatively overwhelming. I must book you in for electrolysis for that little moustache you’re getting, she’d say; and then while you were still reeling, Are those tulips or begonias? There ’s Marie Devlin, do you know she has no sense of style, none whatsoever. Is that man an Arab? This place is filling up with Arabs. Where ’s this I saw they had that nice chutney? Kay Connor told me Anne Smith’s lost weight but the doctor said it was the wrong kind. I thought it was supposed to be sunny today, that’s not one bit sunny. Who invented chutney, was it Gorbachev? And on, and on – listening to her was like walking through a blizzard, a storm of frenzied white nothings that left you snow-blind.
Frankly, she would have preferred that Elaine stayed away from her house altogether, that after school they only went to Elaine’s, where Elaine’s housekeeper, Augustina, would make them iced coffees, and they’d sit in Elaine ’s bedroom looking at the Miss Universe Ireland web site, swapping sex tips they had never used, ranking the best-looking boys from the secondary school down the road.
At the same time, she knew she should be thankful for her mother’s undeniable glamour – thankful to have something in her life that her friend envied, especially now.
The fact was that their lives were not so similar as Elaine imagined. Yes, they had the same tennis racket, the same terry hoody in peach melba. But though Elaine hadn’t seemed to realize it yet, some of the other things they had in common were actually things they used to have in common. Both families had Brazilian housekeepers. But Marianna had been away ‘visiting her family’ for almost a year now, and Cass knew she was never coming back. Cass could say where the best shops were in New York City, and the best beaches on the Cap d’Antibes; but Elaine’s arms still bore the tan-fade from her holidays, while if she looked at her own arms, which she tried not to, Cass would see that between the patches of eczema they were clammy white, almost indistinguishable from the fabric of the ugly school blouse.
When she first became aware that business was ‘slowing down’, as her dad had put it, she thought it might not be a bad thing. Elaine had confided recently that, before they became friends, she’d thought Cass and her family were stuckup. Not just me, she hastened to explain. It’s what most people think.
Cass had been horrified. She knew her family was well off, but she had never behaved like this made her special. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt if they were brought down to earth a little; then Elaine would know she wasn’t trying to act superior or compete for the limelight.
But the slowdown quickly became more of a freefall. An air of dread gathered over the showroom. And she used to love to visit it! From the wings she would gaze at the dazzling bodywork, the gleaming newness that was almost overwhelming. Then she would sit in the display models in turn, imagining a different life to go with each: princess, explorer, scientist, fairy. Now she couldn’t bear it. The unloved, unbought cars, still dazzling desperately, reminded her of stray dogs in the pound, wait ing to be put down.
Dad did his best to comfort her. Things will pick up, he said. It’s all cyclical. But that only tightened the knot in her stomach.
Dickie Barnes was not a natural salesman. Often, when Cass called in to the showroom, he would be sitting in his office, reading a book. If he did happen to be on the shop floor, that was almost worse. Someone would come in looking for a new car, and he would steer them towards a used one. If they wanted a used one, he’d push them in the direction of a smaller, cheaper model. More than once she ’d heard him talk people out of buying cars altogether.
When this was put to him, Dickie liked to quote his father, Cass’s granddad, who had said that the key to the business was not selling cars, but building relationships. Once the customer trusts you, he’s with you for life, he said. And by way of proof, he ’d point out to the street, where you could see the Maurice Barnes Motors sticker in the back window of every third car that went by.
But now the customers had stopped coming.
It wasn’t Dad’s fault. There had been a crash. That was the word they used on the news: it made Cass think of something sudden and explosive, a car hitting a wall. But this crash was slow – in fact it had been going on for years – and nothing had exploded. Nothing had happened at all that you could see, yet somehow, because of this crash, there was no more money. Even the banks were out of money. Last year the microchip factory had let a hundred people go; half the shops on Main Street had an A4 page in the window, thanking customers for their many years of loyalty. Everyone was in the same boat.
And yet some people were in a different boat.
Elaine ’s dad had ‘gone in’ with a developer on a small estate of houses, carved out of the woods behind Cass’s family’s land. Now the developer had gone bust, and the unfinished houses were mouldering away; Elaine told her Big Mike was spending three days a week up in Dublin now, arguing with lawyers. But somehow as well as summer holidays in France, he had taken his family skiing in the autumn midterm break; they still had a standing order of lobster at the delicatessen, and every Sunday at Mass they sat up at the very front.
That man is nothing but a crook, her mother said. She couldn’t stand Big Mike, with his smirk, and his investments, and his Gucci cowboy boots. And him only a yahoo, that grew up on handouts from the Lions!
But he knew how to use his loaf, which was more than she could say for some people.
Cass’s mother was not handling the downturn well. She had always been an assiduous shopper. She knew every delivery man in town by name; her walkin wardrobe was a secret paradise of unworn sweaters and shawls, boots that crowded the shoerails like giddy dancers, waiting to pour onto the stage. Now, with things the way they were, she couldn’t even shop in the sales. For Imelda, this was like a death sentence. Other than Tidy Towns meetings, which took place in the back room of the Olivia Smythe boutique on Main Street, she had largely stopped going out.
At home, with no one to look at her, she fell into black, ugly moods. She ’d lie on the couch with a magazine propped against her crossed legs, snapping the pages so loud Cass could hear it from upstairs. Then with a hiss of dissatisfaction she’d toss it aside, and go stalking from room to room, clicking her fingers – ‘active ’, but with nothing to do, like a grounded teenager, or a supercharged pensioner in an old folks’ home – before deciding on something guaranteed to make her angry, like attempting to bake a soufflé, or knitting socks.
Imelda did not listen to the news. She didn’t want to hear a whole load of blather about global this and economic that. When it came to the fail ing business, she knew where to put the blame.
From The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. Used with permission of the publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Paul Murray.