Authors: Mark Mulholland
A MAD AND WONDERFUL THING
Mark Mulholland was born and raised in a town on the Irish border, where he left school at sixteen. He now lives with his wife, their four children, and a large library of second-hand books in a farmhouse in France.
A Mad and Wonderful Thing
is his first novel.
Scribe Publications Pty Ltd
18â20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, Australia
50A Kingsway Place, Sans Walk, London, EC1R 0LU, United Kingdom
First published by Scribe 2014
Copyright Â© Mark Mulholland 2014
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publishers of this book.
A Mad and Wonderful Thing
is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The story â though structured around historical events â is a product of the author's imagination. None of the characters are based on real individuals.
The lines from âOn Raglan Road' by Patrick Kavanagh are reprinted from
, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004), by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
Other lines are from âHard Times Come Again No More' (Stephen Foster, 1854) and âThe Holy Ground' (traditional Irish folk song); âThe Song of Wandering Aengus' (W.Â B. Yeats, 1899); Patrick Henry Pearse's graveside oration for Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (1915); âRed Is the Rose' (traditional Irish folk song) and âIl Penseroso' (John Milton, 1645); and âAndrea del Sarto' (Robert Browning, 1855).
National Library of Australia
Mulholland, Mark, author.
A Mad and Wonderful Thing / Mark Mulholland.
9781922070876 (Australian edition)
9781922247131 (UK edition)
9781922072900 (e-book edition)
Without a sign, his sword the brave man draws, and asks no omen, but his country's cause.
We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realise that we know where it lives ... inside ourselves.
Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.
Ernest Hemingway, introduction to
Treasury for the Free World
I WAS SIX YEARS OLD WHEN I WATCHED THE GUN GO INTO DAD'S MOUTH.
Another would think that was the beginning of the whole thing â like it has to have one. Another would think that's what made me what I am. I'm not so sure. There were other incidents, too; another would call these pivotal events. Another would; I don't. I just think some of us are made this way. I had it all worked out. Okay, maybe not all of it, but I knew what my role was, what sacrifices needed to be made, what needed to be done, what I needed to do. Another would wonder about my role, and
about the how and the why. That's fair enough â we are a curious animal. I don't know if I could give an answer, like wrap it up in a there-you-go-sir bundle. War isn't like that â not when you actually do it â but there is them and there is us and there is homeland, and that is the cause of the conflict. Anyhow, I had it all worked out. And then she came and everything is not where it was.
Eight days. That's how long I've known her. Mad, but that's what girls do, they wreck your head. She just came out of nowhere â I mean, not really nowhere, but she wasn't part of it, and now she is, like she was always there. Even when I'm thinking of something else, she is there, and that's not good when you do what I do, when nothing must be in my head but the gun and the bullet and the kill. But she is in my head, like now, and just then as I left my room, and all morning, and before that when I woke early and there was nothing for it but to lie there with her â well, not physically with her â replaying those first conversations with her, extending the real here and there, redrafting, inventing. I am unable to think of anything else. Only the girl will do. And you know something? I'm happy with it.
I hear her voice â as if her face and body were not torture enough â and I am thinking of her as I step from the house into the bright morning. I tidy the fall of my overcoat and pull at my blue scarf. The dog slides in alongside, and I am ruffling my hand across his head as I reach the end of the drive where the gate is closed, tied with an old shoelace. The gate is low, and with one hand on the top bar I'm stepping over it when I hear the porch door slide behind me.
âYour mother asks if you will pick up the
on the way back?'
I turn. It's my dad. He is standing in the porch, with one hand holding the sliding door.
I lob a protest over the low gate: âI'm not buying trashy newspapers.' I shake my head at the dog, and he barks once as if he agrees.
I look to the house where Dad, now retreated from the midday air, relays the refusal down the central hallway and then stands nodding with his big, dopey smile as he absorbs a long reply from the kitchen at the far end. I mean, the whole show is pure theatre.
âShe says you won't be wanting dinner, then,' he summarises, his head re-emerging into the sunshine. This is Dad all over â he finds the middle ground and plays for loose change.
I look on a face that is held wide open to catch my answer. He knows he has me. âFair enough,' I say. âThe
it is.' Well, sometimes you just have to lose, and lose fast.
âThat's great,' he replies. âI love to see a man stick to his principles.' And he laughs.
âWill I get you anything?' I ask him.
âWhat are you getting, yourself?'
âPick us up the
, will you? And the
, if there's any left?'
âSure, Dad. No bother.'
âRight you are, Son. Right you are,' he calls from the porch, as I set off on the short walk to the late-morning Mass. It is Sunday. It is April. It is 1990.
I ENTER THE CHURCHYARD AS THE BELLS OF SAINT JOSEPH'S PITCH ON THE
first arc of the Angelus.
I look up. Some local girls are perched in a single row on the church steps. Chatting and giggling, they are like unsettled starlings stretched out on a power line. Girls, they wreck your head.
âWell, sisters. Are you all here for Jesus?'
âFor Jesus, Johnny?' a girl I know answers. âI don't think so. I'm only here for the talent. What about you?'
âYou're a shameless hussy, SiobhÃ¡n McCourt,' I reply. âBut fear not, you may be touched yet by the power of the Holy Spirit.'
âThe Holy Spirit, Johnny,' she says, and laughs. âWe don't see much of him in Dundalk.' She looks to me, a smirk on her pretty face. âAnd I won't be touched by anyone unless you're free yourself for half an hour?'
âYou are some lunatic,' I answer. âAnd that's a fine offer. But I've an appointment inside with the man himself.'
The girls laugh as I bounce up the granite to the church doors. Girls do that to me â they make me feel as if I can run from here to China.
âAnother day, McCourt,' I call, thinking it best to play safe and pop this one in the back of the wardrobe. You never know.
âAnother day, Donnelly,' I hear as I push through.
I step into the left aisle and find a space in the rear corner, and there I stand silently, apathetic about the imminent hour of murmur, shuffle, procession, and sermon. I look across the heads of the seated faithful and watch the last-minute arrivals quietly, apologetically, nursing themselves in at the ends of pews. It is an odd event â the Irish Catholic Mass. It is adoration by stealth: an unenthusiastic ritual where joy is a stranger and where emotion is as welcome as a Protestant. I see Aunt Hannah among the gathering, and she sees me. She has a hand raised and her mouth is moving, and I am lip-reading as I signal: she's giving me jib for wearing âthat old coat' to the Mass. She would have been waiting just so she could give out â she constantly gives out about my old Dunn & Co coat â but that's spinster aunties for you. They're as bad as mothers. She'll be happy now she has the complaint registered. She turns to face the altar as the Mass eases through the early gears, and I am again with the girl as my mind slips from the church and drifts the short journey west to town, to where it all began, to where I first met Cora Flannery.
We were in a nightclub â we being the boys. We were camped at the bar when a group of girls approached and stopped nearby, their conversation busy as girls' talk always is, busy and speckled with bursts of rapid comment and laughter â you know the way they go on. She stood among the girls, but she looked to me. I can admit something: I was surprised by her attention. I glanced around, but there was nobody else in her view. I lowered my gaze to the ground to put some order to my thoughts while random matter flew around my head like kids let loose at McDonald's. I peeped, and could see that she was continuing to watch me. Girls bring out strange things in me, and suddenly the poet inside was busy working away and I was thinking that her eyes were the lightened green of an August meadow. Oh, sweet hallelujah. I mean, I just couldn't think straight â just mad poetry stuff. Slowly, I lifted my useless head. She wore Dr Martens boots. They were red and they were tied in extravagant bows with green laces. (
Green for Ireland
, she says.
Green for Ireland
â like how good is that?) A long, beige skirt held to her slender frame and a white, knitted cardigan, unbuttoned, part covered a small white top. She had hair of gold, and long golden threads fell in soft waves over one side of her face, resting lightly on her pale skin. And I knew who she was. The town is too small for a girl as beautiful as Cora Flannery to go unaccounted.
I looked to her. Why not? Well, there was nothing to lose. Or was there? She passed close as the girls moved on.
âI like your boots,' I said, surprising myself, though nearly choking as I spoke. Where did those words come from? I hadn't meant to say anything.
She didn't respond, not really, but I saw her smile.
The Mass reaches a high point with the reading of the Gospel, and everyone stands. I feel a hand on my ribs.
âHow's the boy?' my friend Ãamon Gaughran whispers from behind.
Ãamon acknowledges with an upward flick of his head, and we both fall quiet.
It was Thursday when I saw Cora again. I was in town after work and on my way to the bank. Cora stepped out of the post office. I know now that she waited for me â how mad is that?