Gwen Sullivan explores the life of her sister Tessie, a
woman whose destiny is laid down by law—Murphy’s Law.
Watching her stumble from one calamity to the next,
Gwen struggles to pick up the pieces, unaware that the
tragicomic tale is no longer just Tessie’s, but also her own.
While her career as a dentist in the late eighties appears
promising, Tessie’s life changes abruptly when a mix-up at
work leads to serious consequences. Hoping to find peace
of mind, she goes on a skiing holiday to Yugoslavia where she
becomes involved with a military pilot—and that at a time
when the Balkan States are teetering on the brink of war.
Strange how golden October leapfrogs November into dirty old December in the blink of an eye. One day autumnal parklands are a rich perfusion of red, yellow and gold, the hedgerows heavy with ripe berries, birds twittering excitedly at the abundance of it all. Then the next, almost overnight, a blanket of dull grey-brown settles upon us like a grubby winter cloak. Foggy overcast days seem to suck the colour out of the ever-green Irish countryside, and in the cities, cold concrete and asphalt bridge the gap between dawn and dusk, creating a never-ending cycle of bleakness.
That’s the way it appeared to Tessie anyway. She wasn’t depressed, just disgruntled. Though she’d given up work at the clinic, she managed to eke out a living as a locum dentist and waitressed two nights a week at a city-centre restaurant. We all considered it a shame after five years of hard slogging, but as Tessie put it, this professional deviation belonged to the process of self-discovery. She was still fully registered and as for the third-world plan, that had simply been put on hold. It was only a matter of filling out the forms. I’ll admit her talk of self-discovery troubled us a little. We weren’t sure what might come to light if she dug too deep.
One evening I visited Tessie in her little first-floor flat overlooking the canal. Pursuing the natural order of things, Anna and Tony had decided to get married the following spring and we wanted to mastermind some kind of surprise before sending them off into wedlock. When I stepped off the double-decker, night-time swiftly closed in on me, uncomfortable, cold and smoggy. Passers-by wore blank looks and collars turned up against the chill, their minds set on open fires and hot cups of tea.
I don’t know what tipped off my instincts that evening, but walking the few hundred yards from the bus stop the row of terraced houses, the hair on the back of my neck slowly began to rise. I’d never liked passing along the canal alone at night. The street lamps stood too far apart and what little light they shed disappeared into the layer of fog hovering above the water. Purely residential, the narrow road was deathly quiet, the sound of traffic on the main road muffled and far away. Night noises became indefinable. Somewhere on the opposite bank a sudden splashing interrupted the silence. My heart leapt. A rat probably.
Tessie’s doorway was shrouded in darkness, the lamp in the porch broken, as it had been since she moved in. Although only a minute went by before she finally answered the door, in that short time I sensed the gloom begin to envelope me. I felt as if someone was watching me. Not until I’d reached the safety and warmth of her sitting room did I dare let out a sigh of relief.
“Jesus, I hate that walk from the bus stop. It always scares the hell out of me! I could swear there’s something evil out there in the dark!”
Strangely, Tessie’s expression froze for a second, then she sniggered. “Don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” she laughed. “We’re in the middle of Dublin!” She tried to brush it off, but I could tell by the look in her eye that something worried her.
“You really don’t mind living here on your own?” I asked.
“It’s as good as any other flat.” She went to the kitchenette and filled two mugs with drinking chocolate. “And it’s cheap.”
When Tessie first came to Dublin, Anna and I suggested sharing with us, however she insisted on living alone. Awful really, but it had been easy to offer knowing she’d refuse. To be honest, we were always slightly wary of her chaotic whirlwind life and naturally afraid of getting sucked into it, too.
“And what about your love life? Still discarding men right, left and center?” I smiled mischievously, not wanting her to get the wrong end of the stick. In her mid-twenties, Tessie still resembled a teenager. She was slim and lithe with boyish hips, her blond hair cut into a bob, the slightly crooked fringe always that bit too long.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Whenever I meet someone I think I like, I discover something appalling.”
“What can be so appalling?” I asked.
“Well, remember that guy at Dental School, Brian? I was madly in love with him until I saw his shoes.”
“He used to wear those loafers with tassels on them. I just couldn’t bear it. Made me want to vomit.”
In an instant I felt myself propelled back in time. We were sitting together at the breakfast table in Dunmalin and I’d just offered her the use of my knife. Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “Sorry, I can’t, it’s poisoned...” The time warp was so tangible it made me start. Tessie didn’t notice.
“And remember that business man who came to have his teeth checked once a month and brought me roses.”
“Oh, yes...” I sighed, regaining my composure. “Now that was really romantic. I’ll never understand why you ditched him.”
“The ketchup did it...”
“Stains on his tie?” I queried, sympathetically understanding what a passion killer that could be.
“No, he ate ketchup with everything—even when we went out for a meal. Ketchup with cauliflower gratin, ketchup with poached salmon, ketchup with garlic mussels...”
“...and with hamburger and chips?”
“No...he put mustard on his fries.”
“Yuck!” We burst into peels of laughter and were still sniggering at the idea of mint sauce with rashers, or chutney with cheesecake when the phone began to ring.
Tessie paled suddenly and remained seated. The ringing continued.
“Shall I get it?” I offered, puzzled.
“No, no...it’s OK.” She went to her desk and picked up the receiver, turning her back to me. “Hello?” Her voice sounded unusually timid. Several long seconds passed and then she hung up again.
“Wrong number?” I asked.
“Yes...no...I don’t know.” Her fingers trembled.
“Tessie, what is it? Who was that?” I took one of her hands in mine. Icy cold.
She paused for a moment. “You won’t tell Mum or Dad, will you? Or Anna either for that matter?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.” A sense of foreboding lay in the pit of my stomach.
“It’s him...that Derek Doyle. He’s terrorising me.”