Hell – New Fiction by Ciaran Buckley

Second Place in the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories

During mid-morning coffee break, Fintan told Shauna about his recurring dream. He told it, if not for laughs, then as fodder for caffeine-time banter. He said that he was in Chapters, rooting through the second-hand CD racks, picking out some rare finds, while feeling an uneasy blend of familiarity and distress. Then he experienced some vast yet elusive epiphany, some world-changing realisation, which was forgotten when he awoke.

Shauna sat with her elbows on the melamine-topped table, listening to the story attentively, stirring her coffee. Fintan supposed that it was hard to respond to a dream story, it wasn’t like an anecdote about idiots in commuter traffic or dealing with awkward customers over the phone. Even if his dream – although vague, incoherent and incomplete – still held some narrative form, she was unlikely to have a backatcha anecdote to offer in response.

“You’re always moaning Fintan,” Shauna finally responded, with characteristic brightness. “You’re such a bloody moan. And you’re fat,” she concluded gratuitously. 

“Always the bitter word, Shauna,” he said shaking his head, remaining in character as the sour misanthropist, while conveying an underlying mirth. “Always the bitter word.”

He thought of Shauna as more than a colleague, more than a friend, he thought of her as his office wife. They had never met outside of the office, but she listened to him, showed an interest in his life, showed concern for him. Shauna lived with two giant slobbering dogs and a partner called Jay, about whom she spoke passionately and affectionately, as though he too were a dog.

He did not mention his dream to Diana, who drifted in and out of the family kitchen, ignoring him as he ate the breakfast that he had prepared for himself. His wife, a tall dark-haired woman in a thick baby-blue towelling robe, had in recent years developed lines on her face, as though her eyes and cheeks had been chiselled by rivulets of pique. He considered initiating a conversation. Perhaps it was one of her good days, perhaps she would grant him an amiable huh or a thoughtful nod. He thought better of it and put the lunch that he had prepared into his canvas shoulder bag before leaving the house. That was when she would begin waking the children and getting them ready for school. Or so he imagined; she no longer shared such details with him.

Every Friday afternoon, he went down to the book and music chain and rooted through the second-hand CDs. The ritual was one of the great residual joys in his life.

“You see, the thing is” he said, presenting a great truth with his hands raised. “You really need somebody to die before you’ll find anything good in Chapters. Somebody with a great music collection and the family don’t care, they just want to get rid of the stuff, into a skip, into the Vincent de Paul, just gone so that they can sell the gaff. Somebody will say ‘you could get money for those CDs,’ and then they’ll say ‘not much now, but something; bring them down to Chapters.’ That’s when you, as a collector want to start riffling through the racks. You want to arrive just when the crate containing the sum of a man’s life has been scattered, dissipated, atomised by the taxonomy of the record shop. That’s when you want to go to Chapters.”

“Where are you going with your taxonomy?” Shauna chuckled, button-nosed, anarchic curly red hair. “You’re so full of it.” 

Another great joy in his life was ferrying the three children to and from their extra-curricular activities. The parental taxi role had become his sole responsibility, since Diana now refused to drive, claiming that the roads were simply too frightening. They had to be dropped to music practice; to sports training; to school extra-curriculars; and to friends’ houses. He relished that for another few short years they would gladly travel with him and speak to him. He knew that soon they wouldn’t want to speak to him, that they would put on their earphones as soon as they got into the car and would stare straight ahead, silent, like Trappist monks.

“Or like Trappist punks,” he said, making light of the body piercings and head-shavings that were happening quicker than he anticipated and far quicker than he welcomed them. Their eyes glazed over as soon as he adopted his joke voice. Kids are only borrowed he counselled himself.

At one point he had a me-time ritual where he would sit in the car and plug an audio jack into the receiver under the armrest and play his music on the car stereo. Play it at a volume where he felt enveloped by the music, consumed by the melody and rhythm. There was a setting on the car radio where he could boost the bass in a way that would have started a row had he done it in the house, Diana complaining that he was drowning out the TV. He gave it up one day after Emily came over from where she was playing in the street and tapped on the car window, looking for attention or just wanting to say hello. He had shook his head solemnly – adult time – and she had wandered philosophically back to her game. He had felt instant remorse and decided to try – yet again – to create some family unity.

That’s when he agreed to build the glass conservatory on the back of the house. He had hoped that it would reduce Diana’s distance, that it might rekindle the spirit of marriage as a joyous joint enterprise. It had been her idea to buy an older house in a settled neighbourhood, because they had bigger gardens, long narrow strips of land between six-foot fences, enough space for a lawn, vegetables, raspberry canes and apple trees. Even back then, Diana had a disappointed air; the difference was that in those days he felt that he would be the man to turn her around, cheer her up, jolly her along for life. Over time, she had decided that the house was too dark and old-fashioned and that it needed to be completely redone.

“I should have ignored you,” she said. “I should have just bought a new house.”

He voiced his response silently in his mind. We; we should have bought a new house.

He had hoped that the gesture of commitment inherent in a home-improvement loan, would change her outlook on life. He hoped that the oft-wished glass-and-tile west-facing sun-room, would convince her that her life choices were not futile and doomed. Of course, all life is futile and doomed, but maybe she would be more cheerful about it. She might gain the wisdom to ponder death with equanimity, as the evening sun pointed fingers of warm orange light at the wicker furniture set. As it turned out, the conservatory offered them only a few extra metres of additional soundproofed distance, while allowing them to continue to share a roof in common with their children. He now listened to his music through earphones and removed them whenever one of the children looked like they might want attention, or just to say hello.

Those CDs in Chapters were loved by somebody once, they may have defined somebody. Fintan had once spent an afternoon helping out his friend Dave. He was a huge Star Wars head, his collection of comics, collectible brochures, memorabilia and bric-a-brac had at one point been in Dave and Kelly’s spare room. Then it had been negotiated into the shed. Finally, Dave had reluctantly agreed that it should go into a skip, along with a manky mattress, some shards of tiles, a broken plastic trike and a collapsing wardrobe. Fintan had helped Dave to carry a four-foot plywood TIE-fighter and a seven-foot fibreglass Chewbacca through the house, before hoofing them into a skip, which had smelled of rotten food, from the previous customer. An old man had stopped to watch. “That’s somebody’s life you’re throwing into that skip,” he said gravely. Dave looked like he wanted to cry.

Each day, by the time Fintan got home from the office, the children and their mother would have eaten. If he had cared to listen, Diana would tell him that the children were bold and uncooperative and that he was really going to have to step up and do something, because she could do no more. Uncooked meat, vegetables and potatoes would be left in plastic boxes on the counter beside the cooker, so that he could cook his own meal. On good days she said that the meal would be fresher if he made it himself. On bad days she said that she was far too busy raising the children alone to be skivvying for him.

On yet another Friday he went down to Chapters, for his weekly scavenge. He rooted through the CD racks methodically, starting with blues, rhythm and blues, across to folk revival, scanning classic rock, rattling his fingers through country and bluegrass, ending up in trad and world music. Sometimes he would root through orchestral, for a friend at work, who particularly liked Bach, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, names that stuck in Fintan’s head because they sounded so orchestral-composerish. His search system had served him well in the past, focusing on the low-hanging fruit before moving to the sections that were typically ignored by other hunters.

As he flicked through the titles with his index finger, the feeling of familiarity and unease returned. There was a lot of great stuff here today, many great albums, many great musicians. However, he already had most of them.

He looked up at the young woman behind the counter, who had spiky dyed-blonde hair and a series of ear piercings, who was friendly but silent and seemingly indifferent to the customers. He realised suddenly and clearly that she had been selling new CDs to herself, returning them for a full refund the following day and then taking them home, assuming that they had been removed from stock. One day she had been caught and faced the threat of prosecution. He felt a rush of empathy for her human weakness and frailty before realising that she hadn’t been prosecuted because her uncle was a director. She had even been allowed to keep her job. He knew that he couldn’t have known this, that he was not privy to any of this information. But that was not the realisation of his dream, it was something else.

He realised that Shauna had decided that once her mother died, she would break up with Jay and move into her mother’s place, bringing the two dogs with her. Fintan had no previous inkling that she and Jay weren’t working out, which surprised him a lot and hurt him a little that the woman with whom he was emotionally cheating on his wife was keeping secrets from him. He also realised that she had no intention of inviting him to join her, because as much as she enjoyed the emotional intimacy of office wifehood, she wasn’t interested in a man who wasn’t available. This struck him as curious, slightly hurtful, but also addressable.

Then he realised that he possessed not most, but every album in the second-hand rack, every single album. As he recognized the chipped corner of the jewel case on Tom Waits’ Closing Time and the deep scratch marring the surface of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, he realized they were not just the same albums, they were in fact his. Even the autographed Strangeways Here We Come, it was also here; his albums were in Chapters. Slowly his thought processes caught up with this discovery. If these were his albums, then Diana must have sold them to Chapters. And if Diana had sold his music collection to Chapters, then he must be dead. A floppy-haired teenager wearing round-framed glasses sailed into the world music section and skilfully picked out three of his most prized CDs. Fintan stared at him, astounded by his effrontery. He lunged forward to grab them from the young man, then stopped, because he knew that he was dead. Because he realised that in a few hours the single monument to his existence would be atomised, dissipated, gone, would be no more.

During mid-morning coffee break, Fintan told Shauna about his recurring dream. He told it, if not for laughs, then as fodder for caffeine-time banter. He told her that he was in Chapters, rooting through the second-hand CD racks, picking out some rare finds, feeling an uneasy blend of familiarity and distress. Then he experienced some vast yet elusive epiphany, some world-changing realisation, which was forgotten when he awoke.

Ciaran Buckley is a writer and oral storyteller. He is the co-author of Strong Farmer: The Memoirs of Joe Ward, a popular economic history of the Irish cattle industry from 1820 until 1936, published by Liberties Press. He was shortlisted for the 2023 Disquiet Prize for Fiction and also for the 2022 Books Ireland anthology. He grew up in Ireland. He went to university in Connecticut, where he was a winner of the Wallace non-Fiction Prize. He lived in London, where he worked for the London Underground (the urban transportation company, not the organised crime network). He has lived in Boston, where he wrote reports for a start-up company that inverts your body clock. He worked in Seattle, where he was part of the project which created the annoying paper clip in Microsoft Word. He worked in Saudi Arabia, where he attended conferences on food and religion. Now he lives on a family farm in County Meath, Ireland with his two adult children and two badly-behaved collies. His Twitter handle is @ciaranpbuckley.

Original Artwork by Kita Das