March, 2003. Dun Laoghaire.
The body was in the doorway of the morgue. The earlier bodies had been left in morgue doorways too, but I didn't know that then. That morning, with ceaseless rain pouring from an over-loaded sky and the town for the most part asleep, all I saw was the dead body of a young woman called Alannah Casey who had liked cappuccino made with non-fat milk and no chocolate.
The dog shivered against me. A gull settled on the wall and cawed. It was joined by a second, then a third. Those are the things I remember most, clearly and in that order. First her body, then the incessant, dark, disapproving rain on everything. There had been weeks of it, though it was almost April and supposed to be springtime. Then there was the state of the dog and the vitriol of the gulls.
I've never liked gulls. I had been walking Lucifer, the dog. He hated the rain and had wanted to stay indoors but I was having none of that. The need to exercise him got me up and out early and walking myself. I also had a business to run, a coffee shop called The Now and Again Cafe.
Alannah Casey had been coming there for months to drink cappuccinos with her boyfriend in the afternoon. Lucifer and I were doing a circuit which took us past the back of the hospital that morning. We'd abandoned the pier, which had been too wild, and taken this as a route offering relative shelter. The rain and early hour meant we were the only souls about. It wasn't yet seven o'clock. The Irish are not a nation of early risers.
The dog saw, or perhaps sensed her, before I did. He had run ahead of me, up Charlemont Avenue and through the back entrance to the hospital. He'd been sniffing his way past a row of staff cars when his tail went between his legs and he dropped to his belly.
"What's wrong, Lucifer?"
I had to yell, what with the rain falling and an early, Wexford-bound goods train hustling along the distant rail tracks. The Accident and Emergency door was directly ahead and a stone angel on the roof of Outpatients watched from my left. The morgue was to my right, the row of cars blocking my view of the door.
"What's wrong?" I called again.
Lucifer was inching forward, whimpering. He was getting old, my lovely Lucifer, arthritis working its way from one back leg to the other. But he was still game and a player. Cowering wasn't his style at all. He'd set up a low growl and was standing again by the time I came up to him.
"It's all right," I said, holding his collar as we stood over her body. He barked.
"Be quiet," I said.
Alannah Casey's face shone beautifully in the grey light, oval shaped and achingly white in its frame of long, very wet black hair. She was naked and lay on her back on the wheelchair access slope, eyes fixed in dull wonder on the cloudy skies, hands folded with childlike modesty over her pubic hair. There were goose pimples on her arms and thighs.
She'd shone beautifully in life too, sure of how she looked and seeming very in love with the young Russian she used to meet for the cappuccinos. She'd been nineteen years old and liked to wear leather jackets with low-slung jeans.
Nineteen. So close in age to my daughter Emer. But she was someone else's daughter and for this I gave brief, fervent and guilty thanks. Thankfulness was overpowered by guilt and my legs ceased supporting me. I sat beside Alannah Casey on the slope of cement and touched her poor dead face. The shock of its cold stillness was terrible. The dog whimpered, keeping carefully away from her.
I took out my mobile and phoned the garda station. My ex-husband worked there so the number wasn't a problem.
I told the guard who answered where I was and what I'd found.
"We'll be with you right away," he said. He had a brusquely reassuring country accent. Midlands, I'd have said. "Don't go away," he added.
"I'll wait," I assured him.
I'd always fancied myself as someone with a grasp of what it was to be human. But I'd never come up against humanity at its most deceiving, ruthless and damaged. All of that was about to change. I reached for the dog as the morning became truly dark and the blood drained from my head. He started to bark as I fainted.
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