This is the first chapter of The Cleanskin, by Laura Bloom.
Laura Bloom deftly goes to the dark heart of The Troubles in Ireland to explore the lingering damage wrought by sectarian conflict on communities, families and individuals. Based on real events, The Cleanskin is a story of intense human relationships with a cast of flawed and entirely believable characters.
Forty-two hours after he got out of bed in London, Aidan was finished with flying. He limped out of the airport and found the motorbike he’d chosen online. It was a Ducati, a good one, and he lashed his bag onto the back with the elastic they’d given him at the car hire desk. He gazed at the map for a moment and then tucked it into his bag. South, they'd said. He should find his way out of the car park and turn right. After that, he was on his own.
The highway he turned onto was a scrappy affair. Broken-down holiday houses and brick blocks of flats lined one side of the road. He'd seen from the map that the Pacific Ocean lay metres away on the other side. The highway ran through dense woods and then emerged into a great plain. This must be the caldera, thought Aidan, the crater of a volcano that had erupted twenty three million years ago, splattering ash and lava and creating an area of extraordinary fertility – and extraordinary spiritual power, according to the local Aboriginals. He’d read about it on the plane.
The spiky cane fields gave way to rolling hills. He turned onto a side road and everything was a hypnotic, psychedelic green. A lushly wooded escarpment rose straight up from the flood plain. It could be the dawn of time if it weren't for the old wooden houses sitting in the cane fields, the car sales yard next to the disused railway track and cows grazing in the paddocks lining the road. He slowed as he came into town. The road became the main street and finally he was pulling up in front of the post office. They'd know what he was looking for, surely. And they did. It didn't take much before someone was leading him back out to the road and pointing out the direction he should go.
It was that easy. And that was a surprise. He'd followed a lead, something someone had said once to Liam, and it proved to be accurate. People, weirdly, were always trying to curry favour. Even from Australia, a world away, they somehow imagined that they might be useful to The Cause. That they might have an impact, however small. Like bit-players in a movie, Aidan imagined, taking their jobs more seriously than any of the actors in major roles. If only they knew how his brother talked about them. Despising them more, for some reason, than the ordinary man in the street.
'Who was it?' Aidan had asked, on his last visit to Liam in prison.
Liam's faulty memory, or selective divulging of information – you never could tell with him – was making all of this vague when Aidan needed it to be definite. He would be travelling to the other side of the world to look for her, after all.
'Someone she knew at school? Or went to church with? Some dude she was friendly with at youth group?' Aidan prompted him.
'This guy, he saw her up north near Byron Bay.'
Liam smiled. ‘Dolphins,’ he said, and Aidan couldn’t help himself. He smiled too. Even in this serious place, Liam doing one of his impressions was irresistible.
'I see drumming.' Liam's hands slapped the table in front of him and he looked up, beyond Aidan, his face assuming a far-seeing gaze. ‘Open-air markets full of unwashed people, and fire-twirling, no doubt.'
When they lived in Australia as teenagers they’d never been north of Sydney, but they’d heard enough to get the lowdown on Byron Bay. It was California thirty years ago – it didn’t matter which year, just think of California thirty years before that and there you had it – with space. It was Glastonbury, with better food. Portland, with cheaper prices. It was any alternative place with fewer people and better weather.
'I can't imagine her living near Byron Bay,' said Aidan, doubtful. She definitely was not the type.
Liam shrugged. 'That's what I heard.'
'She could have moved.'
'Nah. Owns a business, they said. A family. The whole bit.’
So this was specific, thought Aidan. How typical of Liam, acting as if it was all a rumour when he probably had a photo. He probably had some kind of illegal web-streaming spying equipment set up and trained on her. When Liam wasn't in prison he always had the latest phone, the latest computer. Click on Google Person and you'd see her on the toilet right now.
When Aidan arrived home that night he clicked on Google Earth. The town was called Mullumbimby. The map twirled and zoomed, giving him a slight feeling of seasickness and a very real sense of power. This must be how the CIA bosses felt back when this technology was exclusively theirs, coming round to show them a Contra strike on the Sandinistas, thought Aidan, or the Taliban – funded by them at that time, of course – on the Russians. Closer. It wanted an address. He opened a new window and typed Mullumbimby into the business directory. He just wanted to get a look at the place. A fuzzy picture came clear. Jesus Christ, you wouldn't want to be having it off with the woman next door at the wrong moment, or indulging in a naked slash in the garden. There it was. A low wooden fence, a grassy verge, a looming lowering sky. Trees and more trees. So much green. He zoomed along the street. Tennis courts and big gardens. More trees. Purple blooms. The verge of the road melding into grassy dirt.
And it turned out she was right where Liam's informer had said she'd be, working in her cafe, and looking just the same. You’d think she might have cut her hair, or dyed it or something – that thick black mane cut in a square fringe across her forehead was a dead giveaway, unless he had it all wrong and she wasn’t hiding. Mullumbimby wasn’t that far from Sydney, or London, for that matter – his own presence proving the point in question. She wasn’t much aged, either – that skin. But without that bloom she’d had, that dusky rose-tinted blush. She looked washed-out, actually, underneath her olive skin. Not unattractive, if dark-featured, depressed-looking secretive women were your thing.
The evening of his arrival he’d followed her home right to her driveway, although she made an interesting detour to the pub – that wasn’t her husband she was sharing a bottle of wine with, surely? He’d gone out there again this morning and Megan had almost bumped into him, reversing her car down her driveway at an unwise speed. He hadn't expected her to turn around so fast. Hadn't expected her to get such a good look at him – with his helmet off no less – so soon. She didn't recognise him, though, he could tell. It didn't surprise him. He’d been just a boy when they’d last met.
She was solemn and shy, not saying much, twenty years ago when Dom first brought her home. For months their mother, Nuala, had been begging for an introduction.
'She's not my girlfriend,' Dom would heatedly reply, whenever the topic came up.
‘Of course not,’ Aidan and Nuala would agree, straight faced. Dom was too good to have a girlfriend. Too pure. Dom had dedicated his life to God.
'My “calling” is not what you think. It's not what you're trying to make it out to be.'
What they were trying to make it out to be was a life of such saintly sacrifice and suffering that he would have to give it up and go back to university full-time to continue his economics degree. That's what Nuala wanted, and Aidan at that time was too young to disagree.
'It's exciting, Mum,' Dom told her. 'It's like being in a rock band. Or becoming an artist. I feel, every moment, like I’m doing the thing that I’m most meant to do.’
'Lucky you,' she sighed.
Nuala worked for a government department in town. She told Aidan it was even less exciting than it sounded.
'I feel like I’m improvising but at the same time I’m following directions.’
They had been sitting around the kitchen table, remembered Aidan. Their kitchen in Balmain had exposed brick walls from the seventies and organically-shaped wooden bench tops. When they moved into the house, Nuala said she should go out and buy a set of earthenware crockery for them to eat from, to match the decor. She was joking, of course. She'd brought their Wedgwood china out to Australia with them from Belfast, all twelve settings of it, finger bowls included. It comforted Aidan that in the new world their lives had been plunged into at least their dinnerware remained the same.
'I feel like I'll do whatever God wants me to do.'
Nuala sat back in her chair, still wearing her suit but with slippers on instead of her high-heeled shoes. Back in Ireland she'd worked from home, sharing an office with their father. She’d worn caftans and long, flowing velvet scarves, big fake flowers pinned about her person and clanking costume jewelry. When they moved out to Australia, though, all of that disappeared, and dull blue suits and silver stud earrings took their place. Aidan mourned the loss of his free-flowing mother as much as his dead father some days.
‘But darling,’ she said. ‘How can you tell what God wants you to do?'
'I can’t always. And you never know for sure. But it's listening. It’s about listening.'
Aidan was young enough to be new to stuff like this, old enough to be interested. They'd never gone in much for religion back home.
'I'm listening every day. Whatever comes to me to do on this day I will do.'
'Whatever?' Nuala smiled, but she looked sad, thought Aidan.
'Whatever,' said Dom firmly. 'Don't worry, Mum. I think I'm meant to be helping young kids who come from difficult backgrounds. It's nothing radical.'
She smiled again and Aidan knew she was relieved.
But she was really relieved – really, really relieved – when they found hard evidence that Dom had a girlfriend. The thing that gave it away was the love bites on his neck. Liam, on one of his fleeting visits from London, spotted them immediately.
'Check it out!' he drawled.
Dom frowned, pulling up his collar and pretending he didn't know what Liam was talking about, but they were all watching out after that. He came home later all the time. Mass finished at eleven on Sundays, and he wouldn't get home until three – Nuala’s sit-down roast lunches notwithstanding. He got home late from the church youth group he led, too, and would be on the phone, whispering and mumbling in his room until all hours. But still he wouldn't tell them anything, and he wouldn't bring her home.
This went on for months – Liam had gone back to London and Aidan had almost started to believe that there was no one special – until finally, one day, Dom phoned, the minute Mass finished, it must have been, and asked Nuala to set another place at the table.
'Oh, but she looks Irish!’ Nuala's face cleared as the girl walked up the path.
She wasn't beautiful, thought Aidan, a runty fourteen-year-old at that time, all spots and unwanted sprouting hair. He felt disappointed in Dom. She wasn't even pretty. The girls he decreed to be good-looking at that age were blonde, with open faces and big breasts. Aidan had a poster of Farrah Fawcett on his bedroom wall, balancing on a skateboard, as if to say that apart from her goddess body and mane of long blonde hair she would have everything in common with a teenage boy. This girl was broad-shouldered and as tall as Dom, sturdy and athletic looking.
‘That’s because she is Irish,’ said Dom proudly, catching the girl’s hand and swinging it.
‘Actually it was my grandparents who were from Ireland.’ Her accent was clear and polished. ‘I’m Australian.’
‘Well, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, my dear, such a pleasure!’ said Nuala, sweeping her up into a hug.
Aidan didn’t think Megan was the huggy sort, but she put her arms around his mother and seemed to be doing a fair job of squeezing her back when Aidan noticed Dom watching her. He had never seen Dom look at anyone like that before, and suddenly he felt like just a child.
Laura grew up in Sydney and graduated with a BA, Communications from the University of Technology, Sydney. She has worked in the areas of youth policy, social justice and health promotion, and has travelled widely. Laura’s novels have been shortlisted for the NSW Literary Awards, the ABC Fiction Prize and the Young Australian Readers’ Awards and published in France, the US and the UK.