NOVELS

EXCERPTS

 JUDGING US (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

Before I admit everything, before it eats me up, I must say I didn’t cause any of what I’m about to tell you, my wife did. Not to say she is the villain or I am the victim; she isn’t as strong as she pretends to be, and I am not weak (as a man—to quote her). You shouldn’t hate her and feel sorry for me, for I am the architect and facilitator of our demise, if truth be told. I forced her out of a life she loved and into misery. I had opportunities to change those moments when we began to veer off our charted course, but I wanted to escape the aforementioned misery that greeted me every night when I returned home.

It spiralled from there.

Not to make excuses (even though I am) but Noleen’s misery reminded me that I had dreams once, to be a writer. Before she became famous and I became consumed by trying to out-do her, that is. I should be on a chicken bus in Chile about now looking for a village with the best ayahuasca known to man or reporting from some war-torn country, not this. How I ended up a judge seriously considering changing my identity through plastic surgery, I am at a loss to say. Just know that I started out with good intentions. Life, as they say, got in the way.

Inferiority complex.

That is the crux of it.

Inferiority lies at the core of this story… this lie.

Feelings of inferiority have plagued me since my teens and now, well into my forties, I am not as secure as I portray myself to be. Passive irritability due to the repetitious drudgery of a daily, thankless life of responsibility has given me the appearance of control. Truth is, I am a big fucking act. Most people have at least one hang-up that eventually drives them crazy or to distraction or into misery. Somehow I have managed to encompass all three while appearing the abject opposite. It must be said (and re-said), my marriage is my only saving grace. That is to say if there is one quality that has kept me and Noleen together all these years it our respective inferiority complex, which bred our ambitious streaks, which gave us our nice big house and our healthy bank balances.

But we are poor in our hearts.

We are paupers in our souls.

We want to be good but we have been worn down by relentlessly proving ourselves to each other and the world, at all costs. All we have is each other (and now Row). If we separated who else would have us?

If I could just go back, I would have left that toilet before I set eyes on Venice. It’s undeniable now it all started with her.

Wait. Wait.

Venice is only a pawn in all of this madness.

If you are to understand a man like me and how I ended up as a High Court judge presiding over the trial of the man accused of killing his paramour, you will need to know why I strayed from Noleen in the first place. And to understand that you will need to understand my wife and why I forced her into her personal hell. And you will also need to understand the little matter of my ability to lie not only to the world but to myself, which is how I (admittedly of average intelligence but likable as a workaholic) managed to become a lawyer.

I shall start this story when I was a lawyer—attending a private hospital three hours after Noleen has stabbed me.

Before I go on, please imagine your darling wife doing such a heinous thing and then telling you not to get blood on the new rug in the living room while you anxiously grab your car keys to drive yourself to the emergency room, saying in a cheery voice you’ll see her later. That may tell a lot about me and my marriage at the point we begin.

See, I was tired of defending Noleen’s shady musician friends and lying to news cameras about their good standing in the community. My heart swelled with a new dream: to one day see my statue on top of the Four Courts. Believe me, I wanted to fix things in Ireland, too, to right all the wrongs being done by so many corporate vultures infiltrating my lovely little country, or at least a side of me did. Every other part of me were in some ways a parody of a once real, whole person. I had made the most of myself, outdone myself, and that amounted to a shiny fucking lie as I already said. A lie that everyone fell for; a lie they loved me to tell them: that I, Conlon Reign, am a beacon for the law and could never, not in a million years, be so weak as to fall victim to the baser sides of human nature like so many of my clients. Yet, when people set eyes on me, I barely had to try to fool them. I easily lawyered the hospital staff in believing I had stabbed myself that morning (and prevented our unneighbourly road from bathing in flashing blue lights it must be mentioned). The barely believable story I dreamed up while fastening myself to a filthy waiting room chair would have collapsed under cross. By the time the frazzled nurse stitched me up and sent me on my way, I had wholly convinced myself I had loaded the dishwasher with the knife positioned invitingly to impale myself on it. I’m that good a liar as I said.

Scraping the damaged car bumper over the hospital’s speedbumps I considered what I should (and absolutely should not) say to Noleen once I recovered the fortitude to return home. Just going in there with all this martyrdom oozing out of me would trigger a matrimonial malevolence in her that I had been growing too used to. If I didn’t sugar coat crashing the car on the way to the hospital, too, she’d have another reason to send me back there.

Before I passed out and ploughed our new Audi into a bus queue I yanked the wheel towards a parking space, penetrating the slow afternoon in Sandymount Village with screeches, ala trainers on a gym floor, and tucked myself into a conspicuously exposed layby and sat motionlessly.

I’d bitten my nails to nubs in the emergency room while convincing Noleen (in my head) that a retreat to Frace was still happening regardless of what she’d done to me. I needed to practice aloud to prevent triggering a rerun of the kitchen incident. As I adjusted the rear view mirror I swept my fringe back and admired how blonde my hair had gone in the sun and how masculine I looked with a tan and a war wound stiffening my resolve. If Noleen noticed an ounce of conceit in me, it would trigger some form of abuse. I put on my outside court addressing the news cameras after a serious trial face and cleared my throat. “You’re right, love, ahem… my capabilities outside the home in no way transfer to inside it.” I eyeballed my rebelliously arched eyebrows and inverted them to their typical sad, church-roof position. “I am a well-drawn portrait of a husband… no…of an advertisement of a husband… and father like you said. I admit it and intend to fully look at my behaviour… while exploring the fucking minutia of the sacrifices you have made for our family by quitting your irresponsible career. Sorry…

“I see now how a sociable woman like you has lost herself due to spending every hour with a toddler that couldn’t talk back. I’m teaching Row big words, aren’t I? Yes, sorry, fair enough, love, you need people and mental stimulation, and it doesn’t make you a bad mother to crave enjoyment and even irresponsibility. I’m sorry I said that. I’ve been overlooking you and your bullshit… sorry… your pain. I dismissed your pain, love. God I even laughed at it. That is unforgiveable.

“I caused this mistake of you fuck-ing stabbing me, and I want to do more for you and intend to work on that… in France

This might have been a pointless exercise as the very fact I had been talking caused this accident of ours. Before I dared open my mouth (in my condescending tone) I’d have to gauge her mood. If Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was playing when I got home—the screaming part of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ always seemed to be blaring just as I was about to broach the subject of relocating to another country for two years—then she was feeling depressed and wanted to be left alone. If Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ was in its unnerving loop, then it was a reminder of the love we once shared (mainly love about how smart and talented she was) which meant she was in a much darker, more complex place, and I should attempt to understand her inner conflict but not too much as that made me come off as needy.

At the apex of our spousal disparity where Noleen plunged the knife into my abdomen, 10cc’s ‘The Things We Do For Love’ was playing stupidly loud. Ironic in that its upbeat cheesiness made the act seem almost benign: a slightly more arresting way to reinforce how condescending my points were and how I would never have passed the Bar without her constant encouragement and would have been nothing but a travel writer at best. 

Maybe then I’d have been happy. 

An unfathomable period passed where I gazed mindlessly at a shore someone had left up—you never see that anymore. Through capillary action my blood had wicked its way up to almost below the breast pocket of my shirt and stiffened. Noleen would have quipped “in contrast to your spine, darling”. The state of me with my bloody clothes and trembling hands would trigger a defensive bout of insults from her. I’d have to say something pithy about my lack of feeling on that morning’s kitchen incident before I pivoted back to upping roots. “It’ll take more than a few stitches to turn me off the European Court of Human Rights, love.

“We’ve been under stress, love. We need some space, love. Some wide open space, love! I have picked out a lovely refurbished farmhouse for us with acres of land where it’ll be safe for Row to go off exploring alone and give you peace. It’s a half hour outside of Strasbourg. Not a neighbour for miles. Two wings for you to find yourself again and get back to creating.”

I rubbed my eyes that leaked the truth of my ambition and raised the register of my voice. “I know it’s not the same as being there, but you don’t strictly need to be in a recording studio all day to write songs, you can work remotely. I’ll spend time with Row and take her off your hands for a while before I start work again. She’s five now. Old enough not to be hanging out of your lip all day. I’ve talked to her about being independent, and I’m getting her into books. She’s quite driven, like us, and has been picking up on the words I’ve been teaching her lately. There’s a barn for her to play in and a big oak tree in the garden with a rope swing.” Where I have the option of hanging myself if this doesn’t level us out. “These last few months showed me how bad things were for you while I was planning my route to making judge. Hence your… our, our accident.”

I repeated this line to nuance my flavourless acting skills and avoid lying eyes—I was desperate to put the ECHR on my CV as it would dramatically speed up the process of me sitting my arse in an Irish High Court as a judge. “I know I annoy you around the house, I’m like a clumsy moth bursting into rooms with exclamations about the Franco-Prussian War when you’re going through this personal struggle. In France…” 

She’ll see through it.  

While sketching out the motions of a new approach in my head I was encouraged to move by the impatience of a bald white van driver. Bouncing the Audi on its worn suspension (due my dislike of speedbumps), I gently bullied in between a slow Nissan Micra and a Dublin bus.

In my wing mirror, a sun-loving elbow protruded from the bus’s little front window. Whereupon a burst of horn blows startled me into an impulsively weak, “Fuck you, mate. Where can I go? Can’t you see the traffic?” As Sandymount Village is posh, he mildly but threateningly stuck his head out his window. “Okay, I’m moving, give me a minute, jaysus,” I said, craning around and smiling politely at passers by. I thought of the last few months when Noleen said she wouldn’t have married me if she had known I would turn out to be so weak (as a man). I’d have liked to wave a fist at him or give the middle finger as I was sure I still had alpha-male traits buried somewhere but I’d gripped the wheel so tightly my hands stuck with the jammy mixture of congealed blood and the sponging heat of a late August afternoon. 

Had I become so weak (as a man)? Or had heading for forty put everything into perspective and shown me that I was nothing but flashes of bravado and a lot of effort to prove myself? I was naturally shy in my youth and that had defined me until college where I assumed I had found my retaliatory groove.

As the traffic inched towards roadworks I focused on a picture of the French farmhouse that I’d picked out for us: thatched roof, running spring and surrounded by fields of rolled wheat. There’d be bike rides along winding country roads, art and music in the evenings and great food. Once I fixed it with Noleen and we were back on track I’d impress in the ECHR and the president of the Irish High Court would ask to meet me. My dreams had blossomed with the realisation I wasn’t what I had convinced myself I was. It was freeing. Noleen needed to let go, too. I was sure she would come around in France, I just needed to polish my act a little more.

As I turned onto Sefton Vale, bringing the car to a crawl to avoid our neighbours’ scathing glances over fences about my habit of tearing over speedbumps, I polished the sincere remorse I would need to express to my wife for her having stabbed me: “We’re robots, love. We have the motions still but not the emotions.” Good Conlon. “When we move to France you’ll see that we’ve been on rails for years. Look at you, going off the fucking rails and stabbing me. If that’s not a sign we need change and accept we aren’t what we think we are, then I don’t know anything anymore.” Great Conlon.

I sighed and quietly inched the car into the drive, turned off the engine and sat gazing at the invisible heavy energy that seemed to encase our house in an increasingly shrinking bubble. No matter what I said to Noleen she’d twisted it, she’d hear a condescending tone in my voice and pivot to a tantrum about me turning her into a woman auditioning for the peaceful seclusion of a padded room in Saint Vincent’s Mental Hospital. Only a smoky recording studio full of nodding druggies would make her happy and that was not happening. “Look, love, we’re on a knife edge, a precipice of something terrible happening. I love you and don’t blame you. My lunge to take the knife from your hand caused a nervous reaction. Essentially, I stabbed myself,” I muttered, into my chest, easier that way. “Let’s move on… Come look at the pictures of the farmhouse.”

I got out of the car and skulked to the door, stopping to compose myself before I put the key in the lock. “I’m back. I’m fine,” I said, gently opening it.

After I closed it, I leaned back like a wounded soldier returning unannounced from war. Nobody ran to throw their arms around my neck nor cry about the pain I had endured all these years fighting the world for them.

Muffled pop music pounded upstairs in Row’s room. ‘Fade Into You’ by Mazzy Star played softly in the dining room. I should rehash everything. Through the steam, I saw a flowery mess, a kitchen in chaos and Noleen volcanic beneath her youthful sunburned cheeks and cautious stare into space; a woman unsure about continuing into middle age. 

“All natural,” she said, in my general direction but short of making eye contact. The mascara that rimmed her emerald eyes was habitually smudged; war paint; an expression of cloaked internalised emotions; tumultuous storms that sought justification to punish me for her suffering. Her blonde hair whipped around behind her as she went to the sink, the bleached split ends caked with soil and matted in clumps after some early morning dramatic gardening. I focused on brown blood specks on the back of her dress. My blood. A white tie-dyed dress loosely hung off her slightly arched becoming a humped back and shoulders. A summer dress shredded from rose thorns and mucky around the knees, scraped and bloody knees and dirty toenails painted blue.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Fine. Why?” Dough slapped down on the island. She was a full-blooded folder; a grumbling crumbler; a wild patter.

My heart thumped once before I resumed the passionless composure that had defined our marriage since she’d quit her career, and I barrel chested my way into the living room without releasing the familiar heavy sigh tickling my breastbone. “Not a bother, love.”

As I opened a bottle of Château d’Eaurt that I’d left on the travel trunk coffee table, she veered towards me and then doubled-back towards the record player in the dining room, a seventies style matt-metal-and-wood thing—a monstrosity. She was morose and silent; lingering questions about ambition supplanting intimacy that drove this morning’s argument. The progress of that heatedness evaporated in the steam from the kitchen again and the house rumbled with electronic bass, not an uncommon occurrence as a prelude to a skittish heart.

I fixed the collar of my bloody shirt and decided against changing it as a way to back up my argument. As I timidly drew my gaze up I saw her grubby, flowery fingers petulantly turning up the big knob on the stereo. Her gaze, her mind, was still fixed on the internalised thoughts of her isolation and loneliness while my career was poised to overtake hers. Petulant and unbecoming, I thought. The pounding drums got so loud the neighbour’s chinchilla started up with its marathonic yelp that penetrated concrete. 

“Fucking dog, if I had a hammer I smash its brains in,” I said, topping off my glass and gazing at the wine rippling in sound waves.

She sniffed. “You’re all talk.”

“What is this shite in the speakers?”

“Fuck you.”

I knew the song well. It was by a ponse-y French electro band she recorded and mixed in Abby Road ten years before and had been nominated for a Brit award for—Walking on Train Tracks, Sleeping on Benches, Shitting in Bushes or some shite band name. Her artists were cool: sexy-boy hair, moody pouts and fragile egos. They confounded the life out of me by writing about emotional complexity while apparently lacking any.

I made a point of adjusting my stiffened shirt hem again and wondered if my effort to make our marriage work was the wrong decision, but I was not a quitter. Maybe given the music was by a French band she was trying to hint that she could be convinced about Strasbourg, but she wasn’t normally one for games. I raised my eyebrows in anticipation of her looking at me. She didn’t. Her eyes domed. They were teary and close to eruption.

“What?” I asked, my voice hi-pitched and cracked with frustration.

She remained muted and glanced at me at the exact moment I scowled towards the kitchen. The dishes had piled that month and there was a constant ring of creamy, cabbage-y scum around the sink and crockery—her ideal of leaving a minimal eco-footprint and the reality of it was worlds apart.

“What are you looking at?” she asked, teeth gritted and with a menacing low tone emanating from her gut.

“We’re having a dishwasher in France,” I said, solidly. This unexpected retort was not the way I had planned to restate my decision to leave Ireland but my adamant tone put her on the back foot. Mascara ran down one of her cheeks. I showed her my back, about to remove myself from the room to let her absorb what she had done and how sporting I was, when I felt her energy change.

“You…” I turned, a decapitating lime-green vinyl record flew towards me. I ducked and it burst into shards against the wall. “Think…” A corkscrew pirouetted gracefully in the blinding sun rays, performing a double summersault before meeting my forehead with a painful sting and splaying at my feet. “I’m your…” Another vinyl shattered by my head as I backed up to the wall, showering me with shrapnel. “Skivvy, do you, Short Arse?” 

“Oh, so it’s Short Arse again, is it?” I said, casually straightening up and defiantly glugging wine. I stared at her body revealed in silhouette by the bay windows—curvier these days yet still as appealing to me as her long-legged waif days. I still fancied her to no avail; I was back to being Short Arse. I wasn’t short but her being six foot two (three inches taller) had been a thing in our teens and well into our long engagement. “Low blow.”

She darted towards me like an overconfident bluebottle only to skilfully go around at the last minute. I kept my back to her, refusing to allow her to control the situation through tantrums, and I dramatically drank. Behind me, I heard the nerve-jangling sound of cutlery being pulled from the dishwasher. I pirouetted, feeling lightheaded from blood loss or perhaps the wine, and she fired handfuls of metal at me in skirmishing volleys. I evaded most of it as she was a bad shot when so worked up. Once she exhausted her rage I had another collection of cuts to cover up before I went to work on Monday. 

“It’s your fault I’m like this, Conlon.”

“I have been overlooking how a sociable woman like you needs friendship… and a career,” I said, dabbing blood from my forehead with the pad of my palm. I’d pushed her to quit her career so she could bring up Row and she’d been terrible at it thus far. “I offered to get you a nanny, and you said no.” I fixed my eyes on her hand lunging towards the eco-friendly, BPA-free, hermetic food box she spent a whole Saturday contritely shopping for online. She had tried to prove she could be a homely wife and begun making my lunches each morning: rocket, kale, brie and various cuts of meat doused in apple cider vinegar and sprinkled with flakes of nutritional yeast. Fairly delicious in fairness. “A long break from Ireland will do us good,” I said, dodging it. “Give us some per—”

“The countryside?” 

“—spective”.

“Just me and Rowena alone all day? You’re joking. I’ll go insane… more than I already am.” She grabbed a wooden spoon and flung it blindly, it clanked against my kneecap. “Do you not think I’ve lost touch with enough people? I’m a freak, a Karen in training, Conlon, and now you want to drag us to the arsehole of nowhere for two years,” she said, out of breath and with her back to me, hands braced on the counter top. Her voice was soft and low.

“We need a break from it all. Sorry, I just thought—”

“You’re not sorry. That’s just a word you say.” With a flick of her wrist, she fired a plastic measuring jug at me that bounced against my chest. She turned and moved closer, ominously, eyes darting for something sharper.

“You’ll see it’s the right move for us,” I said, glancing up from last month’s scars on my arms.

“Stop…” Softer. Threatening. “Stop talking to me in that patronising way.” Her thin eyebrows arched above her long straight nose, mirroring her rictus attempt to smile. Her weak stomp felt more like restraint or postponement. “You respected me when I was the big earner,” she said, eyes suddenly filling with tears.

I threw a hand up. “You’re wrong about that.”

She grabbed her wine glass from the breakfast bar and waved it in my face and stared over my shoulder (still yet to significantly meet my eyes). “The music industry isn’t always stable. For a long time I was—”

“I meant you’re wrong about me not respecting you.”

She backed up and analysed the space between us, resting her gaze on my crotch.

“I’d do anything to see you smiling again, love,” I said.

She placed her hand on her hip and finally looked at me. “Give up this obsession with being a judge then.”

She knew making judge was worth a hundred stab wounds. “I can’t, it’s already been agreed. You’ll have to accept it; marriage is all about sacrifice. It’ll be worth it in the end.” 

She growled through her teeth and returned to the kitchen and paced the floor. 

“You’re going crazy in this house with all these reminders,” I said, looking at the golden discs on the walls in living room and along the hall and all the photos of her with celebrities at the height of her glittering musical career. “Don’t you think a break from those friends who take you away from Row might be good for us as a family?” There had been far too many druggies coming around to the house than was acceptable. “Think about us instead of yourself for once.”

“I do. That’s all I ever do.” She returned to the dining room in a simmering rage and changed the record to a Daughter song called ‘Youth’. She relaxed her face and her mouth sunk into the beginnings of jowls. She widened her eyes and looked into mine wanting to apologise but couldn’t. I did my usual anticipatory thing and expressed with a smile and a wave of my hand that I was fine as if she might have said sorry if her pride hadn’t stopped her. I gazed down at my bloody shirt, and she wilted.

As the melancholic guitar riff trickled out of the tweeter, she rubbed her palm over an album cover in her hand, flipped it and gazed at the beanpoles posing on the back in tight black jeans and draped over chairs and rails on a porch. She revered it like a family photo. The bands she produced were family to her, more so than we were, I believed. She put down her wine and touched her eyebrow so her hand covered half her mouth and one eye before glancing at my shirt. “It’s a scratch, Conlon.”

“You owe this to us as a family, Noleen,” I said, puffing my chest and profoundly exhaling. “I supported you, now it’s your turn.”

She wilted further and pressed her lips together as if preventing her habit of firing off a defensive insult and stared at me to say I wasn’t a man if I couldn’t take a little stab wound.

A test of manhood it was not. “Well?”

She shrugged.

As she preferred me being less diplomatic, less weak (as a man) thus making her less overbearing and nagging (as a woman), I decided to continue with my adamant approach. “I’m taking the job and that’s it, love. You and Rowena need to decide what goes into storage and what’s coming.”

I saw the shame and contrition finally in her eyes before she bowed her head and put the record on the player, holding the needle arm in the air as a thought arrived. “I can’t take the Baby Grand,” she said, watching the record spin. “Will you buy me a piano?”

“Yes, anything you need.”

“We’ll get bored, Rowena and me aren’t exactly getting along either, you know it.”

“You can learn French. We all can, together.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

“Good,” I said, finishing my wine and touching a numbed area near the bandaged wound. “It’s decided. Let’s move on from this.”

“Fine.” As she lowered the arm, she bit the inside of her mouth before she smiled, giving me a flash of her monster, whereupon it submerged into the depths of its lair.

END OF EXCERPT

TREOIR: CURSE ON THE ISLAND

Background about this excerpt: Jonah has albinism and has a natural gift for science. Here he tells Donnacha about a scientific explanation he has for déjà vu.

There are two theories in Treoir that Jonah tells Donnacha about—and this makes Jonah an important person to him and a driving force when he has to decide to risk everything to rescue him.

I first though, vaguely, about both of Jonah’s ideas as a boy. ‘What if God is just a big brain. What if we live inside that brain’, kind of thing; the stuff kids think of and forget all the time. Those ideas came back to me while writing this, and I developed them using quantum physics and other theories on the universe to underpin Jonah’s ‘musings’. I’m not sure if either ‘theory’ would stand up to proper scientific scrutiny, but they are compelling—and beautiful—when you think about the universe in this way. Enjoy.

From chapter 9

We walked in silence together, Jonah trying and failing to assimilate my mood or lack of one. I was resigning myself to the fact that a reduction of all my worries and sorrows to a single and manageable nuance such as guilt had shattered and I would have to endure an unending feeling of falling without ever feeling anything else ever again.

He put his hand on my shoulder and lowered his dark glasses. I stopped walking and turned to face him, not knowing what I wanted to say. He had an angelic expression, like all the wisdom in the world was within him and he could plug and resupply my bottomless pit. “Do you think it knows when someone dies?” I asked, after a lengthy silence. “The universe, I mean.”

“The universe?”

“Yes. Do you think it’s conscious about someone dying?”

“I think it’s conscious of everything.” He covered his sensitive skin with his sleeves and hood and held his hand out, staring at it. “When I was young, I used to wonder if I was here. I used to think I wasn’t. Almost like I was seeing myself as a memory.” He showed me the black fossilized crustacean he’d found. “Time is funny like that. Our conscious perception of it runs at a different rate. Time flies, you know? And reality is perception, of course.” I let him ramble, glad to not have to think about Erin. “I had deja vu,” he said. “And I started thinking. What if our galaxy has ended already and we’re glimpsing the consciousness of an observer who is somewhere else where time runs much faster. It could be another sign the universe is conscious and connected quantumly. Our sense of time may make it appear that we’re here, but to that observer, we might be extinct already. We may be able to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the future because of some universal connection, a consciousness showing us a few seconds of what that observer has perceived caused by some kind of quantum entanglement. What do you think?”

I fished out a lump of material with intricate colourful stitching from the water. Hand-woven; a sarong, one from the east, maybe Thailand or Bali. I just stared at it, thinking of Erin. “It’s not good to think I don’t exist, Jonah.”

“No, you do. You’re just catching up, consciously speaking, because we perceive time at a much slower rate. Like data transferred over a slow internet connection. When we see a quantum leap—an electron moving without an apparent traceable path—that may be proof we see time much slower. The electron may have moved so fast, faster than light—and possibly at the speed of consciousness—that we can’t map it.”

“Interesting.” I felt my mood lifting.

I sat in the sand and he sat beside me, giving me a sympathetic grin. I continued to just look at him, wondering how anyone could see him as a curse. “Your family,” I said. “They thought you would bring them bad luck. That must have hurt you.”

He shook his head. “I used to think that, but we bring bad luck on ourselves with our actions and our thoughts, and with our disharmony.” His face was angelic. “When we think only of ourselves, then everything good about the world becomes invisible, including ourselves eventually. All we see is the bad or the possibility of bad, and we have to find someone or something to blame. We never fix the problem, we do things to cover it up. But when we observe the world and take into consideration our affect on it, then it opens for us.” He listened to the birdsong. “Then we exist in harmony with it. In love with it. Love and harmony are quantum and entangled with creation. They are the power in the universe. Maybe we can prevent our extinction by being conscious of the consequences of our actions. Maybe time and consciousness are malleable, just because one observer saw one reality, when unobserved another reality can exist. Like the double-slit experiment.”

Beyond my world of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, of third points between reason and imagination and all the physical and common laws pertaining to reality, “something always leads me back to harmony, to love,” I said. “Love was like withdrawing from heroin after I’d been without Erin for a while. It scared me to look for it again.” A lump stuck in my throat. “A little more work and you might have a real theory, Jonah.”

He opened his arms. “I was thinking more a religion,” he said and chuckled.

We took a walk up the coast, and I was in a more reflective, philosophical mood.

“We have a college on the island. It’s renowned the world over,” I said. “Would you like to attend?”

He laughed sarcastically.

“I’m serious, Jonah.”

“I haven’t got the money.”

“No, we have a different outlook on education at the college. Ned donated all Wann’s paintings, they sell for millions. It’s free on Treoir.”

“How is there a college on such a small island?”

“Erin thought we should do something for Treoir so they’d accept us. She believed a college would make the students more loyal to the island. Many of the students have rejuvenated Saints Rest and Clippers Hook, where before they were leaving.” I took a barefoot walk in the stony sand. “She thought if you charge a student thousands to contribute to society and make them pay high taxes because of their earning potential, you create a mercenary mindset. And when they become worldly enough and skilled enough you may find they will be less inclined to act morally responsibly and may exploit for personal gain. Look at how big corporations operate. It’s more prudent to find ways to make education free. That way you create thankful, respectful, and loyal citizens who want to contribute and improve society for all.”

His eyes were full. “So I can go to college for free?” His voice cracked. “Here on the island?”

“You’ll still have to pass the entrance exam. But you’ll do okay. It’ll be specific to your interest as opposed to a general intelligence score. And we make exceptions for people with ideas like yours.”

His feet danced. “Teachers said I wasn’t smart. I never did well in exams.”

“Maybe you were self-conscious because of the way society is formed into groups. You couldn’t focus on things around you because the focus was always on you. It’s a new start. Come on, I’ll show you the round tower.”

Treoir is Available now. £2.99