David Butler’s novel City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His play Blue Love was published in 2018 in the Kenyon Review. Literary prizes for drama include the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards. His radio play ‘Vigil’, broadcast on RTE Radio, was shortlisted for an Irish Writers Guild ‘ZeBBie’ in 2018.
The Dark Wood
It’s treacherous in there. A world of masks and lures and echoes. A place inhabited by deceit, nothing what it appears to be. No-one who they purport to be. He wasn’t the first to have been caught in its snares. That could have formed a part of his defence. A mitigating circumstance.
His solicitor had counselled against it.
Perhaps she’d been right. Because one thing terrified Mahaffey in that awful hiatus between the hearing and the sentencing, that inhuman interval when every day, he came close to ending it all. That was the possibility of a custodial sentence. Against every instinct, he’d allowed her enter a guilty plea. Was this another of their tricks? Slumped, listless, he heard her argument. But he barely processed it, no more than a terminal patient processes medical jargon. Was she on his side? Was she only letting on to be? He caved in chiefly because, the very moment he’d opened the door of his apartment to the unsmiling policemen, all fight had gone out of him.
Perhaps she’d been right. Censorious words from the presiding judge, but taking into account the guilty plea and loss of professional standing, six months suspended. And, counsel assured him, there’s no actual sex-offenders’ register. Yes, there’s a requirement to provide them with your address. A further requirement to notify change of address, even a temporary change, if it’s for more than a week. Even that requirement would expire after five years.
Six months suspended. The relief was intense, but short-lived. The minute he’d left the courtroom after the initial hearing he’d been assailed by cameras and microphones, roiling like so many gulls. Questions, shouted. His name tossed about on the air.
A photo of his harried mien, only partly disguised by a pulled-up anorak, appeared on the front page of a tabloid under a tawdry headline:
He was better prepared on the day of the sentencing. Now, the thought of the gauntlet angered him. Their reprehensible double-standards. They were sure to howl at the leniency of the sentence.
Months had passed since that ordeal, but still the rancour was there. The disgust. And it was self-loathing, too, because Mahaffey had been a fool. He’d brought it on himself, in his naivety. Could counsel not have argued entrapment? Should she have? In the relentless, interrogative silence of his flat – his teacher’s job was gone before ever sentence had been passed – he relived, every day, step by step, the inexorable progress into the trap that had been laid for him.
Step one, the failed marriage. But could he be held accountable for that? Máiréad was an alco, there was no other word for it. To this day, the sweet waft of Chardonnay conjured her breath. Later, the sweeter potency of Jack Daniels. And like every alcoholic, she was deceitful. Hidden bottles. A maxed-out credit-card with bills sent c/o her mother’s address. A drinking buddy, and who knew what else Mick Flavin was? The inevitable weepy promises, inevitably broken. The wordless separation, after seven years. At least he’d held onto his flat – it had predated Máiréad, and she hadn’t the predatory instinct that could have made life difficult. And to be fair, the school was sympathetic, then. He’d been offered vice-principal even as his marriage fell apart.
Step two, solitude. What he hadn’t been prepared for was the yawning interrogation of every evening, once she was gone. A row, after all, is a form of distraction. Now, just as his tinnitus was most apparent when the world fell silent, the inadequacies of his life screamed at him. He was thirty-nine, and what had he to show for it?
Sure, he was vice-principal at St Enda’s, but really, he’d become a teacher by default. As a form of cowardice. A safe haven, when the treacherous currents that drove the art world were blocked with wrecks and cliques.
He’d never been one for watching television. Máiréad had a weird penchant for documentaries on ailments, the more grotesque the better; also police procedurals, though her knowledge of forensics was laughable. While she was there, and making the effort, he feigned interest. Once he was on his own they held no interest for him, and nor did the box-sets that seemed de rigueur in the staff-room. What he would do, when she’d been out of it, or when she was simply out, was to play around on the net. Play with stocks. Play with online gambling. What the hell, play with porn. Soft porn, harmless stuff, nothing sick or hard-core. Nothing you wouldn’t see any night after the watershed. It was almost a thrill, knowing that she might walk in on him.
Then she was gone. And things began to acquire a harder edge. It was more difficult to fill the empty hours. You wake from a sleep of seven years and friends have moved on. His sister was married and lived down in Wexford. Mahaffey was lonely.
He bet more recklessly, chased losing bets. He began to cultivate a taste for G&Ts. There was something faintly dangerous about the measures he’d pour. There was a desperate glamour in the idea of addiction and besides, weren’t many artists alcoholic? He hid naggins behind a line of books in his office in Enda’s. It didn’t go unnoticed. Twice that year, the principal took him aside. It was bad psychology, because it wasn’t the alcohol Mahaffey was addicted to. It was the transgression itself.
The court-case changed everything. In the wake of that, even his sister was no go. Undoubtedly, he could have fought to keep his job. To dislodge a teacher from a permanent contract is anything but straightforward.
But if there was one thing Mahaffey was increasingly finding about himself, he was a man of least resistance. When the RP50 was offered, with redundancy, he took it with scarcely a second thought. He couldn’t bring himself to face the perpetual Coventry of the staffroom.
In the weeks that followed, shame was replaced by defiance. Sixteen years a teacher, he’d never once done anything inappropriate. Never once. So, in the newsagent, in the off-licence, he no longer averted his gaze, nor allowed the chill reception divert him from making a topical comment. If Ireland were playing, he’d be damned if he wouldn’t don the colours and go down to the local to watch the game. Even if it meant watching it alone. There were times, on the street, he found his lips giving vent to a low-grade irate monologue aimed he couldn’t have said at whom. The one thing he held back from touching, as the burned hold back from fire, was the internet.
One day, he chanced into the local Arts Centre gallery – it was something he’d occasionally done at Máiréad’s prompting, though she had neither eye nor appreciation for anything but the most figurative art. The youngish woman at the desk had obviously no notion of his notoriety. Unused to ingenuous smiles, he got talking. Twenty minutes flew in the space of five. He began to feel his old confidence return. She was a single mum, did two shifts a week, part of a Fás scheme, or whatever they called it these days. What about him? God that’s brave, to quit a teaching job to give painting a go! She’d love to see his stuff. Did he do Instagram? Facebook? No, he didn’t bother with any of that social media shite… She didn’t blame him. She’d tried Tinder, and what a fiasco that had turned out to be! She’d been catfished more than once on other dating websites, too. Catfished? People letting on they’re someone else. Ah, I got you!
Penny was her name. Over the next couple of weeks, he dropped in any time he saw her silhouette. To be not known. To have a clean slate.
He even bought a few blank canvasses and a decent set of oils. Resurrected the easel out of the tool-shed. Damn it, sometimes you have to be pushed onto the path you should’ve taken from the get-go. On his third planned visit his heart was fisting his throat. Some guy was doddering about the desk and wasn’t ever going to leave. Christ he hated that four-eyed fucker, the smug goatee on him! Then goatee nipped out the back for a quick vape. Don’t think! Do it now! I don’t suppose…? No of course, understood, when they’re that age, you can’t just… Wait, Thursday Danny would be on a sleepover. Thursday? Great. Italian? Ok, there’s that Cosa Nostra place on Castle St…
Mahaffey hesitated. No, you’re right, town centre is good. Ci vediamo giovedì. I’m sorry? See you Thursday! He laughed as he skipped out the door, nervous she might find a reason Thursday wouldn’t work after all.
Cosa Nostra on Castle St. was perfect, actually. Because there was nothing reprehensible in what he was doing. Quite the opposite. She was thirty-five, a single mum. She even had a streak of grey in her hair. If anyone saw her with him, fuck them. The one thing making him edgy as Thursday loomed, he still hadn’t managed a single canvas that wasn’t a disaster. The white space ached. But every line was clumsy. Derivative. One after another, the canvases made their way into a builder’s skip at the side of the Bridge Tavern.
That evening, he took more than usual care getting ready. Mahaffey hadn’t been on a first date in over a decade. Back in the day, he carried things off with a certain swagger. Máiréad, he seemed to remember, had done most of the wooing. But the swagger had long since left his step. God’s sake, he chided himself, it’s not as if she’s fighting men off. All the same, he kept a wary eye on the phone, fearing the inbox would ping.
The evening passed delightfully. He entered the Trattoria with chin held high, looked about with pugilistic defiance. But there was no-one there he recognised.
If he didn’t tell her it was his birthday, it wasn’t because turning forty was anything to conceal or be ashamed of. With Penny he could relax. She had no illusions. The one major mistake, he didn’t invite her back to his apartment. The place reeked of linseed and turps, and not a single painting to show for it. Such a stupid reason to bottle it. Because looking back, that was the one thing that might’ve changed everything.
Because the next time he saw her, in the gallery of the Arts Centre, everything had changed. Someone must have got word to her. Who knows, maybe even slipped her the front page of that tabloid. Because this day, every attempt at banter was met by a monosyllable. She refused to meet his eye. There could be no room for doubt. Some busybody had seen to it that he’d been shown up in the worst possible light.
And it was so unfair. Yes, he’d pleaded guilty. But he’d been coerced. What choice had his solicitor given him? For God’s sake, if it was a crime, where was the victim? Penny talked about being catfished. Well, Mahaffey had been catfished. The whole thing had been a sting operation, from start to finish. He’d been talking to a bot, wasn’t that the term? Computer generated. How was that even legal? How could you be guilty of grooming what didn’t exist?
Anger was pulsing through his veins. Deep resentment. For the first time in a long time, he clicked on the search engine. It might be a place of masks and lures and echoes. By Christ, he’d wear a mask, then. He’d cover his tracks. He wouldn’t enter that dark wood so gullible, twice.
Because Mahaffey was done with the world outside, with its small-town jealousies. Let them screw one another to death, for all he cared. He’d been catfished, once. By Christ, he wouldn’t make that mistake again.