Mike O’Driscoll doesn’t appear to have a web presence, so I’ve linked to an old profile page at Infinity Plus. He writes the “Night’s Plutonian Shore” column for Black Static but this story from #16 is the only time his fiction has appeared in the magazine, though I recall that he had several stories in its predecessor, The Third Alternative.
The plot here is a relatively straightforward one, the story’s power deriving from the beautiful and evocative language O’Driscoll uses and the subtle touches of emotional acuity planted in the text. Ceri is returning to his home town in Wales after a long stay in Australia, a journey necessitated by the death of his older brother. Frank died in a fire at the family home, with the suspicion that he started the blaze himself while the worse for alcohol. As the story progresses a somewhat unflattering picture of Frank emerges; admired and loved by almost everyone, the successful older brother and a son doted on by his aging mother, he was in private a manipulative bully, who subjected Ceri to a subtle and constant form of humiliation, and prompted his flight to Australia. The last straw came when Frank zeroed in on Alison, the woman Ceri loved, and won her over, made her his bride, not because he actually wanted the woman, but simply to show that he could and put one over on his brother.
Alison got wise and was separated from Frank at the time of his death, and now that he’s back for the funeral Ceri must not only endure all the hollow eulogies about what a fine fellow Frank was but also has to confront the woman he loved and lost, and perhaps loves still. Ceri has made a new life for himself and has a girlfriend back in Sydney, and yet – ‘I’d come close to asking Alison to spend the night with me, in a hotel away from here. I would have too if I hadn’t mentioned Helen.’
Circumstances prevent an immediate return to Australia – Frank changed his will and left Ceri the family home, with a wish that he live once more within its walls. As he takes care of business Ceri is thrust into Alison’s company, and he has dreams in which past and present overlap, so that before too long he can’t even remember what Helen’s face looks like.
Inevitably the two make love, on a visit to the family home; Alison shows him her scarred body, all the wounds Frank inflicted on her flesh, an outward reflection of those carved into her soul, and Ceri is moved to comfort her in the best way that he knows how – ‘we make love in my brother’s bed, and we do it, not because it’s getting back at him, but because it’s what we’ve always wanted. This is love, I tell myself, not revenge.’
But there is the suggestion that, at least from Alison’s point of view, there is an element of payback in the act. And if so then whatever satisfaction she gains from this is short lived: Ceri goes out to purchase some tea and when he returns it is to find that part of the roof has fallen on Alison.
Throughout there have been strong hints of the supernatural, a steadily mounting crescendo of spectral effects – Ceri’s dreams, strange music that brings back to mind the night Frank first stole Alison away from him, snowmen that inexplicably appear to surround the house, their cloistered forms reminiscent of figures on a dance floor. All along, even though he is dead, Frank has been dictating what happens, a last trick played on his brother and wife. Ceri may go on ‘telling myself I’m no longer a child to be scared by Frank’s cruel tricks or my own overactive imagination’, but he’s only fooling himself, whistling in the dark to keep his courage up.
At the heart of the story is a subtext about love and loss, and how the events of the past shape both present and future, with the things that hurt us once lingering down through the years to inflict even greater pain when we least expect it, an act in which we ourselves become complicit through the inability/refusal to let go, to find closure.
And at the end, while they might seem to register some form of hope, the story’s last words are all about desperation and the inevitable betrayal of our dreams – ‘I hug Alison tightly, drawing the cold from her bones. I have to love her as long as I can, because even as one song ends and another begins, I can sense him moving through the ice, crossing the floor to cut in and take her away for one last wild waltz.’
On the surface of the narrative, O’Driscoll gives us an eerie and atmospheric ghost story, one riddled with the feeling of ambiguity (everything could easily be taking place inside Ceri’s head, a train of circumstances prompted by his return to the scene of past unhappiness), but with those last words he adds an especially chilling coda.
At the end it seems almost as if Frank has come to personify death itself, the bullying older brother who so callously snatches away all the things we cherish, and nothing to do about it except value them for as long as we may and then accept the loss.