Maria Nikolaisen, born in Andenes, Norway in 1994, came to Ireland in 2013 to do the BA of Arts With Creative Writing at NUIG. She has always been an eager traveller, and has an eclectic work history, including kindergarten teaching, cooking for soldiers, and teaching yoga. The years spent in Galway were the most influential though, and she has now returned, taking the MA in Writing, with special attention to fiction and screenwriting.
The Death of Danny McLaughlin
By Maria Nikolaisen
Danny McLaughlin was a funny young man. Even his surname had the word ‘laugh’ at its heart. Though it wasn’t pronounced that way, it was still very fitting. Hardly any conversation went by without one of his characteristic jokes, inciting anything from hushed sniggers of amusement to roaring laughter from his peers. He was a writer, and had a great talent for satire. All in all, an accomplished comic, though sometimes, his humorous comments tended to rub people the wrong way. Sometimes he went just that little bit too far. This time, he had gone too far, and he knew it.
It was a cold October morning, and the red-bearded Delawarean was in his cosy bedroom on the second floor of the Irish townhouse he was sharing with four other students. Cosy, for those who aren’t familiar with realty jargon, means small. The room was very small. Just big enough for a bed, a desk and a wardrobe, with minimal floorspace. Luckily, he was neither a dancer nor a yogi, so the floor had little importance. He was now sitting on said bed, laptop resting on his plaid-pyjama-dressed lap, trying to divert his thoughts from the fear of repercussions with yet another viewing of his beloved The Departed. He liked gangster films in general, but that particular one had earned a special place in his heart. The distraction plan was successful, of course, for there was no way one could watch that film without being completely sucked in. So for a while he was at ease. Until someone knocked on the door.
“Yeah?” Danny said, pausing the film, sliding the laptop onto the bed.
“Heyyy,” Brian, his Corkonian housemate stuck his head in the door, “I think your friends are here?”
“Yeah, well, someone’s been loitering outside the gate for a while now. It’s freaking out the Malaysian girl. She’s gone hiding in her room.”
The Malaysian girl, one of their other housemates, had a very beautiful, intricate, traditional Malaysian name, proudly handed down through generations, which neither of them could pronounce.
Danny quickly got to his knees, so he could look out the window beside his bed, and certainly, there was a little gathering of people outside on the road. There were seven of them, all from his class. He immediately recognised Felix’s tall figure, and Megan, in that iconic yellow coat. Harry, Lilly and Odessa were all leaning on the railing by the canal, and Dave was seemingly helping Shannon with the knotting of a rope.
“Fuck,” he said and jumped off the bed, grabbing Brian’s shoulders intently. “Do not, under any circumstances, let those people into the house!”
“Okay, but I thought they were your…” The doorbell rang, and Danny’s eyes widened.
“Is there anyone else in the house?”
“Uhm, I think Silvia…”
“Silvia!” Danny bellowed running out of the room, “Don’t open the d…” But it was too late, from the top of the stairs, he could see the Spanish fashionista standing by an open front door. The people outside were still out of view, but he already felt the blood drain from his face. Quickly estimating how long it would take them to get inside and intercept him, he decided his best shot was to make a run for the back entrance. He descended the stairs in one leap, shot through the cosy dining room to the even cosier kitchen, wrung the door open and ran across the grass. His only hope of escape was climbing the neighbour’s fence, which, in reality, was more like a wall, but being as tall as he was, he didn’t consider that a problem. He grabbed the edge and heaved himself up, but didn’t get any further than that before a thick rope was slung around his neck and he was dragged backwards onto the ground.
Coughing and sprawling, he managed to loosen the noose just enough, so he could speak to the looming group.
“Come on guys, you know I wasn’t serious!”
“We know,” Felix said, towering above him with the rest of their classmates at his back, “But we were.” Dave retightened the rope.
Danny hissed, wishing he had taken his mother’s advice, just for once in his life, and shut his mocking trapdoor of a mouth, not letting the thrill of messing with his classmates drive him to such hard-hitting gags. He had seen the warning signs, hell, each of them had explicitly warned him, just one more and there would be consequences. But still he hadn’t been able to stop himself.
“How should we do it?” said Megan, with a murderous smile on her face.
“I thought we were going for a hanging?” Harry said, scratched his head and adjusted his Elton John sunglasses.
“Nah,” she said, “It’s too cliché, besides we’d have to drag-slash-carry him somewhere. It’s too much of a hassle.”
“What were the options then? I remember someone mentioning a crucifixion? Mummification?” Lilly mused.
“That’d take too long though,” Felix said impatiently, “I was planning on going to the library and get some work done.”
“Are you submitting this week?” Odessa asked.
As part of their course, the MA in writing at the National University of Ireland, Galway, arguably the best university in the world and beyond, or so it was said by some aspiring writers hoping to get extra credit from their professors, they each had to submit a piece of writing three times per semester.
“No, but I’ve still got loads of feedback to do.” Felix moaned.
Critiquing each other’s work was also part of the deal. An excellent opportunity to share tips and insights, or to get on someone’s bad side.
“Fuck, me too.”
The rest of the group chimed in.
“Okay, we’ll have to make it quick then,” Shannon said, “Do you have any preferences Danny?”
The group moved closer in the following silence.
“Danny?” Felix nudged his friend with his shoe. The empty, staring eyes and blue-tinged face showed no sign of responding.
“I think he’s dead,” Harry said, unable to contain his disappointment. They had such great plans.
Danny watched his own dead body on the grass with a sinking feeling in his no longer material gut. His classmates poked and prodded his physical self, ultimately commencing a conversation about how best to bury him.
“That’s a grim way to go,” said a deep, hollow voice from behind. Danny whirled around and found himself face to face with the sharp end of a gleaming scythe.
“Sorry,” Death said, and turned the shaft in his skeletal hand, pointing the weapon more to the side. “Though either way, it’s not as if it would kill you.”
Danny just stared. The figure before him was at least a foot taller, with the large hood of a black cloak concealing his face.
“You’re quiet,” Death said. “I didn’t expect you to be this quiet.”
The students in the garden were now arguing whether the best option would be to build a funeral pyre right there, or to drag the body out front and dump it in the canal.
“I, uh…” Danny looked at the corpse, at the scythe, and then met what he could only assume to be Death’s gaze from the shadow within. “I don’t suppose you could come back at a later time? Say, eighty years, give or take?”
“Afraid not. I think it’s fairly obvious, given the condition of your soon to be carcass.”
“Ey, I spent twenty-six years in that body, have some respect.”
“Didn’t put you as a sensitive bloke.”
“That wasn’t being sensitive!”
“I think it was.”
“I will, but I have to take you with me.”
Danny paused, unable to decide which of his current emotions were the most prominent; irritation, despair, dread, or curiosity? He never was one for dwelling on disheartening thought.
“Is it, uhm, it’s not like Hell or anything?”
“No, no, ashes no.” Death shook his head, with the distinct sound of bones clamming together. “It’s quite alright, I think you’ll like it.” He shrugged, “In any case, it’s better than Delaware.”
“Should I be offended?”
“Do you feel offended?”
Danny thought for a second, “Not really.”
“It’s quite the cesspool isn’t it.”
“Alright, calm down.”
“I think I’m the calmest person here.”
“Do you even qualify as a person?”
“Oh for… It’s a figure of speech.”
“Well excuse me for being a little out of sorts. You just killed me!” Danny gestured toward his limp body, now being dragged across the lawn by Dave and Felix. The others were apparently on their way to find something to build the pyre with.
“I didn’t kill you,” Death said, “I’m just here to reap your soul. Your friends did the killing part. What the ashes did you do to anger them so?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Danny said, wondering how he could be dead and still feel sick. “Aren’t you supposed to know that stuff anyhow?”
“You’re just full of misconceptions, aren’t you? As a matter of fact, no. If it’s not directly related to the cause of… well me, then I’m not privy to that information.”
Danny scratched his beard, looking at his friends quarrelling. The scraps they had gathered seemed to be too wet to catch fire, and Felix was trying to sneak off to the library, whereby Megan kicked him in the shin and shouted at him to help out, accompanied by a series of specially tailored insults.
“So, then you do know who’s next?” Danny said.
Death sighed. “Yes.”
“Well, it seems she isn’t here, but I believe you are also acquainted with a girl named Cathy?”
“She’s in our class, yeah.”
“She dies in a cave.”
“Aw man, she hates caves.”
“Not as much as she will next April.”
“Wait, if you only have the info directly related …”
“She bought the rope.”
“Of course she did.”
“Now could we please get going? My days are long enough if I’m not spending an hour on every soul collection.”
“So what, you’re manipulating time or something?”
“Or something, yes.”
“I think you’ll find procrastination is a common affliction among students.”
“Am I supposed to laugh now?”
“Sure, why not.”
“That’s not a laugh.”
“You don’t say.”
“I think I’d prefer not coming with you, thanks.”
“Would you rather watch yourself burn?”
Danny shook his head, looking at the travesty of a pyre, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Would you like to bet?” Death said, pointing at Lily, who had just come out of the kitchen, triumphantly holding a bottle of fine whiskey over her head.
“Oh no,” Danny groaned. “Not the Yellow Spot!”
“What? You were never going to drink it.”
“That doesn’t mean I want to be burned with it.”
“It’s slightly poetic though, don’t you think?”
“You sound like Felix.”
“Nice bloke. Goes on for quite a while.”
“How’s that fair?”
The sudden, poisonous change in Death’s voice put Danny onto his heels. For the first time in, or after, his adult life, he felt small.
“You mortals and your self-righteous…” Death stopped himself, put his hand to his hidden face for a moment and then cleared his throat. “Let’s not talk about what’s fair and what isn’t.”
Danny, taking a wary step back, hesitantly straightened himself while stumbling for his words.
“Uh, ah, so… any whiskey in the underworld?”
“Oh, yeah. Loads,” Death’s tone was back to its sullen, near enough to friendly self.
Danny’s head lifted a little.
The American thought for a second, looking at the black cloth flowing in the grass.
“Do I get one of those?”
“You like the cloak?” Death looked over his garments, clearly bemused. Danny nodded.
“Yeah, it’s cool. Only if it comes in my size though, or I’d just be dragging it around in the dirt.”
“I’m sure we can find you something.” Death shrugged.
“Great.” Death held out his scythe, “If you’ll just hold onto this…”
Danny grabbed the wooden shaft.
“And you said there’s whiskey?”
With a quick hand motion, Death brought about a thick cloud of black smoke, encasing them both. It obstructed Danny’s sight completely, and before it dissolved, before the value of his earthly body had increased by exactly one bottle of Yellow Spot Whiskey and one burning match, they were gone.
For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)