Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.

She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.

She Sells Sanctuary

By Elaine Lennon

There was a lenticular cloud formation sitting over the town but even that ominous atmospheric oddity couldn’t have foretold the night’s events.

It was around one PM when Enid hurried along the Old Road from town with fresh pork griskins that she planned for the evening meal. She wouldn’t be eating them herself God No everyone knew what went on in the Pig Factory and truth be told she would handle them at arm’s length but she had to do something to earn her keep this Summer since she hadn’t managed to get work and everyone else she knew appeared to have taken the boat to England to chambermaid or barman or whatever it was people did because they never really told you, did they.

Verity Dully whizzed past her on her bicycle and didn’t even respond when Enid called out Hiya to her and wondered why she was so unfriendly. Everyone knew they’d been to Eastern Europe on a holiday and they must just be back so what had she to be in bad humour about? Enid hadn’t been away in yonks.

She strolled on out the road, shunting the grocery packages from one arm to the other and arrived home to an overly full house. There were sandwiches for lunch.

Grandpa was living with them for the holidays and he spent his day hunched over The Irish Independent which made a change from The Times and then the nights were soundtracked by his hacking cough because he had a terrible illness but nobody knew about it least of all him and it would be a good while before it became terminal. His favourite thing was to roll Golden Virginia cigarettes from his green and yellow packet of tobacco.

The second episode of Fatal Vision was on the BBC at 9PM and they were all engrossed. The thunder cracked outside and Grandpa cried out “Bad cess to the blackguard! I’d beat him with an ash plant!” when he realised it was the Surgeon wot really dunnit and he had hired the Journalist to clear his name under False Pretences. And it was all a true story!

Enid made them all hot chocolates and warmed up scones and the thunderclaps kept happening and lightning was striking with extreme regularity. But there was no rain. There was no relief from it at all at all. The static was causing a great deal of shock in intimate places.

There was a knock on the door and it was Mrs Smith.  She invited Grandma and Mother to theirs for rashers and eggs because she and Mr Smith couldn’t sleep and they were up to ninety with the strange muggy weather and there were no boys at home to keep them company tonight God Knows Where they were.

Lights were on in sittingrooms and lounges and kitchens all over the neighbourhood.

There was strangeness afoot.

The air crackled with an electrical charge.

Enid sat arguing with Grandpa about Arthur Koestler and Jean-Luc Godard because Channel Four had screened La Chinoise the previous week and it had driven him pure demented.

“But you’re the one who gave me The Little Red Book!” she bleated playfully at him and he waved off her argument with his good hand and explained it away, “I was young and foolish and a heartbeat away from revolution. Plus, when you get a bit older you’ll realise that you  have to educate yourself about this sort of thing and find out why people do the things that they do. Now look at this shithole of a country where we’ve been held to ransom by the type who got a free education, the single worst suicidal act since the Easter Rising. Now the scum always rises. Is it any wonder we ran to join the effing Nazis in their Fourth Reich in nineteen-seventy-three! Those fellas wouldn’t know a democracy if it beat seven shades of shite out of them!” He knew how to rise a row, that’s for sure.

The lightning hit Sybil’s yard at an unfortunate angle for her knicker snatcher. For Sybil was sitting in her lounge with a Benson and Hedges in her grip and she saw the uninvited visitor she guessed had a hankering for her undies but had been awaiting the proof.

As she sat watching him the tip of her cigarette reddened and darkened in the unlit chamber. The lightning gave her the perfect means of illuminating the culprit. She wondered would he leave it at that. She hadn’t left much out on the washing line. But the window into the utility room was big enough for a man to enter.

She decided to prepare. She was always ready, in a sense. She was wearing her preferred diaphanous nightie, Maribou-bedecked kitten-heeled slippers, a matching dressing gown and some naughty underwear. You never knew when you might have a gentleman caller.

She tapped along the corridor.

She positioned herself at the doorway to the utility room where the dryer was spinning round and round in the dim light.

And there he was, the fool. Rightly caught. Having fun with himself with some split-crotch knickers that he’d snaffled from the wash. He was in the middle of them. It was a bit grotty but the laundry was always imminent.

“Well, Gerry,” said Sybil, shedding light on the situation. “I see you’re having some fun!” She exhaled a perfect circle of smoke in his direction.

He wasn’t quite red-handed.

“Sybil,” he gasped. “I wasn’t…”

“Expecting me?” she enquired.  “But I see you’re ready for me all the same.”

She marched over to the counter in front of him and hoisted herself up and spread her legs.

The view was magnificent.

“Fair’s fair, I can see you’re dying for it,” she said matter of fact.

He did as he was told. Good neighbours are priceless.

When he had serviced her she pulled up her furry specials and pulled him back towards her by dint of fingers applied to his chin. She eyeballed him.

“Now Gerry, we have things to discuss, don’t we?”

“We do? Was it not – eh – enough?” he was silly enough to attempt a smile. He did the clasp on his belt.

“Nobody likes a rat,” said Sybil smoothly.

Gerry’s face reddened and he shifted slowly from one foot to the other. Sybil was looking right through him.

“You wouldn’t want anyone to know about your spying for the Revenue, now, would you?” Sybil had him where she wanted him. Again. “If word got out there’s no knowing what’d be done to you. Or where you might end up. Like Robert Nairac. We don’t want you to end up as raw sausage, now, do we?”

Gerry turned puce.

She felt sorry for him and gave him a final sniff.

When the door shut after him and the lightning struck again Sybil lit up another Benson’s. More than a day’s work was done that night.

It was a peculiar situation, no matter which way you cut it. It was half past two by the time Enid hit the leaba and she wanted sleep. She turned fitfully in the bed and dreamed of aeroplane crashes and monkeys running amok and awoke with a start at precisely five AM with sweat on her back.

The thunder and lightning had quit without a spot of rain.

There was a weird pulseless air about the place as though life had been sucked out of it.

She went back to sleep with the radio on. Radio Wien. She dreamed of far-off places and somewhere in her brain John Foxx was singing.

Sybil had had quite the night of it what with the Knicker Snatcher doing his earthly duty and about bloody time too. She wasn’t to know that his premature entrance was only a preview of coming attractions. She couldn’t sleep afterwards what with the thunder and lightning – it had gone on until twenty to three, or thereabouts, and wasn’t it great she could put on anything she wanted on the new video machine and so she played a lovely Val Doonican programme that she had taped and then there was Mary O’Hara to follow. Her little black poodle Basil snoozed in his very own bed, unbothered by the familiar din.

It was dawn when she woke with a start. She had a bad feeling. She wandered off to the kitchen and put on the radio for the news. She plugged in the kettle and spotted a piece of dirt on the floor and got out a mop and washed the entire floor and utility area in jig time while the kettle worked up a head of steam. She put her undies in the washing machine with a sly smile and turned the knob to steam.

By six she knew there would be some programmes starting up on British Television (sure where would we be without them, still stuck in hedge schools maundering old Gaelic tripe) and she made herself comfy in her favourite easy chair and wondered where Frank Bough got his gorgeous jumpers. And that Selina Scott. Gorgeous. Just beautiful. She wished she had a voice like hers. Could she lower her pitch to match Selina Scott’s? She might give it a try. Make it a project for the summer, or what was left of it.

She sat for her regulation twenty minutes before turning her ankles this way and that and then getting up to trot around the room in one direction, and then the other. Her bare feet scooched along the oak floor in little paces. She had neat little feet and liked taking care of them. She went by the window and something caught her attention. She couldn’t be sure as she squinted out of the window but wasn’t that Victor Dully? Walking along the middle of the road. Good grief what was the man doing out on a summer’s morning at that time and Oh My God What Has He Got in His Hand?

She pressed her face to the glass. She put her hand to her mouth and issued a silent scream. For Dully was holding by the tightly wound bun familiar to all and sundry near and far as the crowning glory of the neighbourhood but in fact now all that recognisably (barely) remained of her, the severed head of his wife, dripping blood, and its unevenly serrated untidy neck had gristle and blobs of flesh and her mouth her mouth oh my god her poor mouth wide open with the shock of her husband coming upon her in the night and separating her torso from her head with a machete.  

He had tried out the sharpness of the weapon on their little cat Tomkin first and that poor boy felt the full force of the fiend’s ferocity as he lay sleeping in his kennel in the back yard when it was barely midnight.

It was ten minutes later after Dully had secured the locks on all the doors that he entered the bedroom he shared with Mrs D and tapped her on the shoulder and once she turned to face him, downed the foul object. He sawed and he hacked and she rasped and vomited and blood lurched out of her orifices and she struggled for breath and reached out to stop him but there was no stopping him not now, oh no!

It was a long and bloody night. There were a lot of cigarettes to be smoked in the post mortem gloom.

The lightning cast an eerie gaze on proceedings.

            There was a sudden alteration to Dully’s plan. He stopped at Sybil‘s gate and marched up the drive. Her face was glued to the lounge window.  She tried to tell herself to move away from view. She couldn’t. Dully walked purposefully towards her front door and acknowledged her as she couldn’t dislodge herself from the window. She was rightly caught. She looked at the cut of him, padding up the tarmac in his slippers. Oh Mother of God, she thought, he’s coming for me. And she blessed herself.

            There was no escape. She hadn’t even the door locked because she was expecting the milkman. And wanted to, eh, discuss her order.

            The doorbell sang its lovely song.

            He couldn’t see her move towards the telephone which was sitting on a table near the sofa in front of the TV set.

            She lifted it, afraid he could hear the very contact she would make with this inanimate object and the tone.

            She heard a click on the other end. Goddammit, would Paddy Murphy ever quit earwigging?

            She thought of the number for the barracks and dialled it. It took forever for someone to pick up.

            “Guard? Guard! Help me please! Come out to the house!”

            “What’s all that now? Who’s this?” the midlands voice croaked at the other end of the line.

            “It’s Sybil Smith and I’ve got Victor Dully on the doorstep. With his wife’s head!” she cried out.

            “This is the second call I’ve had to this effect,” said the voice. “And I sent a squad car out to the house. And wasn’t I in the vehicle myself. There was no such incident. We saw nothing to indicate that anything untoward had occurred. You’re imagining things.”

            “Listen you Mullingar moron! I am telling you that Dully is standing in my porch with his wife’s head in his hand. This is not a joke.” She hissed at him. She was shaking. She was shivering.

            “His wife? Cecily? Well I did have a call from himself but sure he’s not all there. Is he?”

“I’m trying to tell you he’s not all there but he’s right here right now with his wife’s head and his slippers and dressing gown and nothing else!” her own voice was beginning to rasp. You’d think someone had slit her throat.

“Alright, alright, don’t get excited, I’ll come out. I hope this isn’t more time wasting. I have enough to be doing. Better keep him busy. Maybe make a cup of tea for him?” The voice was indulgent. Middle-aged women could panic about anything. His own wife thought the workmen of their neighbourhood in Westmeath were all after her. The menopausal woman was not to be messed with, as he was finding. Even so, it was a bit early in the morning for this sort of thing. What was she doing up, a single woman? Housework, he comforted himself.

            As she replaced the handset she heard the ding-dong of the doorbell again. She unconsciously prepped her face and swept her hands through her hair and immediately felt a pang of guilt.

            She grabbed a poker from the andiron set at the fireplace as she passed it and checked her reflection in the over-mantel mirror.

            Afterwards, she would say, she didn’t know how, but she somehow propelled herself to the front door with extreme caution and observed Dully’s shape as he hopped from foot to slippered foot on the other side of the yellowy decorative glass panels.

            She ensured that the top button on her dressing gown was done.

            She was shaking so hard her teeth were chattering.

            Basil had woken up and was barking in the lounge.

            She opened the door a fraction because (Thank God!) she had a little security chain across it at eye level. Would it be enough to keep him out? Would the Guards ever get here? Would he be carrying two women’s heads one in each hand as they drove out to meet him and had a good laugh at her?

            “It’s only me Sybil,” said Dully. “I know it’s a bit early but I was wondering if you could give me a bit of a hand with something.” He spoke with his customary deliberation, enunciating every single syllable singularly slowly.

            She didn’t look she couldn’t look.

            She inclined her head ever so slightly.

            Her brain was burning up.

            Her eyes were glassy with fear.

            She could hear in the distance over the high hedge and somewhere along the road yes it was it had to be – a car engine – and she prayed – prayed! – it was the Guards. For once maybe they’d do their duty and not just beat the shit out of someone and feck them over for the craic.

            “I was wondering if you have a bag I could put Cecily’s head in,” he asked apologetically. “Only I forgot to bring one with me and I’m on my way to the Guards because they didn’t come to the door when I called them out and it would have made an awful mess in the car.”

            She had the sense that blood was dripping on the Welcome mat.

            She couldn’t look down.

            She tried to observe what might be going on over his shoulder, if anything.

            Where were his children, for starters? Were they in the house? Had he killed them when they were abroad? No, she saw them getting out of the car when they’d come back from the airport yesterday morning. It was yesterday when they returned, wasn’t it? Was she hallucinating? Was this really happening? Had he killed them in the night? In the house? Were they all dead as well?

            Oh no. Not the children. Mind you, they were probably as odd as him, as far as she could tell.

            She couldn’t look down at what might be in his hand although she had had a clear view as he had tipped up the path. She made sure she was keeping eye contact with Victor because she simply couldn’t bear the idea that he had cut off his wife’s head and Cecily was there, in part, dripping away on her front doorstep and she blinked as she tried to muster a coherent thought in her head. In truth there was so little going on her in her brain she didn’t know the word for word. She had lost the power of thought. She knew enough to know there was something wrong. With her. With her head. With Cecily’s head. Oh Jesus

            She didn’t need to get the bag. At least not in that particular moment.

            The Guards drew up to her gate and two of them got out, the gobshite from Mullingar and another young one in uniform and they walked swiftly up to the house and took in the shocking picture.

            Sybil stood in her stockinged feet with the door still opened only a fraction and her nose on a level with the chain and she was unable to utter a word even when Moron had taken Dully to the car and the younger Guard turned back to her apologetically and asked her, hat in hand, “I’m sorry to have to ask you but you wouldn’t have a Quinnworths bag to put the head in? Only it’s going to make the most almighty mess on the seat of the car.”

            It was then that there was emitted the most blood curdling scream that either of them had ever heard. Afterwards she realised it had come from herself.

When Enid Conway wrote the story of the Night of the Severed Head in a gruesomely detailed (but loving) letter to the girls across the water, Tildy threw it away and said, “That one! What’ll she dream up next!” It was a shame because it might have been worth something someday.

When Tildy put in her regular phone call home a week later and her mother regaled her with the self-same saga Tildy couldn’t believe she was in another country or the fact that Enid had told the story with such wit and verve and exactitude in such vivid detail and she wondered, and not for the first time, was it possible that a severed head could survive a decapitation, and if so, for how long, and what must Mrs D have thought of it all, finally seeing her husband for what he truly was, seeing her own end in sight, and what in God’s name it must be like to still be conscious as your own husband lifts your head clean off your body (it was incredibly messy, but Tildy wasn’t to know) and holds it up and laughs and spits in your face and plonks it on the bed and makes you watch as he spends the night stabbing out cigarettes on your hands and your arms and finally in your non-seeing eyes.

Tildy opened and unclenched her hands wondering about what kind of an ashtray she herself might make and immediately dismissed the idea with a shudder because Bungalowland suddenly seemed so very far away.

Dully would no longer be permitted to teach children in the primary school a few miles out the country and stand in the corner when he wanted to make a show out of the dunces, because that’s what he used to do: when he wanted to punish the dunces and put a D for Dunce conical cap on their head he didn’t actually have one to hand, instead he just drew one in painstaking detail on the chalk board and then he would stand in the corner himself, his back to the class and the children would sit in gobsmacked silence and murmur D for Dunce, D for Dully. And he would sing lightly to himself, drugged off his skull by the local Gee Pee Hopalong Smith who didn’t know a depressive from a psycho from a cat killer from a headsman and just told him, Keep taking the tablets. D for Dunce, D for Dully. D for Death.

© Elaine Lennon