Phil Carrick – Backseat Passenger

Phil Carrick was born and raised in Ireland in the 1950’s, enjoying and sometimes enduring a nomadic childhood that saw her family live in various parts of Offaly, Kildare, and Galway. She was educated at both UCD and Trinity College Dublin and spent a full career as a Microbiologist in Dublin Institute of Technology. In 2022 the online writing magazine, Writing.ie, published two of Phil’s memoirs in ‘Mining Memories’. The Galway Review published two of her fiction pieces, The Night Visitor and A Woman in need, in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Phil enjoys writing fiction, short prose, and poetry, and is currently working on a book of short stories.


 Backseat Passenger

By Phil Carrick

            In December 2015, a local woman from the outskirts of Portlaoise town contacted car mechanic Larry Kenton to pick up a car from her farmyard and arrange for its sale. Larry knows the farm well; a smallholding worked for years by the couple Ronan and Kathleen Quinn. Ronan passed away in June 2008, suffering a heart attack. Kathleen was shocked at the loss of her husband but not surprised because he had been suffering from anxiety for some time. They sold most of the farmland in January that year to clear debts. The banks were getting harder to deal with, and the couple agreed to sell the land, keeping their home and a small plot to rear hens. Their youngest, Shane, had only a year of his business degree to finish, and the older two boys were in steady employment. The eldest boy, Ronan junior, has been working at the local bank for the past four years. His brother, Michael, holds a promising position with a building contractor in Tullamore town.    

            Within a year of her husband’s death, Kathleen loses her two boys to emigration. The older boys were casualties of the recession in 2008, and within months of each other, they were both left unemployed. It was like a whirlwind for Kathleen when her sons began to research their options and organise their visas to Australia. At sixty-nine years of age, she was pleased that the boys had options because the negativity building up in the locality about employment and the economy was soul-destroying. The youngest boy, Shane, due to finish his education in September 2009, promised to set his mother up on skype to see and hear from her sons. His mother hoped and prayed that Shane might get a position with a company in Ireland. They would see each other regularly and not have to rely on that frustrating computer thing that seemed to ‘drop the signal’ more often than not. She missed hugging Ronan and Michael and being part of their daily chatter about work and social life.

            By the end of 2009, Shane worked for an engineering company in Co. Kildare. He was home in Portlaoise for the New Year celebrations in 2010. After enjoying an evening meal with his mother and ‘Skype’ conversations with his brothers, he headed into Portlaoise town to meet his friends. Shane went missing from the locality that night and never returned home. His mother was devastated, and it was a shock to the whole community. The guards organised searches, and locals gathered in groups to search nearby farm buildings, fields, woods, and waterways, for clues.

            It is now 2015, and the case of Shane Quinn is still an active missing person’s investigation. Kathleen held on to her son’s car for the past few years and finally decided to sell it through her neighbour Larry. She has become more reclusive since Shane’s disappearance, and apart from visits to the local church, she rarely leaves home. The locals put her behaviour down to a combination of grief and trauma.

            After a few days’ work on the car, Larry has it ready for the road. He agrees on a fair price with Kathleen and contacts his nephew, Patrick Kenton. Patrick is a student at a university in Dublin starting into his third year. The car is a godsend allowing him to drive in and out of Dublin daily from his home in Co. Meath and avoid paying rent on accommodation.

On a Monday morning, Larry phones his nephew and arranges for Patrick to drop down with the car on Saturday so that he might give it the once-over before the national car test (NCT) date. When his nephew arrives, both men head over to O’Rourke’s bar for food. After the usual topics of conversation, football, local gossip, and family, are exhausted, Patrick asks Larry about the car. 

            “Where do you get your cars from?”

            “Most come from garages around the place, trade-ins, you know. I have a few customers with classic cars, and I enjoy those the most,” replied Larry.

            “Was mine a trade-in then?”

            “No, that was just a spot of luck. A local lad’s mother kept it for years in a shed. She is not able to drive. I got a call from her to come and take it. I was surprised myself; it turned out to be in great nick.”

            “Was she keeping it for him?”

            “What?”

            “You said the lad’s mother.”

            “No! No! That’s a sad business. He’s gone.”

On their walk back to the house, Larry fills Patrick in on the missing boy Shane.

            “That’s awful. You will think I’m mad, but once or twice, when I was driving down here, I got the impression that there was someone in the back seat.”

            “Go way! Sure, that’s daft.”

            “Just saying,”

            “Will ya not be spooking yourself and me too.”

            About half-past ten the following night, Larry suggests taking the car for a spin. He says the last thing he needs to check is the height and direction of the headlights. They set off with Patrick driving and Larry in the passenger seat. It is pitch black out with no moon visible through the thick cloud cover. Larry suggests going five kilometres or so to the T-junction and taking a right turn up past the GAA club and on past the school. Another right and they could circle back home from the opposite direction. Patrick slows to a stop as the car approaches the junction. He starts up again, having indicated right and tries to turn the steering. It will not turn with his effort. He feels a strong pull on the steering to the left. He shouts:

            “What the fuck? She won’t turn right, Lar.”

            “That can’t be. Let go of the steering a second.”

The steering rotates to the left of its own accord, and the car is heading in the opposite direction. Larry shouts:

            “Turn her off.”

Patrick panics while Larry pulls hard on the steering to guide the car onto the verge and partly off the road. The car stops, and they are in darkness. Not a single light shows on the dash or outside. The battery must have died.

            “What’s going on?” asks Larry.

            “Something took that steering out of my hands. It had a mind of its own.”

            “We have to get some lights on quickly. We are invisible here. Get my flashlight from the back.”

Patrick is not moving to fetch the light, so Larry begins rummaging on the floor behind his seat. He finds the light, switches it on, and looks at his nephew. Patrick is staring out through the windscreen at something up ahead. Larry sees a white mist like a patch of fog hovering in the middle of the road. It is the height of a man and featureless, denser at the centre. It moves a few metres closer, takes the form of a walking scarecrow with outstretched arms, and then begins to retreat backwards slowly as if enticing them to follow.

            “Try the engine, Patrick. Patrick! Try the engine,”

His nephew jolts from reverie and focuses on the car. It starts immediately, and all lights come on together. Looking up ahead, Larry notices that the patch of mist is moving towards them. His heart is pounding in his ears. He tells his nephew to leave the engine running and asks him to step out of the car, so they might change places. Patrick shakes his head; he is not getting out of the vehicle, so Larry indicates:

            “Slide over. I’ll go round.”

When Larry is outside the car, a burning smell assaults his nostrils. He sits in the driver’s seat, quickly turns the car, and attempts to drive back the road. Suddenly, a loud thud hits the windscreen, and two black blobs like sticky tar form on the glass. Patrick screams. The tar is seeping over the glass like lava and will soon block all visibility. Larry keeps driving, using the side view of a ditch to guide him. He recognises the T-junction and pulls hard on the steering turning right towards home. The windscreen clears instantly, and all is quiet. He continues driving and tears into his front door, crunching the gravel loudly. Larry phones the station from his mobile and speaks to the sergeant on duty.

            “I am sorry to disturb you this time of night,”

            “No bother at all. What’s the problem?” answered the sergeant.

            “It may be nothing, but I have just come from the road outside Quinn’s farm,

There is some obstruction on the road. I couldn’t see it clearly. Could someone maybe take a look?”

            “That’s no bother. The squad car is coming back from Mountrath as we speak, I’ll let them know immediately, and they will check it out.”

Larry has to pull Patrick out of the passenger seat and guide him into the house. The boy is shaking and moves like a zombie. Larry seats him at the kitchen table and grabs two whiskey glasses from the cupboard and a bottle of Jameson. He pours a decent measure, puts the glass in his nephew’s hand, and orders him to drink.

“Get that inside you, now.

Patrick obeys, swallows the whiskey neat, makes peculiar shapes with his mouth, and gasps. Larry lowers his own glass with more grace and pours a second measure for Patrick. They sit for about fifteen minutes without speaking when there is a doorbell ring causing them both to jump. Larry closes the kitchen door and heads out to greet a young guard standing at his door. The guard introduces himself:

“I am Guard Eoin O’Neill from the Portlaoise station. I don’t wish to alarm you, but there is a fire raging up at the Quinn farm. The ambulance and fire brigade are heading there; the Chief Super asked me to alert the nearest neighbours in case of risk to livestock or outbuildings.”

Larry returns to the kitchen and finds Patrick with his head down on folded arms, seated at the table.

“Do you think you might get some sleep, Patrick?”

“No! My head is racing. What was up that road, Lar? Something wanted us to drive up there.

“The Quinn’s farm, Patrick, Quinn’s farm,”

“Is that the farm you said you got my car from?”

“Kathleen Quinn. Yes, it is. The car belonged to her son, Shane.”

“The guy who disappeared, I told you there was something freaky in that car.”

“Take it easy, Patrick. Go inside and stretch out on the sofa. I will turn on the TV. You’ve had a bad shock.”

Having settled Patrick in the living room, Larry immediately phones his neighbour, Tim Cusack, the nearest neighbour to Kathleen’s place.

“What is happening up there, Tim?”

“There is great activity. Two fire brigades, two ambulances, and it looks like the whole force from Portlaoise barracks is there. They have it well under control.

“Any word on Kathleen,”

“Nothing at all, but from what I could see, the kitchen and living area are up in flames. The flames are raging up through the roof.”

“So, nobody was taken away in the ambulance!”

“No! Lar, it would take a miracle for Kathleen to come out alive.”

“Oh God, the poor woman, what the hell happened,” says Larry.

“Possibly started in the kitchen. Who knows?”

“The poor woman, and she all alone there; she may have been asleep.

“They say it’s the smoke that gets you,” mused Tim.

“She must have had alarms in.”

“Ah, she hasn’t let anyone in there for years. If you managed to poke your nose through the door, you were lucky. The sons are abroad, and she has no other family. A sister, a nun, in Wexford, but she has a disability.”

“And the youngest chap still missing,” Larry is thinking.

Detective Ann Buckley arrives at the location at three am to find the farmhouse still smouldering. The fire brigade’s efforts have quelled the raging flames. Together with the fire officers, the local guards establish that a body is present at the scene, located in the living room. The forensic team are processing the site. Several garbed professionals are working their way through the remains of Kathleen Quinn’s home. Their primary purpose is to establish the fire source and determine if there was any foul play involved.

Ann Buckley introduces herself to the Chief Superintendent, Jeff Reid, and the Chief fire officer, Joe Connolly. Both assure her that the site is safe to enter, and she insists on a quick walkthrough. The state pathologist is present and about to begin her examination of the body in the living room. The professionals settle into their roles, working methodically and, for the most part, in silence. Suddenly, the Chief Super calls out for assistance in the kitchen area. He is standing at the kitchen’s end wall, which should correspond to the outer gable wall. Set against this wall is an old-style kitchen cupboard with press units at floor level and four shelving units on top. Ann Buckley and Joe, the fire officer, join Jeff. The Chief Super points to the upper shelving indicating that the fire has burned through to the hardboard backing and that, in places, there are large burn holes right through to the wall. Jeff thinks he can see the frame of a door through some of these holes, possibly into an unused scullery area. Ann directs the forensic team to complete their work in the kitchen area before moving this cupboard unit. It is becoming more evident that the kitchen cooker area was the likely source of the fire. Hence, it is paramount that nothing disturbs this area further until forensics is satisfied.

 The following morning at around seven am, Jeff Reid supervises the moving of the cupboard unit. While moving the cupboard, the hardboard backing drops to the floor. True enough, there is a small wooden door constructed from upright timbers secreted into the wall. It takes about twenty minutes to clear the area in front of this door. A simple latch lock system fastens the door. Jeff opens the latch and puts his weight behind it to drive the door inwards. Scratching against the concrete floor, the door opens away from Jeff into a dark space. They both see the two stone steps leading down into a windowless space pitch black within. The chief fire officer organises extra lighting and returns to the room with Jeff and Ann. There is a clump of bedclothes on the floor with a pillow to one end. On closer inspection, they see a human skull lying on the pillow and tilted to one side. Within minutes they establish that a body lies within these clothes. It seems like a sleeping bag, and some cushions are protecting the body from the cold stone floor. Decomposition has caused the body to fold in on itself. A small table holds an old saucer with the remains of a white candle and an old-style prayer book, later identified by Ronan junior as belonging to his mother. Jeff is visibly shaken by this discovery and rushes outside for a breather. Ann Buckley announces to those present that there is a second body in the ‘hidden ‘room.

Within weeks the two bodies are identified. Kathleen Quinn’s body was in the living room and in the concealed chamber, the body of her youngest son, Shane.

Some months later, Ann Buckley and Jeff Reid meet at the station to discuss the Quinn farm case. Kathleen Quinn died from smoke inhalation. The fire started in the kitchen while Kathleen was in the living room and likely asleep on the sofa. Both fire alarms in the house had their batteries removed.

“A tragic and sad ending to the woman’s life,” said Ann.

“Shocking for everyone involved,” answered Jeff.

“I have put together some notes on Shane Quinn, linking them with the findings from the ‘Missing Persons’ file in 2010. His car and personal documents were located within days of his disappearance. Documents relating to his application for a visa to Australia were found at his accommodation in Co. Kildare. He intended to speak to his mother about these plans that weekend (Jan 2010). Two of Shane’s close friends and his older brother, Ronan Junior, confirmed this. Kathleen was not aware of Shane’s emigration plans until that night. He was due to leave for Australia the week following his disappearance,” said Ann.

“Are we any closer to a cause of death?” Jeff enquires.

“Yes, the forensic entomologists have sufficient evidence from larval skin and pupal case samples to conclude that he had ingested two different types of sleep medication. The state of decomposition and the post-mortem interval makes it impossible to quantify the drug levels consumed. Kathleen held active prescriptions for both medicines. Shane’s own medical records reveal that these medications were not prescribed for him.”

“He probably never took anything stronger than an antibiotic, the poor lad. What a terrible situation,” said Jeff?

Ann could see the upset on Jeff’s face. She continued:

“We will never know what transpired that fateful night between mother and son. Her intention may have been to sedate her son and gain time for a proper discussion and not to take his life.”

“We have solved a ‘Missing persons’ case but with little satisfaction. Judging by the turnout at her funeral, the locals bear no animosity towards Kathleen,” said Jeff.

“Yes, I have to say both funerals showed the extent of sorrow and compassion in the community for the family,” replies Ann.

Once the full story emerged in the local press, Larry Kenton thinks back over their experience that night as he accompanied Patrick on the road outside the Quinn farm. He believes that Shane’s spirit was desperately trying to draw attention to his mother’s plight in the burning home. Shanes’ car remains in his garage: Patrick refused to touch it again.

 

 

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