ALSO BY BENJAMIN BLACK
THE SILVER SWAN
THE SILVER SWAN
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY NEW YORK
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Copyright Š 2008 by Benjamin Black
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Distributed in Canada by H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Black, Benjamin, 1945
The silver swan : a novel / Benjamin Black.1st ed.
1. PathologistsFiction. 2. Dublin (Ireland)Fiction. I. Title.
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First Edition 2008
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THE SILVER SWAN
QUIRKE DID NOT RECOGNIZE THE NAME. IT SEEMED FAMILIAR BUT HE could not put a face to it. Occasionally it happened that way; someone would float up without warning out of his past, his drinking past, someone he had forgotten, asking for a loan or offering to let him in on a sure thing or just wanting to make contact, out of loneliness, or only to know that he was still alive and that the drink had not done for him. Mostly he put them off, mumbling about pressure of work and the like. This one should have been easy, since it was just a name and a telephone number left with the hospital receptionist, and he could have conveniently lost the piece of paper or simply thrown it away. Something caught his attention, however. He had an impression of urgency, of unease, which he could not account for and which troubled him.
What was it the name sparked in him? Was it a lost memory or, more worryingly, a premonition?
He put the scrap of paper on a corner of his desk and tried to ignore it. At the dead center of summer the day was hot and muggy, and in the streets the barely breathable air was laden with a thin pall of mauve smoke, and he was glad of the cool and quiet of his
windowless basement office in the pathology department. He hung his suit jacket on the back of his chair and pulled off his tie without undoing the knot and opened two buttons of his shirt and sat down at the cluttered metal desk. He liked the familiar smell here, a combination of old cigarette smoke, tea leaves, paper, formaldehyde, and something else, musky, fleshly, that was his particular contribution.
He lit a cigarette and his eye drifted again to the paper with Billy Hunt's message on it. Just the name and the number that the operator had scribbled down in pencil, and the words "please call." The sense of urgent imploring was stronger than ever.Please call
For no reason he could think of he found himself remembering the moment in McGonagle's pub half a year ago when, dizzily drunk amidst the din of Christmas reveling, he had caught sight of his own face, flushed and bulbous and bleary, reflected in the bottom of his empty whiskey glass and had realized with unaccountable certitude that he had just taken his last drink. Since then he had been sober. He was as amazed by this as was anyone who knew him. He felt that it was not he who had made the decision, but that somehow it had been made for him. Despite all his training and his years in the dissecting room he had a secret conviction that the body has a consciousness of its own, and knows itself and its needs as well as or better than the mind imagines that it does. The decree delivered to him that night by his gut and his swollen liver and the ventricles of his heart was absolute and incontestable. For nearly two years he had been falling steadily into the abyss of drink, falling almost as far as he had in the time, two decades before, after his wife had died, and now the fall was broken
Squinting at the scrap of paper on the corner of the desk, he lifted the telephone receiver and dialed. The bell jangled afar down the line.
Afterwards, out of curiosity, he had upended another whiskey glass, this time one he had not emptied, to find if it was really possible to see himself in the bottom of it, but no reflection had appeared there.
The sound of Billy Hunt's voice was no help; he did not recognize it any more readily than he had the name. The accent was at once flat
and singsong, with broad vowels and dulled consonants. A countryman. There was a slight flutter in the tone, a slight wobble, as if the speaker might be about to burst into laughter, or into something else. Some words he slurred, hurrying over them. Maybe he was tipsy?
"Ah, you don't remember me," he said. "Do you?"
"Of course I do," Quirke lied.
"Billy Hunt. You used to say it sounded like rhyming slang. We were in college together. I was in first year when you were in your last. I didn't really expect you to remember me. We went with different crowds. I was mad into the sportshurling, football, all thatwhile you were with the arty lot, with your nose stuck in a book or over at the Abbey or the Gate every night of the week. I dropped out of the medicinedidn't have the stomach for it."
Quirke let a beat of silence pass, then asked: "What are you doing now?"
Billy Hunt gave a heavy, unsteady sigh. "Never mind that," he said, sounding more weary than impatient. "It'syour
job that's the point here."
At last a face began to assemble itself in Quirke's laboring memory. Big broad forehead, definitively broken nose, a thatch of wiry red hair, freckles. Grocer's son from somewhere down south, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, one of theW
counties. Easygoing but prone to scrap when provoked, hence the smashed septum. Billy Hunt. Yes.
"My job?" Quirke said. "How's that?"
There was another pause.
"It's the wife," Billy Hunt said. Quirke heard a sharply indrawn breath whistling in those crushed nasal cavities. "She's after doing away with herself."
THEY MET IN BEWLEY'S CAFÉ IN GRAFTON STREET. IT WAS LUNCHTIME and the place was busy. The rich, fat smell of coffee beans roasting in the big vat just inside the door made Quirke's stomach briefly heave. Odd, the things he found nauseating now; he had expected giving up
drink would dull his senses and reconcile him to the world and its savors, but the opposite had been the case, so that at times he seemed to be a walking tangle of nerve ends assailed from every side by outrageous smells, tastes, touches. The interior of the café was dark to his eyes after the glare outside. A girl going out passed him by; she wore a white dress and carried a broad-brimmed straw hat; he caught the warm waft of her perfumed skin that trailed behind her. He imagined himself turning on his heel and following after her and taking her by the elbow and walking with her out into the hazy heat of the summer day. He did not relish the prospect of Billy Hunt and his dead wife.
He spotted him straightaway, sitting in one of the side booths, unnaturally erect on the red plush banquette, with a cup of milky coffee untouched before him on the gray marble table. He did not see Quirke at first, and Quirke hung back a moment, studying him, the drained pale face with the freckles standing out on it, the glazed, desolate stare, the big turnip-shaped hand fiddling with the sugar spoon. He had changed remarkably little in the more than two decades since Quirke had known him. Not that he could say he had known him, really. In Quirke's not very clear recollections of him Billy was a sort of overgrown schoolboy, by turns cheery or truculent and sometimes both at once, loping out to the sports grounds in wide-legged knicks and a striped football jersey, with a football or a bundle of hurley sticks under his arm, his knobbly, pale-pink knees bare and his boyish cheeks aflame and blood-spotted from the still unaccustomed morning shave. Loud, of course, roaring raucous jokes at his fellow sportsmen and throwing a surly glance from under colorless lashes in the direction of Quirke andthe arty lot
. Now he was thickened by the years, with a bald patch on the crown of his head like a tonsure and a fat red neck overflowing the collar of his baggy tweed jacket.
He had that smell, hot and raw and salty, that Quirke recognized at once, the smell of the recently bereaved. He sat there at the table, propping himself upright, a bulging sack of grief and misery and pent-up rage, and said to Quirke helplessly:
"I don't know why she did it."
Quirke nodded. "Did she leave anything?" Billy peered at him, uncomprehending. "A letter, I mean. A note."
"No, no, nothing like that." He gave a crooked, almost sheepish smile. "I wish she had."
That morning a party of Gardai had gone out in a launch and lifted poor Deirdre Hunt's naked body off the rocks on the landward shore of Dalkey Island.
"They called me in to identify her," Billy said, that strange, pained smile that was not a smile still on his lips, his eyes seeming to gaze again in wild dismay at what they had seen on the hospital slab, Quirke grimly thought, and would probably never stop seeing, for as long as he lived. "They brought her to St. Vincent's. She looked completely different. I think I wouldn't have known her except for the hair. She was very proud of it, her hair." He shrugged apologetically, twitching one shoulder.