Extract: Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent

In the first chapter of this BBC Between the Covers book pick, we meet Strange Sally Diamond, the odd protagonist of Liz Nugent’s disturbing, gripping new novel

Liz Nugent
Image: Victoria Ford / Penguin

Chapter 1

‘Put me out with the bins,’ he said, regularly. ‘When I die, put me out with the bins. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know any different. You’ll be crying your eyes out,’ and he would laugh and I’d laugh too because we both knew that I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out. I never cry.

When the time came, on Wednesday 29th November 2017, I followed his instructions. He was small and frail and eighty-two years old by then, so it was easy to get him into one large garden waste bag.

It was a month since he’d been up and about. ‘No doctors,’ he said. ‘I know what they’re like.’ And he did, because he was a doctor, of psychiatry. He was still able to write prescriptions, though, and would send me to Roscommon to get those filled out.

I didn’t kill him; it wasn’t like that. I brought him in tea that morning and he was cold in his bed. Eyes closed, thank God. I hate it on those TV dramas when corpses stare up at the detective inspector. Maybe you only have your eyes open if you’ve been murdered?

‘Dad?’ I said, though I knew he was gone.

I sat on the end of the bed, took the lid off his beaker and drank the tea, missing the sugar I put in mine. I checked his pulse first, but I could tell by the waxiness of his skin. Only, waxy isn’t the right word. It was more like . . . his skin didn’t belong to him anymore, or he didn’t belong to it.

Dragging the waste bag across the yard to the barn was hard. The ground was frosted so I had to heave the bag up on to my shoulder every few minutes so that it wouldn’t rip. Once a month, when he was well, Dad would empty the bins into the incinerator. He refused to pay the bin charges and we lived in such a secluded spot that the council didn’t chase us about it. I knew that corpses decomposed and began to rot and smell, so I carefully placed the bag into the incinerator barrel. I splashed some petrol over the top and set it going. I didn’t stay to hear it burn. He was no longer he, it was a body, an ‘it’, in a domestic incinerator beside a barn in a field beside a house at the end of a lane, off a minor road.

Sometimes, when describing where we lived over the phone, Dad would say, ‘I’m off the middle of nowhere. If you go to the middle of nowhere and then take a left, a right, another left until you come to a roundabout, take the second exit.’

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He didn’t like visitors. Apart from our doctor, Angela, we had callers maybe once every two years since Mum died. The last few fixed the car or installed a computer, and then a few years later, another man came and gave Dad the internet and a newer computer, and the last one came to improve our broadband. I stayed in my room on those occasions.

He never offered to teach me how to use the computer, but explained all the things it could do. I watched enough television to know what computers could do. They could bomb countries. They could spy on people. They could do brain surgery. They could reunite old friends and enemies and solve crimes. But I didn’t want to do any of those things. Television was what I liked, documentaries, nature and history programmes, and I loved dramas, fantasy ones set in the future or Victorian ones set in great houses and beautiful dresses, and even the modern ones. I liked watching people with their exciting lives, their passionate love affairs, their unhappy families and their dark secrets. It’s ironic, I suppose, because I didn’t like people in real life. Most people. I preferred to stay at home. Dad understood that. School had been horrendous. I went to all the classes, tried to avoid other girls and went straight home afterwards. They said I was autistic, even though my psychiatrist dad had told me I definitely wasn’t. I joined no clubs or societies, despite Mum’s pleading. When I did my final exams, I got two As and two Bs and two Cs in Honours subjects and a pass in Maths and Irish. That was twenty-five years ago, after which we moved again, to a bungalow at the end of a tiny lane, a mile outside the village of Carricksheedy.

Weekly shopping trips were always an ordeal. I sometimes pretended to be deaf to avoid conversation, but I could hear the schoolchildren’s comments. ‘Here she comes, Strange Sally Diamond, the weirdo.’ Dad said there was no malice in it. Children are mean. Most of them. I was glad I was no longer a child. I was a forty-two-year-old woman.

I would collect Dad’s pension and my long-term illness benefit from the post office. Years ago, the post office wanted us to set up direct debits to our bank accounts for our benefits and pension, but Dad said we should at least try to maintain some relationships with the villagers, so we ignored the advice. The bank was all the way over in Roscommon, eleven miles away. There was no ATM in Carricksheedy, though with most businesses, you could pay with your bank card and get cash back.

I could hear the schoolchildren’s comments: ‘Here she comes, Strange Sally Diamond, the weirdo’

I also collected Dad’s post because Dad said he didn’t want a postman poking his nose into our business. Mrs Sullivan, the postmistress, would shout, ‘How is your dad, Sally?’ Maybe she thought I could lip-read. I nodded and smiled, and she would put her head to one side in sympathy as if a tragedy had occurred, and then I would go to the large Texaco garage. I would buy what we needed for the week and get home again, nerves abating as I turned into the lane. The round trip never took longer than an hour. When he was well, Dad would help unpack the shopping. We ate three meals every day. We cooked for each other. So, I prepared two meals and he prepared one, but the division of labour was even between us. We swapped duties as age took its toll on him. I did the hoovering and he unloaded the dishwasher. I did the ironing and the bins and he cleaned the shower.

And then he stopped coming out of his room, and he wrote his prescriptions with a shakier hand, and he only picked at food. Towards the end, it was ice cream. I fed it to him sometimes when his hands shook too much and I changed his bed linen on the days when he could no longer control himself and didn’t make it to the chamber pot under his bed, which I emptied every morning and rinsed out with bleach. He had a bell beside his bed, but I couldn’t hear it from the back kitchen, and in the last days, he was too feeble to lift it.

‘You’re a good girl,’ he said weakly.

‘You’re the best dad,’ I’d say, though I knew that wasn’t exactly true. But it made him smile when I said it. Mum had taught me to say that. The best dad was the dad in Little House on the Prairie. And he was handsome.

My mum used to ask me to play this game in my head. To imagine what other people were thinking. It was a curious thing. Isn’t it easier to ask them what they think? And is it any of my business? I know what I think. And I can use my imagination to pretend things that I could do, like the people on television, solving crimes and having passionate love affairs. But sometimes I try to think what the villagers see when they look at me. According to a magazine I read one time in Angela’s waiting room, I am half a stone overweight for my height, five foot eight inches. Angela laughed when I showed her the magazine, but she did encourage me to eat more fruit and vegetables and fewer carbs. My hair is long and auburn, but I keep it in a loose bun, slightly below the crown of my head. I wash it once a week in the bath. The rest of the week, I wear a shower cap and have a quick shower.

‘You’re the best dad,’ I’d say, though I knew that wasn’t exactly true

I wear one of my four skirts. I have two for winter and two for summer. I have seven blouses, three sweaters and a cardigan, and I still have a lot of Mum’s old clothes, dresses and jackets, all good quality, even though they are old. Mum liked to go shopping with her sister, Aunt Christine, in Dublin two or three times a year ‘for the sales’. Dad didn’t approve but she said she would spend her money how she liked.

I don’t wear bras. They are uncomfortable and I don’t understand why so many women insist on them. When the clothes wore out, Dad bought me second-hand ones on the internet, except for the underwear. That was always new. ‘You hate shopping and there’s no point in wasting money,’ he would say.

My skin is clear and clean. I have some lines on my forehead and around my eyes. I don’t wear make-up. Dad bought me some once and suggested that I should try it out. My old friend television and the advertisements meant that I knew what to do with it, but I didn’t look like me, with blackened eyes and pink lipstick. Dad agreed. He offered to get different types but he sensed my lack of enthusiasm and we didn’t mention it again. I think the villagers see a forty-two-year-old ‘deaf ’ woman walking in and out of the village and occasionally driving an ancient Fiat. They must assume I can’t work because of the deafness and that’s why I get benefits. I get benefits because Dad said I am socially deficient.

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