The Vanishing Act
by Connla Stokes
Email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail.com for PDF version of this story to read offline or export to Kindle.
There was a reason why Ciaran Costello was about to clamber out of a third-, maybe even fourth-hand Mazda 626 by the South Wall pier wearing nothing but his underwear and run through the fringes of a full blown hurricane (christened Arthur by meteorologists somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic). This Biblical weather had set the stage perfectly for his overnight disappearance, which once reported, would seem like a no-brainer. Just picture: two or three days after a hurricane rips the arse off Dublin, the Gardaí find a missing person’s crappy car at the end of a pier with a bunch of discarded clothes on the back seat. If that didn’t scream out, “Goodbye cruel world!” in neon lights, Ciaran figured nothing would.
Full disclosure: Ciaran hadn’t the foggiest how Ireland’s finest actually operated missing persons’ cases, but he was willing to presume, if the body didn’t show up over the next few weeks, which it wouldn’t, eventually a couple of clodhoppers in the cop shop would only be arguing over who’d break the news to Ciaran’s wife Deirdre, or Dee as everyone except her parents called her, that this case was now officially closed. (Just another way of saying, “Mrs. Costello in our professional opinion, Mr. Costello is dead and we can’t afford to look for him anyway.”)
But why leave on the underwear? He had previously envisaged running bollock naked to the other car, parked a few hundred metres away, but then Ciaran started to imagine how he might not make it—he could get a) flattened by an uprooted tree, b) decapitated by a falling roof slate, c) whisked out to sea—and he realised that didn’t like the thought of being found naked, even if it were imaginarily.
These were Ciaran’s default settings—daydreaming, procrastinating, chickening out, dithering; he was the kind of man who would walk around the centre of Dublin for two hours unable to choose where he should buy a sandwich before taking a bus home to make his own. It is possible that he might have sat in his car all night but for the sight of a swelling sea and a vision of his Mazda being eventually engulfed. In the end, Ciaran Costello surprised Ciaran Costello by suddenly flinging the door open and pegging it in the opposite direction of Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea, ready to erase himself from planet Earth, if only for a little while.
Ciaran would have screamed in a death-defying smite-me-if-you-can kind of way, but he was scared shitless as he ran. After he climbed into the other car and re-dressed, he reflected that only a total gobshite would risk his life while faking his own death. Later he would also ponder if there wasn’t some teeny-weeny part of his fucked up mind that had hoped the wind might just have blown his puny body out to sea, underwear and all.
Four days previously, Ciaran had been in Marks & Spencer to buy a few extra sets of clothes for his journey to the other side (of the county). While surrounded by aisles of briefs, boxers, jocks, trunks, hipsters and y-fronts, he’d spotted Donal, husband to Dee’s closest lifelong friend Ronah, and also her employer. Ciaran ducked behind a display of Jockey underwear. He dreaded small talk, even on his least anxiety-addled days, but considering he was about to fake his own suicide, he was desperate not to deal with Donal, whose default setting was over-the-top fascination with absolutely everything (inclusive of Ciaran Costello). Donal, a highly regarded documentary filmmaker and music video producer, seemed convinced that one day he and Ciaran would write a screenplay together. He was always quizzing Ciaran about his writing. (“You don’t have to tell me the plot, or any details, just the themes…”) The more Ciaran avoided talking about his work, the more Donal bought into the idea that Ciaran was a prototypical introverted author. But here was the secret that nobody knew: if a writer is a person that is a) writing a lot of fiction and/ or b) a published author, Ciaran was not a writer in either sense. In his lifetime, he had published exactly two short stories online and they were written while he was working as a bookseller, a job he gave up two years ago. Since then he had managed to produce a smidgen more than sweet fuck all.
In the beginning, after he started to “write full-time”, he at least attempted to get something on to the page but in recent months, he had given up trying altogether. After Dee left the house, he would turn on his computer, check his emails and scroll through The Irish Times and The Guardian. He might thrash out a comment (most recently he’d given his tuppence on “How to Cook a Perfect Poached Egg”, “My Year without the Internet” and “Could You Live on Mars?”) before playing Solitaire or Hearts for the guts of an hour. During the course of the day, he would always find time to have a cup of tea or three, make a sandwich, snooze on the couch, buy a paper, start the crossword, fail to finish the crossword, listen to the radio and/ or watch videos on YouTube. He didn’t have to try very hard at pretending to write as Dee wouldn’t get home until late most days. She might say, “Sorry, crazy at the moment with budget-making/ pre-production/ filming/ post-production …” If she asked how his day went, Ciaran might say something like, “Okay I suppose, I was mostly just editing/ researching/ proofing…” He never gave her the impression he was close to finishing anything (now that would have been suicide!) although he also knew the charade couldn’t go on forever. At some stage, she’d have to wonder what he had been doing all this time.
Despite his inability to actually sit down at his desk and write, Ciaran continued to fantasise about being a published author. He would often think of killer opening lines that would undoubtedly lead to mind-blowing passages and from there he would skip to the bit where he’s signing hardbacks at a reading in the bookstore in front of his old colleagues or reading a rapturous, cliché-ridden review of his own debut novel in The Irish Times: “From the first sentence to the very last, a luminous and provocative wit heralds the arrival of a new and exciting literary talent—Mr. Costello, where have you been all my life?”
While hiding behind a poster of a man with Photoshop-sculpted abs and a Calvin Klein jockstrap, Ciaran was even briefly imagining how he might tell a presenter on an arts show about this very scene as an illustration of how low Ireland’s next literary legend had once been, when Donal emerged by his shoulder to shatter the illusion: “Ciaran! What are you up to, dude?!”
As usual Donal attempted some sort of handshake-hug-combo that left Ciaran grimacing. It wasn’t just the physical contact he didn’t like. Ciaran was a much happier person when 30-something middle-class men in Dublin hadn’t yet started to use the word dude (without irony). He forced a weak grin and held up some socks and underwear by way of answering.
“Ah, socks and jocks from Marks and Sparks, you can’t go wrong,” said Donal chirpily. “So what’s happening? How’s the writing going?”
“Okay, I suppose. I’m heading home to get back to it right now,” said Ciaran, trying to peel away, deliberately looking like he was desperate not to converse (classic Ciaran!).
“No bother dude, I’m running around like a blue-arsed fly myself,” said Donal. “But listen, you should come over with Dee to ours next week. A few of us are going to do some brainstorming for a film script—we have this idea for a full-length horror spoof about alcoholic zombies trying to take over the pubs of Ireland... it’s going to be fucking hilarious!”
Ciaran paused as if giving this ridiculous plot and invitation serious thought. This time next week he would be officially missing and even though his body wouldn’t have been found (titter, titter!), everyone would surely have assumed the worst. Donal would most probably be in Ciaran’s house trying to help Ronah console the inconsolable wife by continually offering to make her a cup of tea as if that might lift the mood—“Jesus that’s a great fucking cup of tea Donal! Almost makes me forget my husband’s most likely to be dead!”—and the thought that for once the ever-effervescent Donal wouldn’t know what to say or where to look brought a smile to Ciaran’s face back in the real world. “That sounds like a great idea, Donal but sorry, I might not be around,” he said before pacing away, delighted with this enigmatic farewell that would surely haunt Donal in a week’s time.
“I met him in Marks & Spencer,” he’d tell Ronah after it was confirmed Ciaran was missing. “And the freaky thing is he even said he ‘might not be around’ next week…”
“But there’s just one thing I don’t get…”
“Why was he buying socks and underwear?”
The day before he planned to disappear, Ciaran purchased a third-hand Toyota car in a supermarket car park off a soon-to-be-departing-Polish labourer for 800 euro cash-in-hand. “It’s a good, safe family car,” the Pole said as he flicked through the wad of notes. Ciaran stared in the back window at the child seat and wondered would he be able to remove it on his own. He could have asked the guy to help but for some reason right at that moment he wanted to pretend that he had a kid and momentarily he imagined that this fictional kid was called Feidhlim. “Lovely little guy but Janey Mac what a temper!” he might have said if the Pole had asked. But he didn’t. He was clearly a man of stolid countenance, which added to the mild sense of subterfuge in Ciaran’s mind.
Afterwards, Ciaran drove the Toyota cautiously toward the South Wall pier where he grappled with the child seat for 20 minutes before eventually removing it. He hurled it into a nearby skip then hoofed it all the way back to his house in Ranelagh, where he spent the next 24 hours avoiding Dee. He slept on the couch that night and stayed in his office the next day. He figured if Dee felt he was acting weird that would do his cause no harm in the long run. He listened to the radio intently as it became clear that Hurricane Arthur would most definitely be giving Dublin a good bollocking that very night. Ciaran was a secular man but this seemed like divine providence. Arthur would firstly shed the streets of witnesses and secondly add an appealing dramatic quality to the whole ruse—the arrival of a Biblical tempest dovetailing with one man’s descent into despair seemed like an utterly convincing narrative in Ciaran’s mind.
Too giddy to sit, Ciaran circled the room through the afternoon while running over his rather simplistic plan repeatedly: 1) He would wait until it was dark; 2) he would drive his Mazda to the pier; 3) he would strip off and make a run for the Toyota; 4) he’d find a more sheltered spot and sit the worst of the weather out; and 5) start heading west just as people re-emerged to pick up the pieces the next day. It was too simple to fuck up, even for Ciaran Costello, thought Ciaran Costello.
He was only hesitating over one detail: should he say something to Dee or just slip out the door? He stood in the hallway, recalling how they never used to be in separate rooms in the evening. But for a year or more, most nights, as he pretended to be working on the next “Great Irish Novel”, she sat in the living room doing her Pilates, watching films or writing lengthy e-mails to her sister in Australia. It had become rare they went to bed at the same time and when they did, they’d sit side-by-side without saying a word to each other like two strangers sharing a train cabin. Dee would be burrowed into a novel or flicking through a glossy magazine as Ciaran stared into a book without actually reading. They’d been on autopilot for years. He knew that and he wouldn’t deny it if she came out and said it—and he became convinced that she would soon come out and say it, very fucking soon. He’d most likely have to move in with his parents and with no job and close to zero professional skills, he would be the very definition of a waste of space. He was sure that people had committed suicide over less depressing lives and it was that very thought that led him to the brink and beyond, if only in his mind. Ciaran never once contemplated taking his own life… he just imagined it happening and instantly moved onto the aftermath. Picture this: A weepy Dee, dressed in black from head to toe, looking oh-so vulnerable and fuckably gorgeous at a funeral service; she’d be sniffling while shaking hands with unattractive relatives (his and hers, but mostly his) she barely knew, listening to hackneyed condolences: “He was too good a man to be taken so soon...”, “I’m sorry for your loss...”, “You’re in our thoughts and prayers...”
Ciaran liked this morbid vision so much it immediately went into high rotation in his mind. Why did he like it? Because if Dee was upset, and surely she would be, that meant she loved him, ergo if he faked his death, she would realise that she loved him, thus (stay with us boffins!) when he reappeared, after a suitable period of mourning, he would be returning to a more compassionate, engaging and loving woman and in that way he would save his marriage and furthermore by saving his marriage, Ciaran could and would channel the subsequent, all-encompassing feel good factor into his writing career and marital life, and everything would be just fandabbydosey forevermore.
Okay, fine, it might not be that straightforward. Ciaran would have a wee bit of explaining to do on re-entry as Dee might be more than slightly aggrieved at having been dragged through the wringer of a faked suicide but ultimately, Ciaran assumed, she’d be more thankful than resentful that he was alive. He’d state his intention to seek help and she’d choose to support him rather than abandon him and from there Ciaran fast-forwarded to a life lived happily-ever-after with a couple of precocious piano-playing, know-it-all but well-mannered kids (it wasn’t too late), a red brick house in Donnybrook, very merry Christmases and annual car trips to Brittany with the kids eating lemon sorbet out of lemon shells on the backseat, Dee consulting a map in the passenger seat and Ciaran singing Burt Bacharach songs as he drove; sure, throw in the odd fight over the remote control and a few teenage strops down the line for the sake of realism, but all in all, Ciaran foresaw a life dominated by domestic bliss with a belated but dazzling literary career for dad to boot, thank you very much.
Ciaran did think of darker outcomes to his disappearance, although he tried not to dwell on these things, such as Dee taking up with another man, a “special friend” she’d had for the last couple of years, someone Ciaran didn’t know about, perhaps, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to make his move with Ciaran apparently defaulting on his life and marriage. The thought of being cuckolded, made Ciaran briefly imagine the look on his own face as another man opened his front door on what was supposed to be his triumphant return. It’d be the kind of outcome that could, if someone were to make a note of such things, make this whole crackpot scheme go down in history as the most fuckwitted romantic gambit of all time (and that presumably would be saying something). The thought of this humiliation in turn made Ciaran search for a silver lining, perhaps, he would subsequently write a heart-breaking and hilarious memoir. Publishers loved that sort of thing, to wit, an idiot’s misery; the bigger the idiot, and more miserable the misery, the better.
In the end Ciaran decided to stick his head in on Dee, thinking that he might provoke an argument as a pretext for storming out, but when he tried to interrupt her, she raised her index finger in the air, as if to say, “Hang on, I’m in the middle of something much more important here.” Ciaran didn’t wait. He just slipped back out the door. Her wordless snub was perfect. Later she would look back at this moment and despair: “He came into me just before he went out that night. I think he wanted to talk but I fucking shushed him,” she’d tell Ronah and Donal, who’d be orbiting around her like a right pair of dunderheads, saying guff like, “You can’t think like that…”, “Yeah, Dee, you couldn’t have known…”, “It wasn’t your fault…”, “Try to get some rest…” and Dee would come to realise that Donal and Ronah had never understood Ciaran. They had no right to come here and say it was no one’s fault. Who the hell did they think they were? “Jesus fucking Christ,” Dee would scream. “Ciaran’s dead and you just don’t get it, do you? He killed himself. He threw himself into the sea, rather than live with me. How do you think that makes me feel?” And then she’d shove those blithering gobshites outside and slam the door in their fat faces—and good fucking riddance!
With any luck, in this scenario, Ciaran also liked to think Donal and Ronah would argue in the car all the way home and henceforth their hitherto-perpetually-sunny relationship would be more commonly defined by long spells of acrimony. Furthering this vision, Ciaran relished the thought they’d be too noble to divorce, they’d stick together with zero thick and a whole lotta’ thin till death would they part. Oh sweet, sweet Schadenfreude!
The day after his “disappearance” Ciaran beelined for County Mayo from where he began travelling around the coastal counties of Ireland in an anticlockwise direction—for some reason, it never occurred that he could turn back. He stayed in hostels and slept in his car and lived off apples, pre-made sandwiches and crisps purchased in service stations and newsagents. With nothing to do, except keep a low profile (for Ciaran this involved walking into shops with his head tilted forward, avoiding all eye contact and trying very hard not to crash his car), for the first couple of weeks, he continued to picture things unfolding with a convenient simplicity. Sooner rather than later, he would discover that he had been declared dead (he planned to check the papers everyday) and then he would simply return to enjoy a wonderful, reinvigorated life with his darling Dee. He also frequently imagined writing a story loosely based on his own true-to-life demise and subsequent “disappearance”. It could even be the title piece of “an astonishing and accomplished debut collection” called The Vanishing Act. All well- to highly-regarded critics would declare the book not just a literary triumph but an “important and timely body of work”. There would be no end to the journalistic hyperbole: “From the smithy of his tortured soul Costello has created a dark and powerful body of work.”; “An irresistible voice and an exhilarating collection, Costello has left all other Irish writers alive today trailing in his dust…”; “The Vanishing Act is a superlative collection that demands repeat readings...”
But how would the story end? How would his reappearance play out? As he drove from Mayo to Galway, Galway to Clare, Clare to Limerick, Limerick to Kerry, Ciaran imagined his return a thousand times over while also imagining in equal numbers how this would look on the printed page. A swift and joyful reunion with Dee followed by a fantastic happily-ever-after-life wouldn’t fly in a story (at least one written by “the new undisputed master of the form”). Perhaps, he hadn’t done enough while living in limbo. Perhaps, if he lived homeless for six months or more and then returned... well, that would certainly add an extra punch to the publicity! He would be hailed as a pioneer for a new form of experimental creative non-fiction that blurred the lines between art and life.
He could also foresee Donal sending embarrassingly sycophantic emails in years to come, begging him for the rights to turn Ciaran’s latest masterpiece into a feature film. “Sorry Donal, the director Steve McQueen beat you to it—he’s casting now, I think I’m being played by Michael Fassbender, and filming will start in spring,” Ciaran would write in reply. Subsequently, Ciaran visualized himself making various speeches while accepting an Oscar for best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. He couldn’t quite decide on whether he would be absolutely hilarious or extremely profound when making his winner’s speech, but either way, that night he’d be the toast of Tinsel Town.
After close to three weeks on the road, Ciaran started to triple-check newspapers in the hope of seeing some sort of obituary or notice on his death. How long would his family or An Gardaí wait before deciding he was a goner? He liked the idea of a funeral really ramming home his supposed death, but perhaps, logistically it was impossible—he would soon run out of money—and maybe it didn’t matter. As long as Dee assumed he was dead, he could return defiantly alive. But now that he was coming into the home stretch, reluctance seeped into the system and started to bog down his thoughts. When he passed through Rosslare, there was part of him that wished he could board the ferry and sail for France where he would reinvent himself as a Pastis-sipping, pétanque-playing bohème. On the side of a road near Brittas Bay, he sat in his car listening to the sounds of a frustrated fly crackling against the window. He too felt trapped. The weather felt summery—a first for the year—but he didn’t dare get out. By the time he reached Bray, his mind was now flooding with snags and paranoia. This whole hare-brained scheme had been utter madness. Dee would be beyond furious. She’d fucking skewer him on sight. She’d tell the cops that Ciaran should be arrested for wasting man-hours and resources. Worse still, she would presume he had lost the plot. She wouldn’t even let him in the house. A restraining order would be issued. Men in white coats would come to take him away. He’d end up in a centre for the mentally ill trying to explain the whole debacle to a grave looking doctor with an “I’ve-heard-it-all-before”-look on his face.
Another massive hole in his not so masterful plan suddenly became apparent: Dee would surely have gone through all of his files in his absence, perhaps at first looking for a suicide note, or some sort of clue. As a result she would have discovered there was pretty much nothing there at all. She’d have been so confused she’d have called Ronah up and said, “I don’t understand… What was he doing here every day for the last two years?” No doubt Donal or some other meddlesome arse-wipe would have advised hiring a data recovery expert who would eventually have come up with nothing but deleted film files and JPEGs of occasions Ciaran didn’t want to remember. Sitting in his car, parked by the DART station in Dun Laoghaire, Ciaran came to the conclusion that this really was one seriously fuckwitted shambles of a scheme devised by one fuckwitted shambles of a man.
Ciaran had initially pictured a moving funeral service during which no relative or family friend’s eulogy would fail to have mentioned Ciaran’s talent or at least lament the loss of such potential. Now he started picturing a grimmer event, where relatives and family friends were barely speaking. Ciaran imagined a smug berk like Donal (with the wisdom of hindsight) declaring he was unsurprised by the suicide. Ciaran could well imagine how the truth of Ciaran’s sham existence would come to fascinate Donal, and how if Ciaran returned from his faked suicide, only to be rejected by Dee, Donal would smell the guts of a killer script. Ciaran couldn’t pull the plug on this line of thought. In his head he imagined how Donal’s first feature film, The Vanishing Act, would be hailed as a breakthrough for modern Irish cinema: “Donal McGillycuddy is Ireland’s one-man equivalent to the Coen Brothers—this heart wrenching, eerie, black comedy is already a 21st century classic.” The only silver lining to this horrific line of thought: Michael Fassbender could still possibly play Ciaran in the film.
By the time Ciaran drove into the centre of Dublin it was after midnight. He didn’t know where to go so he returned to the scene of his departure at the South Wall pier. He parked the car pretty much exactly where he had on the night of the hurricane and surveyed the scene. No one was around. He realised that a person could slip away unnoticed here on any old night of the year. He pictured stripping off for a second time and leaving a near identical scene: an abandoned car, clothes strewn around inside, and how that might freak the clodhopper cops out, or not. He pictured driving into the sea, he pictured drowning in his car, he pictured his corpse getting scooped out by a fishing boat, he pictured his bloated body floating somewhere between here and Liverpool or Holyhead, he pictured walking to the nearest Garda station and saying, “Hello, my name is Ciaran Costello, I believe you are looking for me”, he pictured the cop on duty looking like he couldn’t give a flying fuck, he pictured walking home and standing outside his house too afraid to ring the doorbell, he pictured being a homeless man wandering the streets of Dublin for the rest of his life, he pictured himself stalking Dee in years to come, he pictured watching her come and go from the house with her handsome and successful looking second husband, he pictured their freckle-faced kids running up the road to the car on a summer’s day, he pictured them all driving around Brittany, the kids eating lemon sorbet out of lemon shells on the backseat, Dee consulting a map in the passenger seat and the father singing Burt Bacharach songs as he drove, he pictured breaking into his old house, he pictured scaring the shit out of Dee, he pictured getting arrested, he pictured sitting in a cell, he pictured his body hanging from the ceiling of that cell, and then to stop himself picturing anything, Ciaran abruptly began to bash his head off the steering wheel until the pain prevailed over his mind’s imaginations.
As Ciaran sat motionless in the driver’s seat he was wondering if a bolt of lightning struck him right on his bonce perhaps it would somehow enable the decision-making part of his brain (or, consolation prize, perhaps he’d suddenly be fluent in three languages that he’d previously only half-learned). He briefly contemplated how he might go about getting purposefully struck by lightning and imagined standing on a golf course in the middle of an electrical storm holding a pitching wedge above his head. Later on as he tried to get some sleep on the back seat of the Toyota, Ciaran would also imagine how writing a true-to-life account about being officially “deceased” while living in his Toyota (now that’s what publishers call “backstory gold”), and not really knowing why he’d faked his own suicide, could be the book that propelled him to overnight fame sometime in the not-too-distant future. All he needed was a pen and some paper. He fell asleep believing he would start writing in the morning.
Connla Stokes is a Dublin-born, Vietnam-based writer. He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City where he divides his time neatly between writing for money and writing for nothing. His fiction has been published online by Litro Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Barcelona Review, Eastlit and Zouch Magazine and in print by Total Cardboard (Australia), Sleepers Almanac (Australia) and Esik Cini (Turkey). His day-to-day musings on life in Vietnam can be found at the-comical-hat.tumblr.com.
Mark Madeo is a professional photographer based in San Francisco, USA. Of photography, Madeo says "The diversity of my work is anchored by my love for light, the quest to stop motion, and give motion to the seemingly still." View more of his work at markmadeo.com