Like any other person approaching my thirties, I’d had my fair share of disillusionment about my career. Well, if you could call it a “career” – I’d been stuck in the same low-level marketing job for years and the closer I got to my thirtieth birthday, the more I felt like it was time for a change. But I never would have thought my next employer would be who, or more like, where, it was.
The past three years of my life have been monotonous. Alarm rings at quarter past seven, sometimes it’s still dark out, sometimes it’s not, depends on the season. I shower, stare at the grout between the tiles until I wake up, make my toast before my housemate comes downstairs and takes over the kitchen. I put three coats of mascara on, pick a jacket according to the forecast for the day, and walk half a mile to work in the foggy dawn.
Every morning went exactly like that, so much so that my state of autopilot seemed impenetrable. I doubt I would have noticed if a cute alien cucumber landed right in front of me, I was so busy not-focusing with my hands stuffed into my coat pockets, looking forward to my second cup of coffee which I always had at quarter past eight. But then, in late October a few days before my birthday, something unusual happened that rocked my state of self-induced fugue.
It was 4:15pm on a Friday, I was sitting at my desk as Richard, one of the accountants, passed me on his way to the canteen.
“Heya, Lucy,” he said cordially, clutching his empty mug and stack of photocopies almost defensively. “Any plans for the weekend?”
“Not really, no. There’s some gig that my boyfriend wants to go to but that’s it,” I said, while still staring at my computer screen. I considered briefly whether I should add that it was my birthday on Monday but decided that it seemed outside the question and I didn’t want to come off self-absorbed.
“Did you get that email from Gary about the training next week? Were we supposed to get the materials for that today?” Richard said.
“Oh, Jesus, yeah,” I said, bringing my hands up to my face, “I was supposed to get the fecking training pack from their office across the way.”
I rushed to get out of my seat.
“No worries, I was just wondering,” Richard said. He was clearly flustered that he’d caused me such a fuss.
“No really, thanks for reminding me.”
I left my jacket on the back of my chair and headed for the door. As the events manager, I was supposed to distribute materials for training to the rest of my co-workers which essentially made me a glorified delivery person. Thankfully, the office that distributed the materials was just across the shopping centre and still open.
I collected the twenty plain, manilla envelopes and rushed back to our office across the car park with the papers spilling out of my arms, hurrying to get them distributed before everyone started peeling off early for the weekend. In my fervor, something caught my eye. It was a man, slowing down as he walked under the overpass. There was something hunched and motionless at his feet. At first glance, I thought it was a cat, but looking closer, I saw it was a pigeon. It looked like it was struggling – the wind mercilessly ruffling its pearlescent feathers as it teetered back and forth on its semi-outstretched wings. The man eventually left and continued walking down the street, leaving the injured pigeon in his shadow.
Fifteen minutes later I was back in the car park walking towards the pigeon with a bulk bag of cheese crackers from the store. Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead, I thought as I approached the bird. It looked dead. Its head was bobbed over, dirty beak scraping against the pavement. The feathers of its wings were roughed up, bent at odd angles from trying to scrabble across the car park.
I crumbled up one of the diamond-shaped crackers between my fingers and placed it in front of the fallen bird. No interest. Its eyelids lazily opened and closed like the doors of an empty elevator shaft. Mechanical and lifeless. Yet the poor creature was still clinging to life. Every time it became still and I thought maybe it was dead, it jerked around its wings and tried to lift its head up off the pavement. I could feel tears welled in my eyes although I was willing myself not to cry, not in the car park outside the office. People occasionally slowed down to see what I was doing, although most of them just shot a pitiful look at the girl who was trying to save a bird that death had seemingly already claimed.
I would’ve taken the pigeon home to die somewhere warm if only I’d had a box or something to carry it in. I didn’t want it to die alone here. Nothing deserved to die alone and frightened, not even a bird. I secretly longed that it would just die to minimise its struggling, or that someone would be able to come along and rescue it.
Then came the death rattle. I never thought a bird could breathe so heavily, but out came a raspy, belabored breath that shook the whole thing’s body in a rhythmic convulsion. It reminded me of watching my Nan die in the hospital.
Suddenly, someone came up behind me. I could hear their footsteps slowing.
“It’s you!” A female voice cried.
I pivoted around. Above me stood an aging woman with tight brown curls pinned haphazardly around her head, streaked with wiry grey hairs. She was wearing a reflective purple puffer jacket, her age-spotted hands sticking defiantly out of the sleeves. She looked at me with a dumbfounded smile, some of her teeth grey and decayed.
“What?” I said.
“It’s you!” She pointed gleefully at me, “I knew it was you. You’ll be perfect for the job. You already have your first soul.”
She hobbled around front and gingerly scooped up the wilted bird with her firm hands, tucking it under her arm carefully.
“What – what are you on about? What are you doing?” I said and raised to my feet.
She smiled a tremulous smile. “Come with me, girl. What’s your name? When were ye born?” She teetered towards the road and I followed her, not wanting her to whisk the pigeon away without figuring out what she intended to do with it.
“Uh, Lucy. I’m Lucy. I was born on the 31st of October.” I paused before giving her the year.
“Perfect, just perfect. I knew it!” She raised one hand in the air, the one that wasn’t tucked underneath the bird. She spun back around and shook her finger under my chin. “We have a job for you. A job offer. Wonderful job, lots of money,” she waved ecstatically, “but I can’t take you now, on account of it being light out.”
“Wha-? Who’s we?” I said.
She shushed me. “Never mind that. What you need to do is meet me down by the quays in two hours. You’ll know the place - beneath the blinking streetlamp. I’ll take you to the job.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. She looked back and forth across the road, attempting to cross it, then looked back at me and said, “In the meantime, I will take care of this one, he’s not gone to the other side yet. I’ll make him a nice nest in a box next to my radiator.” She stroked the pigeon’s head gently with her thumb, and then she tumbled off across the road and evaporated.
I stared at the empty space where she had been. Every nerve in my skin was tingling.
When I got home, my boyfriend Charlie was in the kitchen stirring a mug of coffee.
“How was work?” he asked quietly. His dark hair hung limply in his eyes. He was wearing a cream and blue jumper with a distorted argyle pattern that seemed, to me, overly festive for a bleak October day.
“Oh God, don’t get me started,” I moaned, peeling my trainers off of my feet and reaching to hang up my jacket, “I had the weirdest experience as I was leaving today, it was bizarre.”
He motioned for me to join him at the kitchen table. I sat down in the wooden chair across from him. “I think I got offered a job,” I said.
“Well, that’s wonderful!” he said, “What kind of job?”
“Well – that’s the thing, you see. I don’t know. And it was a lady who seemed kind of, uh, insane. So, I honestly don’t know.”
Charlie’s congratulatory expression melted into a quizzical one. “So, was this in work, like? Or, on LinkedIn or something?”
“No, it was in the car park.”
He raised his eyebrows speculatively.
“I stopped to rescue this pigeon that was hurt. Maybe it had been hit by a car or something. Anyway, this older woman came up to me all excited like she recognised me or she knew me or – you know. And then she went on about how I was going to be perfect for this job ‘we’ have and to meet her down by the river in two hours.”
“Well, are you going to go meet her, so?” Charlie asked.
I stared at him, “I mean, no? She was a header I’m pretty sure.”
He sipped his coffee, “You never know. It could be a real job. I mean you’re always on about how much you hate your job now.”
“What if she sells me into human trafficking?” I exclaimed, “Or – or murders me?”
“Do you really think she could murder you? I thought you said she was an old woman.”
“Well, yes, but what if she’s the bait? Don’t human traffickers always use women as bait so you, like, trust them more?”
Charlie snorted, “I’m not really familiar with the whole human trafficking protocol. I think you should go, though. I can come with you to make sure she doesn’t murder you.” He winked.
“You’re hardly serious,” I laughed, rolling my eyes, “Speaking of jobs, how are we for making the rent this month?”
His eyes lost the playful glint for a moment, “Should be grand. I’m covering for Dave Saturday, so I’ll have two double shifts this weekend now.”
“Right,” I said. I felt a hint of shame gnawing at my stomach. In a way, I felt guilty for Charlie and our reliance on his toilsome work as a runner, the hours he spent absorbed in the chaotic ambience of the bar, subjected to the more experienced bartenders’ chronic stress and mismanagement and the late-night brawls of college students. At the same time, I felt a kind of envy in the sense that his long, back-breaking hours never dampened his spirit in the way that my paper-pushing job felt like it was breaking mine.
Charlie and I had met at University through a mutual friend we’d since lost touch with. He was an eclectic music major who played in a trad band on weekends and I was a mercurial journalism student who spent too many hours in the library and then too many hours drinking on weekends. I had always admired him for his dedication to music and his belief that one day he’d make it his career. As the years rolled on and I was forced to give up my interests in order to make enough money to survive, that admiration had slowly festered and grown into resentment.
I could feel my spine arched against the wooden chair and realized it hurt.
“Alright, I’ll go meet her,” I conceded, “Who knows, could be a job I’m actually good at.”
The rain had already started by the time we left the flat. Puddles gleamed with neon reflections along the street. The city lights made the sleeting rain shine green, red, and yellow.
I pulled my scarf tightly around my ears so I could see nothing but what was directly in front of me. I pivoted on the top of the steps to make sure Charlie was following behind me.
“She said to meet her underneath the blinking streetlamp,” I said plainly. He gave a stumped shrug as he closed the gate to the courtyard behind him.
I made my way down the slick steps. Ivy glistened, wet and trailing over the cement walls of our neighbours’ gardens. Abandoned crisp packets and shards of naggins melted into the footpath at every turn, reflecting light into my eyes. There seemed something so forbidden about the city in the rain.
We only lived about ten minutes up the street from the river. A series of arterial bridges connected the Northside to City Centre; streetlamps and moldy, faded life buoys dotted the quays in between. For the life of me I had no idea which quay the woman had wanted me to meet her at, nor did I know of any flickering street lamps this side of the city.
“I guess maybe we should just walk along the quays until we see a blinking light?” Charlie suggested.
My hands rose up to my face, hovering around my damp polyester scarf, “This is so mental,” I said, “I can’t believe we’re walking around in the pissing rain to meet a crazy woman.”
We walked westbound for about ten minutes without talking. I could hear the river rushing with all the accumulated rainfall – I was starting to fear it’d burst its banks. I was hyper-aware of all the lights around me – reflections of neon signs in puddles, the flood of light from doors opening and closing, car headlights misdirected in the mist. There were no flickering street lamps.
“Think we should call it a night?” I asked Charlie, “Walk around in the rain some other time, maybe.”
He pointed ahead of him, “Is that it?”
I looked up. I saw the ground reflecting soft yellow light ahead of us, a shorting-out streetlight hunched over it.
“No way,” I said, “No way, no way, no way.”
I scanned the area for any sign of the woman. There was nothing around, just the white-capped, tumultuous river to our left and a derelict web of rain-soaked alleys and an old Japanese café with a blue dragon painted on the shuttered storefront. No sign of life besides the buzzing of the dying streetlamp.
“Lucy!” I heard a distorted hiss coming from the river. It was her, sporadically lit by the lamp, her rain jacket reflecting beams back out into the night. She wasn’t underneath the light or even in the street, but beyond the iron guardrails on the top of the concrete steps that led down to the thunderous river.
I spun around to Charlie to judge his expression. His eyes were as wide as mine.
“I’m just going to go over and see what she wants and then we will leave,” I tried to keep my voice steady.
“I will be right here,” Charlie said, “Right behind you. She won’t be able to do anything to you.” He grabbed my shoulders - it was only under his grip that I realised I was shaking.
I approached the guardrails and looked over at the woman perched on the steps.
“What do you want?” I said aggressively. Her hood was pulled down over her face. Spume from the raging water lapped up onto her wellies, reaching up from the dark, churning abyss below.
“Lucy, I knew you’d come,” she said, “But there’s not much time, I must take you to the job, come!” She reached over the guardrail to grab me with her slippery hand. It was then when I noticed a wooden rowboat, tall at either side like a gondola, tethered to the base of the steps. It bobbed, frenzied, on the unrelenting waves.
“No!” I screamed, “You’ll drown me! You’re going to kill me! Charlie!”
“He can’t hear you,” she said, “Now, go on.”
She pulled me harder so that my ribs were pressed against the cold metal of the guardrail. I was crying now, like a petulant child having a fit, but my crying made me less resistant as the woman placed my hands on the rail and urged me to climb it. Weakened and somehow willed to follow her, I scaled the guardrail. Its paint was rubbing off and black flecks became embedded in my hands. I could feel the spray of sloshing water in my face as I looked down at the black riptides. I tried to look up and find Charlie for help, but I couldn’t make out anything through the soft, illuminated cloud of mist.
The woman had already descended the steps and was waist-deep in water. She seized the gondola with both hands and steadied it so I could crawl in. Seeing my hysteria, she gripped my arm with a cold, slick hand and guided me in. I did not have the strength to resist; I was a weak and lifeless buoy embraced in the never-ending water.
Wherever she was taking me, I didn’t know. I could not register much of our voyage to the other side, mainly because it was eerily calm even with the raging storm that night. I kept my eyes closed firmly, seeing nothing except the multi-colored lights that bled through, buzzing like electric sparks from severed wires.
When I finally opened them, I could hardly see anything. Green and purple blobs dotted my vision. As the real world started to give way, I could see that we were eastbound. I could see the back of the Port of Cork sign, its white support beams looking like the threads of a spider web in the soft light. The water was calm now, gentle and rippled like indigo silk. It looked like dawn even though it surely couldn’t be later than eight o’clock.
The woman faced away from me, hunched over and churning the oars on either side of the boat like a Viking. She seemed unphased, which somehow comforted me. I could see people streaming along the bridges, headphones on, staring at the ground.
“Why is no one looking at us?” I asked in a quiet, resigned voice.
“I told you,” she said melodically, “They can’t see us.”
She curved her oar gracefully like the fin of a fish and steered us over to where a barnacle-covered ladder ejected out of the river and onto a tall brown wall. Her fat hands reached out to slip a thick, frayed rope around the corroded metal.
“Climb,” she instructed me, dully.
She looked at me sternly, “Now you think I’m joking?”
Already defeated, I grabbed onto the gritty, rotting ladder and hoisted myself up. I tried not to look down as I scaled it.
Above me was an old orange shipping container, bigger than a small house. The woman climbed up after me and banged on the door, which echoed back in a thunderous rattle.
I felt her hand on my back, pushing me towards the entrance, “That was just for courtesy’s sake,” she said sweetly, “We can go in.”
The container was dim and empty inside, shades of grey colouring the whole expanse. Three fluorescent bulbs hung from the ceiling, illuminating a long, cluttered desk standing squarely in the middle. A short man was hunched over it, filling out paperwork.
“Ah, Mary,” he said, not looking up from his incessant scribbling, “You’re here. Who have you brought me.”
“It’s her!” Mary said enthusiastically, “She’s our one!”
The man squinted up at me. He had beady eyes that shone behind thick, black-rimmed glasses. He was bald, with a flat, wide nose and thick lips concealing the remnants of nubby teeth. He was wearing a blue two-piece suit that shone in the light with a houndstooth dress shirt peeking out underneath. He sniffed.
“And…?” he said.
“And, well, her name’s Lucy!” Mary added, hesitating.
The man’s thick brows knit together. My hair dripped water onto the floor. The shipping container was drafty, making my damp clothes cling to my skin.
“Alright, Lucy,” he turned to address me, “are you prepared for your interview?”
“Interview?” I asked.
He looked amused, and frustrated.
“Mary,” he said, “Please stop bringing people to me when you haven’t even told them what they’re here for.”
She nodded submissively behind me.
“Very well,” he continued, “I will fill Lucy in. Mary, you can leave us.”
He gestured a thick, blocky hand to the seat in front of him as Mary left. He shook my hand firmly as I sat.
“I’m confused,” I said instead of introducing myself.
“I know,” he said, flattening the lapels of his jacket with his palms. He had a thick, nasally accent.
“All she said was that she had a job for me. And then she, well, kind of abducted me and brought me here.”
“Yes,” he said absently, “Well, Mary is a skilled recruiter but I hope you can understand that I can’t just hire anyone she brings me. So, if it’s alright with you, we’ll still have to go through the standard interview process.”
He produced a bland file folder and opened it to reveal an empty form.
“And, what exactly am I interviewing for?” I asked.
He leaned forward across the desk, “I am representing my employer, Hell. We need someone local for, um, well I guess it’s more of an administrative role.”
He got up and stuffed his hands in his pockets, spinning around to look at the nondescript walls of the container,
“You, Lucy Star, certainly meet the minimum requirements. Born on the day of the year where the veil is thinnest, you certainly have the ability to see and speak to the dead – but you’re going to need to have demonstrable proof of your decision-making skills and your initiative.”
I gulped, nervously. I never spoke about any of this, not even with Charlie. I hardly even believed it was real.
“I mean, I speak to my Nan sometimes. More of a comfort thing, really. I never really know if it’s her speaking back. I don’t really see the dead.”
He strolled over to the end of the container and retracted a sheer blind to reveal a makeshift window looking out across the river.
“Do you see him?” he said, pointing to a young man walking across the bridge on the far side of the river, wearing oversized jeans and a puffer jacket, dragging one of his legs as if he had a slight limp.
“Dead!” he exclaimed, lifting his arms like he’d scored a goal, “Six months ago. Overdose. Found under a bench in Bishop’s Park. Pigeons had already gotten to him.” He snapped the blind back down and sauntered back to his seat behind the desk.
Sitting down he said, “So I want to know, Lucy. How do you see yourself in this role?”
“I-I don’t know,” I stammered, “I mean, I do have a lot of administrative experience.”
“Have you ever played God?” he asked.
“How do you mean?” I said.
He folded his hands in front of him, “You know, executive d