A patch of ice on the road, a casual favour to a charming stranger, a bee caught beneath a bridal veil – can a single moment of bad luck change the direction of a life?

Dickie’s once-lucrative car business is going under - but rather than face the music, he’s spending his days in the woods, building an apocalypse-proof bunker. His exasperated wife Imelda is selling off her jewellery on eBay while half-heartedly dodging the attentions of fast-talking cattle farmer Big Mike.  

Meanwhile, teenage daughter Cass, formerly top of her class, seems determined to binge-drink her way to her final exams. And 12-year-old PJ, in debt to local sociopath ‘Ears’ Moran, is putting the final touches to his grand plan to run away. 

Yes, in Paul Murray’s brilliant tragicomic saga, the Barnes family is definitely in trouble. So where did it all go wrong? And if the story has already been written – is there still time to find a happy ending? 

Written by Paul Murray

Publication date and time: Published

In the next town over, a man had killed his family. He’d nailed the doors shut so they couldn’t get out; the neighbours heard them running through the rooms, screaming for mercy. When he had finished he turned the gun on himself.

Everyone was talking about it – about what kind of man could do such a thing, about the secrets he must have had. Rumours swirled about affairs, addiction, hidden files on his computer.

Elaine just said she was surprised it didn’t happen more often. She thrust her thumbs through the belt loops of her jeans and looked down the dreary main street of their town. I mean, she said, it’s something to do.

Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass’s eczema during an experiment. It was an accident; she’d cried more than Cass did, and insisted on going with her to the nurse.

They’d been friends ever since. Every morning Cass called to Elaine’s house and they walked to school together. At lunchtime, they rolled up their long skirts and wandered around the supermarket, listening to music from Elaine’s phone, eating croissants from the bakery section that were gone by the time they got to the checkout. In the evening, they went to each other’s houses to study.

Cass felt she’d known Elaine for ever; it made no sense that they had not always been friends. Their lives were so similar it was almost eerie. Both girls came from well-known families in the town: Cass’s father, Dickie, owned the local Volkswagen dealership, while Elaine’s dad, Big Mike, was a businessman and cattle farmer. Both girls were of slightly above-average height; both were bright, in fact they were  consistently at the top of their class. Both intended to leave here some day and never come back.

Paul Murray

I’m not being negative, she said. I just want to live somewhere I can get good coffee and not have to see nature and everyone doesn’t look like they were made out of mashed potato

Elaine had golden hair, green eyes, a perfect figure. When she bought clothes online, they always fitted perfectly, as if they’d been made with her in mind. Writing about her in her journal, Cass used words like grace and style. She had what the French called je ne sais quoi. Even when she was clipping her toenails, she looked like she was eating a peach.

When Cass came round to Elaine’s house, they would sit in her bedroom with the carousel lamp on and look at the Miss Universe Ireland website. Elaine was thinking seriously about entering, though not for the title itself so much as the opportunities it might offer. The previous year’s winner was now brand ambassador for a juice company.

Cass thought Elaine was prettier than any of the contestants pictured online. But it was tricky. Each of the girls competing to be Miss Universe Ireland, and from there to be Miss Universe for the world/universe overall, had an adversity they had overcome. One had been a refugee from a war in Africa. Another had needed surgery when she was a small girl. A very thin contestant had once been very fat. The adversity had to be something bad, like a learning disability, but not really bad, like being chained up in a basement for ten years by a paedophile. Cass’s eczema would be a perfect adversity; they wondered, if she held her skin up against Elaine’s long enough, whether she could pass it on to her. But it didn’t seem to work. Elaine said the adversity requirement was unfair. When you think about it, it’s almost like a kind of discrimination, she said.

The housekeeper knocked on the door to say it was time for Elaine’s swimming lesson. Elaine rolled her eyes. The swimming pool was always full of Band-Aids and old people. Coming from here, she said. If that isn’t an adversity, I don’t know what is.

Elaine hated their town. Everyone knew everyone, everybody knew your business; when you walked down the street people would slow down their cars to see who you were so they could wave at you. There were no proper shops; instead of McDonald’s and Starbucks, they had Binchy Burgers and Mangan’s Café, where the owners worked behind the counter and asked after your parents. You can’t even buy a sausage roll without having to tell someone your life story, she complained. 

The smallness wouldn’t have been so bad if the townsfolk had had a little more sophistication. But their only interest, besides farming and the well- being of the microchip factory, was Gaelic games. Football, hurling, camogie, the county, the Cup, the under-21s – that was all anyone ever talked about. Elaine hated GAA. She was bad at sports, in spite of her grace. She was always the last up the rope in gym class; in games, she confined herself to the sidelines, where she scowled, flicked her hair, and wafted reluctantly back and forth with the general direction of play, like a lovely frond at the bottom of a noisy, grunting ocean.

The Tidy Towns Committee, of which Cass’s mother was a member, was always shiteing on about the natural beauty of the area, but Elaine did not accept this. Nature in her eyes was almost as bad as sports. The way it kept growing? The way things, like crops or whatever, would die and then next year they came back? Did no one else get how creepy that was?

I’m not being negative, she said. I just want to live somewhere I can get good coffee and not have to see nature and everyone doesn’t look like they were made out of mashed potato.

Cass didn’t care for GAA either, and she agreed about the general lack of je ne sais quoi. For her, though, the presence of Elaine was enough to cancel out the town’s faults.

She had never felt so connected to someone. When they messaged each other at night – sometimes they’d stay up till two in the morning – they got so in synch it was almost like they were the same person. If Elaine texted Cass to say WTF was up with that jumper today, she would know immediately whose jumper she was talking about; a single, unexplained word, bagatelle or lickout, could make her laugh so loud that her dad would hear from across the landing and come in and tell her to go to sleep. In some ways, that was the best time of all – better even than being together. As she lay in bed, messages flying back and forth between them, Cass would feel like she was flying too, far above the town, in a pure space that belonged completely to her and her best friend. 

Most days they went to Elaine’s after school, but sometimes, for a change of scene, Elaine would want to come to Cass’s instead. She liked to hang out in the kitchen talking to Imelda – that’s what she called Cass’s mother, ‘Imelda’, so casually and naturally that after a while Cass started doing it too. You are so working those jeggings, Imelda, she’d say. Oh, you think so? Cass’s mam/‘Imelda’ would say, and she’d lean over with impossible willow-like grace to examine the back of her own thighs. I wasn’t sure about the stripes. The stripes are what make it, Elaine would say conclusively, and Imelda would look happy.

Cass’s mother was a famous beauty. She too had blonde hair and green eyes. It’s so weird that she’s your mam, Elaine said. Doesn’t it make more sense that I should be her daughter?

Then we’d be sisters! Cass said.

No, I mean, instead of you, Elaine said.

Cass wasn’t sure what to do with that. But the fact remained that Elaine got on better with her mother than she did. Imelda liked to give Elaine face creams to try out; they traded beauty secrets and product advice. Cass was a bystander in these conversations. Nothing works on her skin, Imelda said, because of the eczema. It’s a real adversity, Elaine agreed.

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray