The Nothing Man - Catherine Ryan Howard


The Girl Who

When we meet, I probably introduce myself to you as Evelyn and say, ‘Nice to meet you.’ I transfer my glass to my other hand so I can shake the one you’ve offered, but the move is clumsy and I end up spraying us both with droplets of white wine. I apologise, perhaps blush with embarrassment. You wave a hand and protest that no, no, it’s fine, really, but I see you snatch a glance at your shirt, the one you probably had dry-cleaned for the occasion, to surreptitiously assess the damage. You ask me what I do and I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved that this conversation is going to be longer. I say, ‘Oh, this and that,’ and then ask what you do. You tell me and I make the mmm sounds of polite interest. There’s a silence then: we’ve run out of steam. One of us rushes to use the last remaining card in play: ‘So, how do you know …?’ We take turns explaining our social ties to the host, casting for connections. We probably find some. Dublin is a small place. We grasp for other topics: the turnout tonight, that podcast everyone is obsessed with, Brexit. The room is uncomfortably warm and noisy and strange bodies brush against mine as they pass, but the real source of my anxiety, the thing that has an angry red flush flaring up my neck, is the possibility that, at any moment, the penny will drop, and you’ll frown and cock your head and look at me, really look at me, and say, ‘Wait, aren’t you the girl who …?’

This is always my fear when I meet someone new, because I am.

I am the girl who.

I was twelve years old when a man broke into our home and murdered my mother, father and younger sister, Anna, seven years old then and for ever. I heard strange and confusing sounds that I would later discover were my mother’s rape and murder and my sister’s asphyxiation. I found my father’s bloody and battered body in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs. I believe that, having survived the attack, he was trying to get to the phone in our kitchen so he could raise the alarm. I survived because of my bladder, because of the can of Club Orange I’d smuggled into my bedroom and drank in the hour before I went to bed. Minutes before the intruder made his way up the stairs, I woke needing to go to the bathroom. I was then able to hide in there once it began. The lock was flimsy and there was no means of escape. If the killer had tried the door it would have yielded and I’d be dead as well. But for some reason, he didn’t.

We were the last family this man attacked but not the first. We were his fifth in two years. The media dubbed him the Nothing Man because the Gardaí, they said, had nothing on him. With the sole exception of a momentary glimpse in the beam of headlights on the side of the road one night, no one saw him coming or going. He wore a mask and sometimes shone a torch directly into his victims’ faces, so no survivor could provide a useful physical description. He used condoms and left no hair or fingerprints that anyone was ever able to collect. He took his weapons – a knife and then, later, a gun – with him when he went, only ever leaving behind the strands of braided blue rope that he used to restrain his victims. The rope never gave up any secrets. He spoke in a weird, raspy whisper that offered no clues as to his real voice. He confined his crimes to one county, Cork, Ireland’s southernmost and largest, but he moved around within it, striking places like Fermoy, a town nearly forty kilometres outside of Cork City, but also Blackrock, a suburb.

Nearly two decades later he remains at large and I miss my family like phantom limbs. Their absence in my life, the tragedy of their fates and the pain they must have suffered is a constant ringing in my ears, a taste in my mouth, an itch on my skin. It’s everywhere, always, and I can’t make it go away. Time hasn’t healed this wound but made it worse, turned the skin around the original cut necrotic. I understand much more about what I lost