Fortnightly Fiction | because the walls are stuck to us like we’ve slept in them

For those who saw them the day after the murder, trying to remember them was like trying to remember a dream.

6.37 AM
They came down from the mountains with the fog and out of the fog in a stolen car and like the fog they added mystery to the November morning.

The woman at the toll booth was busy with the morning traffic and invited me in when she realised the taxi wasn’t going to wait. She told me that Mr. Duffy was driving and Ms. Kalnins was lying in the backseat.
She worked at the toll booth to get out of the house, she said. She had paid off her mortgage. Two of her children had emigrated and the one who stayed was paying €1, 300 a month to rent a small house in Lucan. “Sarah”, she said to me as she handed out change to a van going under the barrier, “I’d never live in Dublin anyway”.

They abandoned the car soon after. It contained no clues when it was found.

7.20 – 8.10 AM
They had breakfast in a café in Portobello. They were served by a waitress from Sao Paulo. She was in Dublin to learn English and pay €275 a month to live with three other Brazilians in what should have been a one-bed apartment on the North Circular Road. She said Mr. Duffy and Ms. Kalnins sat in silence, breathing in the tea steam from teapots and the morning smells of toast and bacon and coffee as the cold streamed in under the door like sunlight.

We talked about rent like everyone does and I told her, in a woman to woman kind of way, that people had to stand up to Capital. I showed her the Facebook page of the group I’m part of. We take over old offices and empty warehouses and turn them into free apartments. She lives in the shadows cast by two time zones—between here and home—where it’s never fully morning and never fully night. She wasn’t interested.

8.30 AM
A retired professor of early modern history saw them walking by the Grand Canal. When I was there hundreds of people passed me the way they must have passed them—in pumps, with freezing noses, earphones in, eyeballing cyclists, kissing closed coffee cups, psyching themselves up for work, or, if they’re like me, trying to separate from themselves so they can get through work and walk back along the canal in the evening still a person.

He did watch them though. I think he was lonely, looking for company in the lives of passing strangers. Of all the people who saw them, I stayed with him the longest, which doesn’t fit in with the rest of this really because he is a landlord.

He thought they were skipping school, that they were too young and too rough for college. In fact, Mr. Duffy was eighteen and Ms. Kalnins was nineteen. Their ages would be much discussed in the days after they disappeared.

He had walked his dog all the way from Milltown and up along the canal where the morning fog sparkled like tinsel on the yellow trees, a hint Christmas was coming and after it spring and summer and those long days where he would stop in the evenings to watch the sun turn the water the same yellow colour the trees turn in winter.

His wife died last summer. They had bought in the nineties and again after the 2008 crash, houses in Churchtown for each of the kids and two more in Harold’s Cross to cut up into flats and rent out. Property, he told me, as we stood outside one of the houses in Harold’s Cross, is a form of immortality. I told him renting was like dying a little every month, being diminished a little, pouring a little more of your possible life down the drain. I allowed myself to join in as he admired the terraced house and the money it made him. If I owned houses I wouldn’t care about any of this.

9.30 AM
They hailed a taxi on Adelaide Road. They were cold but out of breath. The driver was Kenyan and surprised when they didn’t at least mention it. He thought they were running from someone. Ms. Kalnins knelt like a child would on the backseat with her arm around the headrest, looking out the back window at the chain of disappearing trees while Mr. Duffy repeatedly asked “anything?” and she repeatedly answered “nothing”.
The driver told me he paid €1, 125 a month for a three-bed in Balbriggan and would have to move again—meaning his four children would have to move school again—when the rent went up at the end of his lease. He brought them in a half circle, following Mr. Duffy’s whispered directions, up Mount Street and around Stephen’s Green, down Dawson Street and onto Pearse Street. Ms. Kalnins paid and they got out at Grand Canal Dock.

9.55 to 11.15 AM
They sat by the water in front of the theatre and the five-star hotel and Facebook’s tax dodging European headquarters and the restaurants where people queued for €20 brunches on sunny weekend mornings. A trainee solicitor drank coffee and looked at the fog hanging like a circus tent from the tall buildings around the water. She told me she was thinking of quitting her job. Her days, she said, were long and so much of her week seemed to be spent cycling on Dublin bikes in the dark as offices emptied and cleaners moved in—the night reversing the gentrification of the docklands—and because she paid too much for drinks and too much, €750 a month, for rent in Kilmainham and too much for drunken taxis in the rain. Mr. Duffy asked her for a cigarette. She turned and walked slowly back to work.

12.00 – 1.00 PM
They sat on the boardwalk at Bachelor’s Walk. The early afternoon I went there the river lay rotting at low tide. The buildings behind were packed together as unevenly as books on a shelf. The only person who would say he had seen them was an addict in his thirties. He was moving from €5 a night hostels to couches to parks to doorways on O’Connell Street.

He tried to sell them prescription painkillers but they wanted speed or coke or pills or anything to keep them awake. He bought a bag of speed in an alley off Abbey Street with the idea of selling it on to them at a 50% profit, but when he got back to the boardwalk they were gone.

1.15 to 2.20 PM
The barman in The Gypsy Rose across the river is a fine art graduate about to exhibit in a small gallery in Rathmines. He is two months behind on his €525 a month rent. When I met him in the pub his electricity had just been turned back on after three weeks of sleeping in a jumper and sweat pants and inhaling the freezing candlelit air. It had seemed bohemian for the first few hours. He was interested in joining my group and maybe agitating for revolution, but I have found these artist types to be mainly interested in bettering themselves by expressing their individual circumstances and feelings while ignoring the wider political context. Neo-liberalism is a sponge which absorbs everything, I told him, even found art. He didn’t agree.

He had kept an eye on them as they drank in the corner in case they injected themselves or slipped an extra jolt into their drinks or passed out or started screaming at each other. Ms. Kalnins rested her head in her arms on the wooden table. Mr. Duffy checked his phone the way people do when they want to keep their hands from fidgeting.

3.00 to 4.30 PM
Temple Bar was quiet that day. It was a Tuesday in the off-season. A man who had given up drinking for November saw them walking as loosely as he was. He had been walking for hours through the wintry almost Christmassy streets. He was light with the energy you get in the first days after you give up. He stopped outside every pub he used to drink in and would drink in again in December. He listened for the echo of renovations and drank the bleach and leather and wood smells in neat.

He was from Leitrim and lived in a bedsit on the Rathgar Road. He got it for €700 a month because it broke all the fire and safety regulations and someone was murdered there once on a spring afternoon in an argument over a Liverpool match. His windows framed a landscape picture of the southern city suburbs, Bluebell and Drimnagh and Harold’s Cross and Kimmage and Rathmines. It was a view which should have been more expensive. After I slept with him I spent ten minutes watching as the early evening painted the city in greys and browns.

He saw them drinking tea or coffee in McDonalds. There was an argument. Mr. Duffy slammed his palm on the grey plastic table and said, in what seemed like a shout after so much whispering, “you go then”.

4.34 PM
In a pharmacy on Grafton Street Ms. Kalnins bought four bottles of blackhead clearing scrub from a cashier who was also a spoken word poet. She was working out her notice. She realised, one night on MDMA at a rave in Smithfield, that she might never be able to afford more than the €500 a month she was already paying for her room in Stoneybatter, that unless she had some kind of lottery win publishing success, she would be stuck for the rest of her life on the edge of adulthood with nowhere to put a desk.

Dublin, she told me, is like the film ‘The Lobster’, you have to get a boyfriend if you want to live anywhere but a share house using up most of your time and energy avoiding the strangers you’re stuck with. She was moving to a cheaper country where she could be single and live alone and write.
In the poem she wrote about them, she depicts Mr. Duffy and Ms. Kalnins as mythical heroes who murdered the letting agent in the dark blue mountains to take revenge on behalf of the renters of Dublin. At my group’s quiz night, she chanted, between two of the rounds, “Dublin your only empty rooms are in prisons, Dublin your only spare beds are at the bottom of the Liffey”.

4.45 PM
They sat on a bench in Stephen’s Green as the heavier dark of late evening filtered finally down over the city. The fog turned whiter and colder. Cars used their headlights like antenna to feel their way home through it. Ms. Kalnins shouted “that was you, that was you” at Mr. Duffy as he walked on the grass under the leathery trees. He said “give me your phone” to a man from Kilbarrack who was passing by.

The man stared ahead at the leaves scattered like stars on the path. His girlfriend had just left him. He blamed the coffin shaped room he rented for €550 a month in the IFSC. He was in the park hoping the fog would clear and the evening would lose its 1950’s black and white film feel and become less romantic and less mysterious for his ex-girlfriend and the man she was with wherever they were, walking arm in arm or lying down by a bare window or an open fire. The most romantic evenings happen, I told him, in our lonely imaginations to the people we wish we were with.

A few laps of the park later and he had decided that a new room and a few drizzly days would be enough to win her back. He thought he was about to be robbed by Mr. Duffy, who stood in front of him with his runners shiny from the grass, but Ms. Kalnins looked at them both through the blond strands of hair she had stretched in her hand and said “just leave it”. After five more steps over the wet leaves he had lost them again in the fog.

8.30 PM
In the dark of Sandymount Strand they stood at the edge of the tide and watched the skeletal glow of the last ferries on their way to Holyhead. A photographer, here from Chile but thinking of moving to Berlin, mistook them at first for shadows on the water.

She wanted to leave Dublin but she stayed for the sudden beauty of the city—the winter sun on the tips of red buildings, the swell of a pub at half ten, the icy rain on her window on a Saturday morning, the hot shower before bed rinsing the cold from her bones, tea in big pots on dark afternoons, foggy nights like that night when saw them, a dog panting in the frozen air, traffic going suddenly quiet and a young couple hand in hand by the shore.

She paid €300 a month to share a room with a friend on Thomas Street. The photo she took would be on the front of every paper and website by the morning. Mr. Duffy and Ms. Kalnins, the last time they were seen, darker shapes against the dark sea watching the lights of a ferry crackle in the fog, about to throw their phones into the water and take a leap out into the ungoogleable void together. She made some money from it, but not enough for a room to herself.
9.30 PM
I walked home from Sandymount through the dark and light of the quiet, expensive streets. The trains ran behind the houses like whispered conversations. I thought about where they might be hiding instead of thinking about rent and work the next day. There are various theories. One says that they escaped by plane and gazed down at the crane stabbed city below as they went, another says that they drifted away at night, stowaways, with the most luxurious seafront houses the last they saw of Dublin, yet another theory holds that they are still here—people claimed to have seen them walking at night in the rain in Galway or sleeping under a shopfront in Cork or living in an abandoned cottage in the Antrim mountains.

Soon it will be impossible to do without advanced coding skills, but it’s nice to imagine how easily they disappeared in this fully online age of logins, CCTV, google maps, PPS numbers, chip and pin, biometric passports, Facebook check-ins, phone signals pinging between towers, with my subreddit searching for them and their names unfurling twelve pages of Google results.

The dream of disappearing—and the darker dream of revenge on letting agents—passed those empty weeks in the lead up to Christmas for everyone like me, renting and living in a collapsing system we can’t name or imagine collapsing, renting and working longer hours for less money and thinking ourselves heroic for doing it, renting and giving half of our wages to landlords as mortgages get further out of our reach, renting and allowing apps to run our lives, renting and competing in a brutal sexual marketplace, renting and being harassed by the buzzing of our phones and by our phones not buzzing, renting and feeling our mental health decline with our phone batteries, renting and commuting in the dark home and back, in cars and buses and trains or walking with our heads in our phones, crouched like soldiers moving over open ground, renting and spending our money on brunch and not paying the electricity bill, renting and hating our rooms, the damp patches in the corner, the condensation on the windows, the squeak in the door, the housemate having sex on the other side of the wall, renting and renting out rooms ourselves when our friends meet someone and move out, renting and putting off marrying and having kids until we can afford it or renting with kids and struggling with the cost of crèches and the lack of sleep and the hours we have to work to survive in a society incompatible with having kids, renting and separating and renting somewhere smaller, renting and missing rent and paying double rent to catch up, renting and facing into an uncertain middle-age, unable to imagine being old without a place to die in rent free, renting and hiding online in mysteries and conspiracies while the ruling class openly conspires against us, renting and dreaming of disappearing and revenge the way we used to dream of owning.

11.17PM
Renting and losing our minds slowly in the rooms we pay too much for, €675 a month, because the walls are stuck to us like we’ve slept in them and our housemates won’t go to bed and leave the living room to us so we can sit on the couch and read our phones and drink tea in silence, renting and thinking what a beautiful thing that would be after walking all day in the cold.

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