Keeping It Neat and Tidy

Susan Lanigan shares a chapter from her novel on submission 'The Planter's Daughter'. This novel is about eco-crime in County Cork with a backstory in the Irish Civil War.

When Sadhbh Drummond’s burned body is found in a forestry plantation in West Cork, it soon becomes clear that her death was not an accident. Her Anglo-Irish heritage and fierce climate activism marked her as an outsider in her community. When Detective Inspector Rosa Keane is called on to investigate her murder, she soon finds a town closing ranks, and tribal hatred dating back to the War of Independence. But Rosa hides a secret of her own, and someone is threatening her about it…

Susan Lanigan. Photo submitted by author.
     At the top of the boreen where it branched off from the tarmac road, a dilapidated Toyota truck was lurching its way down towards them. Luke recognised the way one headlamp dangled off the front. That crack in the windscreen wiper and the whine in the engine. And in the driver’s seat, he recognised his own father, Tom Keating, his red gardener’s gloves on the steering wheel, and in the back of the truck a stepladder and Black and Decker trimmer-chainsaw. There was a rough look on him, a look Luke knew only too well.
     What mischief was this? Had Sadhbh done this deliberately?
    “Battle stations!” Sadhbh called out and the group as one raised their placards, except Luke, who stared miserably at his father’s truck, then at his teacher. He felt used, and sick, but for better or for worse he had picked his side. Eventually, he raised his HEDGEROWS ARE OUR HERITAGE placard and waved it at his own father.
     Tom braked to a halt a few feet away and got out, slamming the truck door. He bore down on Luke, pulled the placard out of his hands, throwing it into the same ditch the stoats had fled minutes before. Grabbing his son by the shoulders, he shook him so hard that Luke could not see straight. A hand intervened, and Luke staggered backwards, nearly falling over before righting himself.
      Sadhbh stood between them, flushed, gleaming. A fringe of sweat had gathered on the edge of her scalp. She was breathing heavily. “Do you always physically assault your son when you see him?”
     “Tis none of your business and ye’ll stay out of it. You’ve nattin’ on me.”
     “You’re a bully and a thug, Tom Keating,” Sadhbh spat. “Beating up people and animals more vulnerable than you.”
     Tom drew to his full height and took a step closer. “You tell me that? You?” His contempt was full-throated.
     “Tom,” Sadhbh said quietly, “you and I know that if you cut that hedge, you will destroy hundreds of unhatched nesting starlings and goldfinches and blue jays. You people have already wiped out the curlew. I remember I used to hear its cry down the Ilen river estuary in the evenings. But that’s gone now.” She shut her eyes. “Despise me if you must. But please Tom, don’t cut that hedge. For your son. For all our children.”
     Tom’s lips vanished into his teeth and his eyes went a manic black. Luke knew that now it wasn’t just injured pride, the badness was really on him, and he nearly pissed himself with fear then and there, because he knew what that badness meant.
     Without a word, his father went to the back of the truck and took out his stepladder and Black and Decker, one in each hand. By the hedge, he began setting up his stepladder but Sadhbh intervened. She managed to push it into the verge. Peter ran over to her, lunging for the Black and Decker, but Tom got there first, and switched it on, waving it at Peter, who jumped back in a panic.
     “You’re a maniac! Turn that thing off.”
     Surprisingly, Tom did, and for a moment all was silent: the sun came out from behind a cloud and caught the light of the strimmer blade. The birds filled the silence with chatter.
     Then he turned around and raised it to the hedge.
     A loud drone started and leaves began to fall, thin branches dropping onto the road, white, raw wood stumps testimony to the amputation taking place. A nest was exposed, with the tiny necks and beaks of baby birds, as their parents flew out and chirped in panic, uselessly beating their wings. The baby birds were screaming and screaming, but Tom Keating cared nothing for any of that, for he drove his strimmer in even further until they toppled out and the nest fell to pieces. Sadhbh howled, as if it were her own children that had fallen, and before Luke could stop her, she was running towards Tom with the stepladder, pushing him away with it, and all the time the strimmer still whining, cutting uselessly into the air.
     “Sadhbh!” Luke cried out. “Stop! He’ll kill you!”
     Sadhbh was not listening. She was locked in a dance with Tom, she waving the stepladder, he trying to advance with the strimmer, while the rest of them goped like useless lumps. The tiny baby birds in the hedge that had already hatched were calling and calling in panic. The sun caught the strimmer blade again and the glare must have got straight in her eye because she wobbled a bit and put the stepladder on her toe. She yelled and caught her foot, hopping up and down in pain and letting the stepladder fall, and in a flash Tom caught it, putting it back up again, not turning the strimmer off for a minute.
     Sadhbh was not giving up. Up the steps she went, and there, facing Tom on the ground, she stretched out her arms to their full length and threw her head back like Christ crucified.
      “If you want the birds, you’ll have to take me first.”
And at that moment, no sooner or later, something fell away from Luke, some wall of self-deception. He realised that he loved Sadhbh Drummond.
     Tom menaced her with the strimmer. Whirrrr, whirrrr, whirrr, shoving it up as close to Sadhbh’s neck, bare forearms and face as he could. Sadhbh was not a robot; she did flinch. But she stood her ground. Luke could no longer call out. He hated himself so powerfully that all he could do was cry. His father would shred Sadhbh Drummond to death in front of his own eyes.
     “Oh my God!” Jane Deasy put her hands to her face.
     It was when Tom dropped the running strimmer and revved it between Sadhbh’s legs that Luke knew he couldn’t stay still anymore. He ran to the stepladder and forcefully pulled Sadhbh off, so they both fell and rolled over in the dirt. Meanwhile he heard the rush of falling branches once more; Tom had taken Sadhbh’s place.
     “No, Luke!” Sadhbh cried out, hoarse now. “I have to save the birds.” But it was too late.
     Three nests had been scattered on the road, bits of feathers and fluff and twigs painstakingly bound together now just flotsam on the ground, sawn and cut and disfigured. Broken speckled blue eggshells lay colourful against the stones. And worst of all, the unhatched chicks, their protecting fluid draining away and soaking the grass, those little, skinless, unborn, defenceless things –
lifeless on the ground, their little legs splayed. Starlings, robins, jays and thrushes, the distraught parents, fluttered about and kicked up a fuss, but Tom Keating and his chainsaw tore indiscriminately through their tiny homes, that took up so little space. The parents flew about helplessly, and then retreated.
     Sadhbh Drummond was roaring crying. She was on her knees down on the road, and when she raised her eyes, her face was covered in snot.
     “You scum,” she hissed, still hoarse.
     Tom Keating shook his head and smiled smugly. “’Tis my land. I’ll do what I please with it. Keepin’ it nice and tidy.”
     “It may be your land,” Luke said, in a voice not his own, his teeth chattering, “but when you die, I’ll sell every acre of this place back to Sadhbh Drummond and her people. It will never be Keating land again.”
     The wind blew again, and played with Luke’s trembling, shivering lips. For a second Tom stood and regarded his son. Then he picked up his stepladder and strimmer and strode away back to the truck, the sun burning the back of his thick, porous neck as he retreated up the lane.

About Susan Lanigan

In Susan’s own words, “I am a politically engaged, character-centred author of high-concept, dramatic, emotive fiction and consider myself an activist writer in the tradition of John Milton. While I have published mainly historical fiction, it seems a dereliction of civic principles not to address more contemporary social problems, which is why I am pivoting to a wider time period and other genres while still keeping the “big picture” which looking into the past offers. I have a burning desire to rip through saccharine, sentimentalised, packaged narratives, and tell powerful stories that will keep any reader enthralled.”
“My first novel White Feathers, a tale of passion, betrayal and war, was selected as one of the final ten in the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, 2013, and published in 2014 by Brandon Books. The book won critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the UK Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 2015.”

“My second novel, Lucia’s War, also concerning WWI as well as race, music and motherhood, was published in June 2020 and has been named as the Coffee Pot Book Club Honourable Mention in the Modern Historical Book of the Year Award.”

“I am a member of the Irish Green Party and have previously served as a local area rep (2017-19) – I wish to work our environmental situation directly into fiction.”