Getting an incredible long list down to a short list of only six is a tough job, but Writing.ie’s amazing judges Madeleine Keane, Bob Johnston and Simon Trewin have managed it, and these are the six shortlisted stories for the 2016 Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award.
The final choice, that of winner, is now up to you!
The six stories are listed below – voting has now closed and the winner will be announced on 16th November at the gala Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards dinner – you can watch it on RTE on 19th.
- Here We Are by Lucy Caldwell from Multitudes published by Faber & Faber
- The Birds of June by John Connell from Granta 135: New Irish Writing, published by Granta Magazine
- The Visit by Orla McAlinden from The Accidental Wife, published by Sowilo Press (USA)
- K-K-K by Lauren Foley from Overland #222, published by OL Society (Australia)
- What a River Remembers of its Course by Gerard Beirne published by Numero Cinq Magazine
- Green, Amber, Red by Jane Casey, from Trouble is Our Business published by New Island
Here We Are by Lucy Caldwell (Published in Multitudes by Faber & Faber)
The summer is a washout. Every day the heavens open, and the rain comes down; not the usual summer showers with their skittish, shivering drops but heavy, dull, persistent rain; true dreich days. The sky is low and grey, and the ground is waterlogged, the air cold and damp, blustery.
We don’t care. It is the best summer of our lives.
We go to Cutters Wharf in the evenings because nobody we know goes there. It’s an older crowd, suits and secretaries, some students from Queen’s. Usually we sit inside, but one evening when the clouds lift and the rain ceases, we take our drinks out onto the terrace. The riverfront benches and tables are damp and cold, but we put plastic bags down and sit on those. It isn’t warm, but there is the feeling of sitting under the full sky, that pale high light of a Northern evening, and there is the salt freshness of the breeze coming up the Lagan from the lough.
After we leave Cutters Wharf that night, we walk. We walk along the Lagan and through the Holylands: Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Damascus Street, Cairo Street. We cross the river and walk the whole sweep of the Ormeau Embankment. The tide is turning, and a two-person canoe is skimming downriver, slate grey and quicksilver.
When we reach the point where the road curves away from the river, the pale evening light still lingers, so we keep walking, across the Ravenhill Road, down Toronto Street and London Street and the London Road, Rosebery Road and Willowfield Drive and across the Woodstock Road and on, further and further east until we are in Van Morrison territory: Hyndford Street and Abetta Parade, Grand Parade, the North Road, Orangefield.
There are times in your life, or maybe just the one time, when you find yourself in the right place, the only place you could possibly be, and with the only person.
She feels it too. She turns to me. ‘These streets are ours,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, they are.’ And they were. The whole city was.
She was a celebrity in our school, in the way that some girls are. She was the star musician and always played solos at school concerts and prize days and when a minor royal came to open the new sports hall. One year in the talent contest she played the saxophone while another girl sang ‘Misty’. They didn’t win – some sixth-formers who’d choreographed their own version of ‘Vogue’ got more votes – but they were the act you remembered. She wore a white suit and sunglasses, but it wasn’t that: it was the way she bent over her instrument and swayed, as if it was the most private moment in the world.
It was a few weeks later that her mother was killed. She was out jogging when a carful of teenage joyriders lost control and careened up onto the kerb. They didn’t stop: if they had stopped, or at least stopped long enough to ring an ambulance, she might have survived. As it was, she died of massive internal haemorrhaging on a leafy street in Cherryvalley, less than a hundred metres from her home. Her husband was a local councillor and so it made the headlines: the petite blonde jogger and the teenage delinquents.
Her entire class went to the funeral, and the older members of the orchestra, too. I was only a second year and had never even spoken to her, so I just signed the card that went round. She didn’t come to practice for several weeks, and there were rumours that she had given up music for good. You’d look for her in the corridors, her face pale and thin with violet bruises under the eyes.
Then, one day, she was there again, sitting in her usual place, assembling her clarinet, and if the teacher was surprised or pleased to see her he didn’t let on, and none of the rest of us did either.
She smiled at me sometimes in orchestra practice, but I knew she didn’t know who I was. I was two years below, for a start, and she had no way of knowing my name because the music teacher called all three of us flutes ‘Flutes’. She smiled because he would make silly mistakes, telling us to go from the wrong place or getting the tempo wrong, and there’d be exaggerated confusion in the screeching, bored, lumbering ranks while he flustered and pleaded and tried to marshal a new start. People were cruel to him, sometimes even to his face. She never was: she just smiled, and because of the way the music stands were laid out I happened to be in the direction of the smile.
I used to say her name to myself sometimes. Angie. Angela Beattie.
What else? She cut her own hair – at least that’s what people said, and it looked as if it could be true, slightly hacked at, although the mussed-up style made it hard to tell. Her father was a born-again Christian – he belonged to a Baptist church that spent summers digging wells in Uganda or building schools in Sierra Leone – and when our school joined up with another in West Belfast to play a concert at St Anne’s Cathedral she wasn’t allowed to take part because it was a Sunday, even though it would be in a church, even though it was for peace.
There was so little I knew about her then.
In the summer term of fourth year, everyone took up smoking, or pretended to. The school was strange and empty that time of year, the Upper Sixth and Fifth Form on study leave, the Lower Sixth promoted to prefects and enjoying their new privilege of leaving the grounds at lunchtime. It was ours to colonise. We linked arms and ducked behind the overgrown buddleia into the alley behind the sports hall, boasting that we needed a smoke so badly we didn’t even care if anyone caught us.
The day they did, it was raining and so we weren’t expecting it, but all of a sudden there they were, coming down the alleyway, one at each end. I was holding one of the half-smoked cigarettes, and I froze, even as all the others were hissing at me to chuck it away.
The prefect walking towards me was Angie.
I could feel the flurry as those with cigarettes or a lighter scrambled to hide them and others tore open sticks of chewing gum or pulled scarves up around their faces, but only vaguely, as if it was all happening a very long way away.
Angie stopped a couple of metres away. My hand was trembling now. ‘Oh my God,’ I heard, and, ‘What are you at?’ and, ‘Put it out, for fuck’s sake.’ But I couldn’t seem to move.
Angie looked at me. The expression in her eyes was almost amused. Then, ignoring the nervous giggles and whispered bravado of the others, she took a step forward and reached out for the cigarette. Her fingers grazed mine as they took it from me. She held it for a moment then let it fall to the ground, crushed it with her heel. She looked me in the eye the whole time. I felt heat surge to my face. ‘You don’t smoke,’ she said, and then she said my name.
I felt the shock of it on my own lips. I hadn’t known she knew it: knew who I was. She gazed at me for a moment longer in that steady, amused, half-ironic way. Then she said to the other prefect, ‘Come on,’ and the second girl shouldered past, and they walked back the way Angie had come.
‘It’s not cool, girls,’ she called, without turning round. ‘You think it is, but it’s not.’
There was silence until they’d turned the corner. Then it erupted: ‘What the fuck,’ and, ‘Oh my God,’ and, ‘Do you think she’s going to report us?’, and, ‘I am so dead if they do,’ and, ‘What is she like?’, and then, ‘Do you reckon she fancies you?’ It was the standard slag in our school, but out of nowhere I felt my whole body fizz, felt the words rush through me, through and to unexpected parts of me, the skin tightening under my fingernails and at the backs of my knees.
‘Wise up,’ I made my voice say, and I elbowed and jostled back. ‘It’s because of the music. My lungs will be wrecked if I carry on smoking. I actually should think about giving up,’ and because we were always talking about having to give up, the conversation turned, and that got me off the hook, at least for the moment.
For the rest of term, I agonised over whether to stop hanging out with the smokers at lunch or whether to keep doing it in case she came back. In the end, I compromised by going behind the sports hall as usual but not inhaling so I could say with all honesty, if she asked, that I didn’t smoke any more.
My days became centred around those ten minutes at lunchtime when I might see her again. I would feel it building in me in the last period before lunch, feel my heart start to flutter and my palms become sweaty. But she didn’t raid the alleyway again. There was nowhere else I could count on seeing her: orchestra practice had ceased in the last weeks of the summer term – the Assembly Hall was used for examinations and there were too many pupils on study leave anyway – and the sixth-form wing, with their common room and study hall, were out of bounds to fourth-years.
I passed her in the corridor once, but she was deep in conversation with another girl and didn’t notice me. On the last day of term, I saw her getting into a car with a group of others and accelerating down the drive, and that was that.
The summer holidays that followed were long. My father, a builder, had hurt his back a few months earlier and had been unable to work so money was tight: there wasn’t even to be a weekend in Donegal or a day trip to Ballycastle. The city, meanwhile, battened down its hatches, and I was forbidden to go into town – forbidden, in fact, from going further than a couple of streets away from our house. All my friends who lived nearby were away; I was too old to ride my bike up and down the street or play skipping games like my younger sister.
‘Why don’t you practise your flute?’ my mother would say as I sloped endlessly about the kitchen. Normally I’d roll my eyes, but as the days stretched on I found myself doing it. I didn’t admit to myself it was because of Angie Beattie, but as I practised I couldn’t help thinking of her. When you first learn the flute, you’re told to imagine you’re kissing it. Now, every time I put my mouth to the lip plate, I thought of her. I’d think of her mouth, the curve of it. I’d think of the times I’d watched her at the start of orchestra practice, how she’d wet the reed of her clarinet and screw it into place, test it, adjust it, curl and recurl her lips around the mouthpiece. I’d let my mind unfurl, and soon I’d think other things too, things that weren’t quite thoughts but sensations, things I didn’t dare think in words and that afterwards left me hot and breathless and almost ashamed.
I got good at the flute that summer. When school started up again, the music teacher noticed. He kept me back after the auditions and found me some sheet music, asked me to learn it for the Christmas concert. Then he said he’d had a better idea and rummaged in his desk some more. A sonata for flute and piano, he said – we were short on duets. Angie Beattie could accompany me.
‘She might not want to,’ I said.
‘Nonsense,’ he said.
I don’t remember much about the first few lunchtime practice sessions we had together. Each one, before it happened, seemed to loom, so inflated in my mind I almost couldn’t bear it, then, when it was happening, rushed by. At first I could barely meet Angie’s eye: it was mortifying, the extent to which I’d thought about her, let myself daydream about her, and more. But the music was difficult – for me, at least, which made it hard work for her as my accompanist – and that meant there was no time to waste; we needed to get straight to work. After the first week I found I was able to put aside, at least when I was actually with her, the memory of the strange summer’s fantasies. But sometimes, late at night, I’d be consumed for an instant with an ache that seemed too big for my body to contain.
One evening, we stayed late practising after school, and, completely out of the blue, she invited me back to her house for dinner. My heart started pounding as I tried to say a nonchalant yes. I’d imagined her house, the rooms she lived in, so many times; I’d imagined so often a scenario in which she might ask me back there. I phoned my mum from the payphone in the foyer, and then we walked back together, down the sweep of the school’s long drive, through the drifts of horse chestnut and sycamore leaves in the streets, swinging our instrument cases. There was mist in the air, and, as we turned off the main road, the taste of woodsmoke from a bonfire in a nearby garden.
The Cherryvalley streets were wide and quiet, thick with dark foliage, lined with tall, spreading lime trees. It was all a world away from my street, its neat brick terraces and toy squares of lawn, the gnomes and mini-waterfall in our neighbour’s garden that I used to love and show off to schoolfriends before I realised they weren’t something to be proud about. Cherryvalley seemed to belong to somewhere else entirely – a different place, or time.
‘It’s nice around here,’ I said.
She glanced at me. ‘D’you think so?’ There was something in her expression I couldn’t read, and I remembered – of course, too late – that her mother had died here, maybe on this very street, or the one we just walked down. The streets felt not quiet but ominous then, the shifting shadows of the leaves, the plaited branches.
‘I meant,’ I said, flustered, ‘the streets have such pretty names.’
She didn’t reply, and I tried to think of something else to say, something that would show I was sorry, that I understood. But of course I didn’t understand, at all.
We walked on in silence. I wondered what had made her ask me back and if she was already regretting it.
The Beatties’ house was draughty and dark. Angie walked through, flipping on light switches and drawing the curtains. I thought of my house, the radio or the TV or often both on at the same time, my mum busy cooking, the cat always underfoot.
Angie made me sit at the kitchen table, like a guest, while she hung my blazer in the cloakroom and made me a glass of lime cordial, then hurried about getting dinner ready. She turned on the oven and took chicken Kievs from the freezer, lined a baking tray with tinfoil, boiled the kettle to cook some potatoes, washed lettuce in a salad spinner and chopped it into ribbons. I had never, I realised, imagined how her home life actually worked. I felt shy of this Angie – felt the two years, and everything else, between us.
When Mr Beattie got back, he looked nothing like the man you used to see shouting on TV or gazing down from lamp-posts. He was tall and thin and washed-out-looking; his shoulders were stooped, and his hair needed cutting. He shook my hand, and I found myself blurting out, ‘My dad used to vote for you.’ It was a lie: my dad never bothered to vote, and my mum, even though Dad teased her about it, only ever voted Women’s Coalition.
I felt Angie looking at me, and I felt my neck and face burning. ‘Good man,’ Mr Beattie said. ‘Every vote counts. These are historic times we’re living through.’
‘And history will judge us,’ I heard myself say. I have no idea where it came from. The car radio, probably, the talk show Mum always had on and always turned off. Mr Beattie blinked, and Angie burst out laughing.
‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘Indeed.’
‘He likes you,’ Angie said, when Mr Beattie had left the room. ‘He really likes you.’
I wasn’t sure what there had been to like, but before I could say anything, she said, ‘If he talks about church, don’t say you don’t go.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Why not?’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s just more trouble than it’s worth.’
When everything was ready and the three of us sat down at the table, Mr Beattie bowed his head and clasped his hands and intoned a long grace. I looked at Angie halfway through, but she had her head bowed and her eyes closed too. I took care to chime in my ‘Amen’ with theirs.
As we ate, Mr Beattie asked questions about school, about music. Often Angie would jump in with an answer before I had a chance, and I couldn’t work out if it was for my benefit or her father’s. When he asked what church I went to, Angie said, ‘She goes to St Mark’s, don’t you?’
‘St Mark’s Dundela,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘That’s right,’ Angie said.
‘That’s the one,’ I said. St Mark’s was where our school had its Christmas carol service, the only time of year my family ever set foot in a church, and only then because I was in the choir.
‘Good, good,’ Mr Beattie said, and I made myself hold his gaze. All that nonsense was just hocus-pocus, is what my dad liked saying. Once, when some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our front door and asked if he’d found Jesus, my dad clapped his forehead and said, ‘I have indeed, down the back of the sofa, would you believe?’ My sister and I had thought it was the funniest thing ever.
‘St Mark’s Dundela,’ Mr Beattie said again. I started to panic then, trying to remember something, anything about it. But he didn’t ask any more. ‘C. S. Lewis’s church,’ was all he said, and I smiled and agreed.
The meal seemed to go on for ever. The St Mark’s lie had made me feel like a fraud, but it wasn’t just that: the whole situation was putting me on edge. Angie was more nervous than I’d ever seen her. In fact, I couldn’t think of a time when I had seen her nervous, not when she confronted the smokers, not even before a solo. I must be doing everything wrong, I thought. I had the horrible feeling, too, that Mr Beattie could see through me, or, worse, could see into me, into some of the things I’d thought about his daughter.
For dessert there was a chocolate fudge cake, from Marks & Spencer, shiny and dense with masses of chocolate shavings on top.
‘Dad has a sweet tooth, don’t you, Dad?’ Angie said. She cut him a slab of cake, and they grinned at each other for a moment. ‘We used to have chocolate cake for dinner sometimes, didn’t we?’ she said. ‘Or cheesecake.’
‘Strawberry cheesecake,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘We reckoned,’ she said, turning to me, ‘that because it had cheese in it was actually quite nutritious.’
‘A meal in a slice,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘Protein, fat, carbohydrate and fruit,’ she said, turning back to him.
‘A perfectly balanced plate,’ he said, and they smiled that smile again, intimate, impenetrable.
When the meal was finally over, Mr Beattie said, ‘Well, after all this talk of the duet, you must give me a concert.’
Without looking at me, Angie said, ‘Another time, Dad, we’re both played out today,’ and I knew she was embarrassed of me. I felt tears boil up in my eyes, and I stood up and said I needed the toilet. I took as long as I could in there, soaping and rinsing my hands several times over, drying each finger. I’d say I had homework, I decided. I’d say my mum didn’t like me being out after dark. Both of these things, I told myself, were true.
When I told Angie that I had to go, she looked at me, then looked away. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Right.’
Mr Beattie brought my blazer from the cloakroom and said he’d see me to the door. ‘It’s nice to see Angie bringing a friend back,’ he said. ‘I look forward to hearing this duet of yours one of these days.’
The whole way home, I felt a strange, fierce sense of grief, as if I’d lost something – a possibility, something that wouldn’t come again.
After that, I avoided her, concert or no concert. I went with the smokers at lunch, half-daring her to come and find me, half-dreading it. Thursday and Friday passed without my seeing her. An awful weekend, then Monday and Tuesday, and on Tuesday afternoon I knew I had to skip orchestra practice. On Wednesday she came to the mobile where my class did French, in the middle of a lesson, and said to the teacher she needed to speak to me. She was a prefect, and it was known that we were both musical; the teacher agreed without any questions.
The shock and relief and shame of seeing her coursed through me, and I had to hold onto the desk for a moment as I stood up. As I followed her out of the classroom and down the steps and around the side of the mobile, I couldn’t seem to breathe. ‘How long are you planning on keeping this up?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. I could see her pulse jumping in the soft part of her neck. A horrible, treacherous part of me wanted to reach out and touch it.
‘Angie,’ I said, and from all of the things that were whirling in my head I tried to find the right one to say.
The trees and glossy pressing shrubs around us were thrumming with rain. All the blood in my body was thrumming.
‘Look at me,’ she said, and, when I finally did, she leaned in and kissed me. It was brief, only barely a kiss, her lips just grazing mine. Then she stepped back, and I took a step back too and stumbled against the roughcast wall of the mobile. She put out a quick hand to steady me, then stopped.
‘Oh God, am I wrong?’ she said. ‘I’m not wrong, am I?’
Two weeks later, in my house this time, a Saturday night, my parents at a dinner party, my sister at a sleepover. In the living room, in front of the electric fire, we unbuttoned each other’s shirts and unhooked the clasps of each other’s bras. Then our jeans and knickers: unzipping, wriggling, hopping out and off. We kept giggling – there we were gallivanting around in my parents’ living room in nothing but our socks.
‘Here we are,’ she said, as we faced each other, and my whole body rushed with goosebumps.
‘Are you cold?’ she said, but I wasn’t. It wasn’t that, at all.
Afterwards, we pulled the cushions off the sofa and lay on the floor, side by side. After a while we did start to shiver, even with the electric fire turned up fully, but neither of us reached for our clothes, scattered all over like useless, preposterous skins.
‘We’re like selkies,’ she said, ‘like Rusalka – do you know the opera?’ and when I said I didn’t, she stood up and struck a pose and sang the water nymph’s song to the moon, she told me later, and I jumped to my feet and applauded, and we started giggling again, ridiculous bubbles of joy.
‘Here we are,’ she said again, and I said, ‘Here we are,’ and that became our saying, our shorthand. Here we are.
All love stories are the same story: the moment that, that moment when, the moment we.
We were we through Christmas, and into the spring. It was so easy: the music had been the reason, and now it was our excuse. We used one of the practice rooms each lunchtime and sometimes after school, and no one questioned it. Sometimes we’d play, or she’d play and I’d listen, or we’d both listen to music, and sometimes we’d just eat our sandwiches and talk. I’d go to hers after school, although I never quite felt at ease there, and I preferred it when we’d go for drives in her car, up the Craigantlet hills or along the coast to Holywood. I drifted from my friends, and she from hers, but the music practice hid everything.
And then we had the summer and we were freer than ever, completely free, and I lied blithely to my parents about where I was going and who with, using a rotating cast of old friends, and neither of them ever cottoned on, and I assumed it was the same for Mr Beattie too.
I don’t want to think about the rest of it: the evening he finally confronted us, walked right in on us. I don’t want to give any room to the disgust or the revulsion, to the anger and the panic that followed, and the tears, our tears, our wild apologies, when we should have been defiant, because what was there, in truth, for us to be apologising for, and to whom did we owe any apology?
‘I have to do it,’ she kept on saying. ‘I’m all he’s got. It won’t change anything. But I have to do it.’
That winter, my English class studied Keats. I wrote a whole essay, six, seven sides, on the final stanza of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. ‘And they are gone: aye, ages long ago / These lovers fled away into the storm.’ In the stanza before, the lovers are gliding like phantoms into the wide cold hall and the iron porch where the Porter lies in a drunken stupor. His bloodhound wakes and shakes its flabby face but doesn’t bark. The bolts slide open one by one, the chains stay silent, and the key finally turns, then, just as they think they’ve made it, the door groans on its hinges. You think it’s all over for them, but then you read on, and you realise they’ve slipped away, out of your hands, before your very eyes, a miracle, a magic trick, a wormhole to another place, another time, where no one can ever follow.
The teacher kept me after class. She didn’t believe I’d written it, at least not alone. I opened my lever arch and showed her my notes. Page after page after page in my crabbed, self-conscious writing. Ending rights the focus, I’d written, does not leave us in too cosy a glow but reminds us of age/decay/coldness of religious characters. I left this part out: I finished my essay with the lovers escaping. We talked about the real ending, Keats’s ending, and we talked about his drafts of the ending, some of which were printed in the footnotes of the cheap Wordsworth edition.
‘You’ve really thought about this,’ she said. ‘You’ve really taken this to heart.’ I started to cry. ‘Oh dear,’ the teacher said, and she found me a tissue from a plastic pouch in her desk drawer, and she came round and sat on the front of her desk and asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I shook my head and held out my hand for my essay, and I wondered how much she knew, or guessed, my whole body liquid with shame.
I looked her up on the Internet just once, some months ago, on impulse, spurred by the Marriage Equality march in Belfast. It instantly felt too easy, too much. She’d never made it as a solo or even an orchestral musician, but she was a music teacher – and she was married; she and her husband ran a small music school together in Ayrshire. There were pictures of them both on the website, taking group lessons, conducting ensembles, standing with students of the most recent Woodwind Summer School. She was still whippet thin, no make-up, choppy hair. He looked younger than her: Doc Martens and skinny jeans, spiky hair, an earring. I clicked from one picture to the next. I don’t know why I was so taken aback. I was engaged, after all. Engaged, happily engaged, and about to buy a flat. I just had never imagined it for her.
A memory came to me: one time in Ruby Tuesday’s, or The Other Place, one of the studenty cafés across town in South Belfast where you could sit and eke out a mug of filter coffee for a whole evening. We’d said I love you by then – maybe for the first time, or maybe very recently; we were huge and important and giddy with it, with all of it, with us. I felt as if my blood was singing – that sparks were shooting from me – that everything I touched was glowing.
I could have done anything in those weeks. I could have run marathons or swum the length of the Lagan or jumped from a trapeze and flown. And yet I was happy, happier than I thought it was possible to be, just sitting in a café, talking. We sat in that café and talked about everything and nothing, talked and talked, and we were us. I remember that; I couldn’t get over that. The room and everything in it: the scuffed wooden booths, the chipped laminate tables, the oversized menus, the fat boys in Metallica T-shirts and Vans at the table beside us, the cluster of girls across the way still in their school uniforms, the waitress carrying a plate of profiteroles, the rain on the window, the yellow of the light – it seemed a stage set that had been waiting our whole lives for us and at last we were here.
The waitress at the table, splashing more coffee into our mugs: ‘Anything else I can get for yous, girls?’ and we say, ‘No, thank you,’ in unison, then burst out laughing, at nothing, at all of it. For all the waitress knows, for all anyone knows, we’re just two students, two friends, having an ordinary coffee.
‘I want to tell her,’ I say. ‘I want to stand up and tell everyone.’ And for a moment it seemed as if it might just be that simple: that that was the secret. ‘I don’t want us to have to hide,’ I went on. ‘I want to tell everyone: my parents, your dad, everyone. I want to stand in front of the City Hall with a megaphone and shout it out to the whole of Belfast.’
Suddenly neither of us was laughing any more.
‘I wish we could,’ she said.
We were both quiet for a moment.
‘When you were older,’ I said, thinking aloud, ‘you could team up with a male couple, and the four of you could go out together, and people would assume, assume correctly, you were on a double-date. Only the couples wouldn’t be what they thought.’
I was pleased with the idea, but she still didn’t smile. ‘Hiding in plain sight,’ she said.
‘You could live together,’ I went on, ‘all in one big house, so your parents wouldn’t get suspicious. If you had to, you could even marry.’ I started laughing again as I said it.
‘No,’ she said, and she was serious, more than serious – solemn. She reached out and touched one finger to my wrist and all of my blood leapt towards her again. ‘We won’t need to,’ she said. ‘By then we’ll be free.’
That night, I walked the streets of East Belfast again in my dreams. Waking, the dream seemed to linger far longer than a mere dream. These streets are ours. I was jittery all day, a restless, nauseous, over-caffeinated feeling. I could email her, I thought, through the website. I wouldn’t bother with pleasantries or preliminaries, I’d just say, ‘There we were. Do you remember?’
(c) Lucy Caldwell
The Birds of June by John Connell from Granta 135: New Irish Writing, published by Granta Magazine
The small birds had been at Mrs Mulcahy’s window each morning for the last five days. Sitting atop the sill by the open window, they sang out to her bed, never daring to enter the room unless she willed it.
‘There’s the bold robin,’ she said as the dawn light moved across the window and cast a beam by her bedside locker.
She slowly shifted herself upwards, reached towards the top drawer and unfurled the last of the pan loaf.
The birds recognised the crinkle of the grease paper and hopped gleefully towards her. But the robin gave a furtive cry and flew off.
Mrs Mulcahy shrugged and stiffly let some crumbs fall to the floor.
Frances Riordan had watched this procession each morning with great interest; it had become something she looked forward to after the long night-duty shift. She quietly announced herself and moved closer.
‘How are you this morning, Nan?’
‘Frances, how are you?’ she replied, and offered her hand in welcome.
‘I see the little fellas are in again,’ said Frances, indicating the small birds.
‘Ah, but they’re great company to me. You’d not tell the matron, would you?’
‘It’s our little secret, Nan. The matron is never in before eight.’
‘I wouldn’t want to upset her.’
‘No,’ agreed Frances.
‘You’ll have the shift over soon?’
‘Another few hours.’
‘Any accidents at the casualty?’ asked Nan, who liked to be up on the news of the day.
‘No, it was a quiet night. We had a small tinker child come in with a bad chest but the doctor sent him home. I didn’t have to go down really. Will you have a cup of tea?’
Mrs Mulcahy assented and Frances left the room and walked back down the corridor to the kitchen. The halls were quiet save the sticky peel of her shoes on the lino floor.
Mount Bridget sat at the far end of town, and was made up of the local casualty and the geriatric hospital. The scattering of buildings had been a part of her life for ten years now. Sister Loyola, the matron of the geriatric hospital, had hired her on her return from England with the agreement that she work hard, pray when was needed and treat the patients with respect, helping out with the casualty when required.
They were simple commandments.
Pat, the attendant, was finishing her breakfast when Frances entered the kitchen. The woman stirred from the depths of a faraway thought and smiled a tired smile.
‘Nearly there,’ she said, and wiped her eyes.
Frances asked that a start be made to the morning teas, and that Pat bring a mug to Nan. She took a place at the staff table and began to fill out the log notes for the previous night. The patients had all slept soundly. Brid Doherty had faded yet again and her breathing grown more shallow. She was returning to her youth with each breath now reminding anyone who listened to make sure her good dress was clean before her daddy came to pick her up. They were off to Leitrim for Monaghan Day.
She had begun to clutch her rosary beads more tightly now, never letting them stray. Exhaling Aves and Glory Bes. She would hardly make it to the weekend.
By eight, Frances had begun the breakfast rounds, the milkman had arrived and the morning bustle was under way. Sister Loyola appeared at the staffroom door, quickly looked over the log and invited Frances to join her on her morning round.
‘A pleasant night, Frances?’
‘It was fine, Matron.’
Sister Loyola’s small habit billowed slightly as they walked through the day room. She called on patients who had been ill or fading. Knocking on the door, she would greet them with the early morning. As she lifted a blind or checked a bedpan, she made each feel taken care of.
At Maura Haney’s bedside she sat down.
‘You’re settled now are you, Maura?’
‘I am, Matron, surely. The garl brought me in a grand cup of tea and toast.’
‘And how is the leg?’ asked the sister, slowing lifting the bedcovers to examine her amputated limb.
‘It’s not paining me so much now.’
The matron checked the bandages, gave a gentle sniff and agreed.
‘Good, and you’ll be sure to come up out of the room today, Maura.’
‘For a bit, for a bit,’ agreed Maura.
‘You need to be out of bed and get some short exercise. I’ll have one of the girls come help you later.’
‘Thank you, Matron. I’m sorry.’
The sister fixed the bed sheets and the pair left the room.
Those who could rise and walk were escorted to the breakfast hall. Mary-Anne Collins worked quickly in the kitchen to dish out the fried eggs and toast for those who wanted it. She was a great worker though spoke little. She had come from a Magdalene laundry in Limerick as a young woman and had lived among the sisters all her life. There had been a child, though she never spoke of it.
Within the hour they had finished their round.
‘It’s a comfort when you’re on, Frances,’ said the matron as they took a breath of fresh air. ‘The place is always glowing,’ she added and gave her a smile.
‘Thank you, Matron.’
The pair enjoyed the calm morning and looked out to see the town slowly come to life. The doctors had arrived at the casualty wing facing the geriatric hospital and the previous night’s shift of ambulance men were getting ready to go home and rest. Peter the caretaker was shuffling around the grounds with a ladder under his oxter and a fag in his mouth.
‘Were you called down to casualty, Frances?’
‘No, there was no ambulances last night.’
‘Good. I wish . . .’
‘I wish the Health Board might find the money to bring in a few more night-duty people. What if when you were on a call we had an emergency here?’
‘I thought they said the cutbacks were only for a short time, Matron.’
‘That could be years, child. I’ll have to bring it up to the Mother Superior when I get a chance.
‘How long have you been doing these night shifts now, Frances?’
‘Three months, Matron.’
‘And do you like it?’
‘It’s better money and Noel is able to get the children to bed now that they’re older.’
‘It won’t be forever.’
‘No, Sister, hopefully not. If the factory takes on a few more people he would be set again. There’s not nearly enough for him in the few acres.’
‘There never is.’
‘God is good, I suppose,’ said Frances.
‘God is everywhere, but He gave us our lot to do too. Don’t forget that.’
Morning Mass was under way as Frances packed her things, clocked out and walked to the car park.
The weekdays were a race to get home and see the children off. The radio was on as she walked in the kitchen and found Noel quizzing the child on her Irish spellings for the day’s test.
‘Brón,’ he said.
‘Good,’ said Noel. ‘And what’s that?’
‘That’s sad, Daddy,’ said Anne, with a smile on her face.
‘And what about this fella? Madra? Can you spell that one?’
‘Mhaith an cailín. It’s a scholar we have here, Frances,’ said Noel as he gave the child a kiss and packed away her things.
‘It’s that, all right.’
She picked up the child and gave her a kiss.
‘Now spot-check on you and Daddy. Are the teeth washed?’
Anne was silent and turned into her mother’s chest.
‘Get down and brush them teeth, ya nuck.’
‘Where is Con?’
‘Just out looking at the new calf.’
‘She calved?’ asked Frances.
‘She did,’ said Noel. ‘He helped me and all.’
When the children were safely packed in the back of the small Nissan, she drove them to primary school. She was tired now and thought only of her few hours of sleep; a few hours’ break from it all.
Noel was out in the fields when she returned. Some porridge had been left out on the table but she could not find the taste on her and instead went straight to bed.
Her dreams were interrupted occasionally by the sound of the cow and her newborn calf from the outhouse sheds. A low bellow would crinkle the folds of her mind and then seconds later it would be answered from some other shed in the distance.
The alarm sounded at two. She began to wash and peel the potatoes Noel had left by the door. Soon the kitchen rattled with the steamy blow of pots and pans. Frances set the table and then returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
It would be another long day. The children arrived home in a flutter of copy books and laughs.
‘How was school, Con?’
‘Fine,’ he said, as he quickly ate the bacon and potatoes she placed in front of him.
‘Mammy! I got all my spellings right,’ shouted Anne.
She looked at them both and smiled. As tired as she was from these nights, the children were worth any effort, any strain.
Noel returned from the fields an hour later and sat down to his dinner.
‘How was work, Daddy?’ Anne enquired.
‘It was fine.’
‘Did you get the top fields fenced off from the cows?’ asked Con, as he muddled through his maths homework.
‘I did. I’ll need you to help me get that young heifer over to the rented field.’
‘We’ll have to borrow the trailer from Uncle Paul, so.’
‘We won’t. We’ll walk her down the road.’
‘Didn’t she break on us the last time? Can’t we get the trailer, Da?’
‘We’ve enough begging and borrowing done for a while. Paul needs that trailer.’
‘Sure, what would he mind Da, hasn’t he two?’
‘I said no.’
The boy grew quiet and fixed himself harder on his homework.
‘We’ll all help you move her, Noel,’ said Frances, in an attempt to ease things.
‘Aye, might be best.’
‘I’ll stop the cows,’ shouted Anne.
‘You’ll finish your homework first.’
‘It’s not that hard anyway, Mammy. I’m nearly done.’
At three the family walked out to the upper ground in search of the lost heifer. Anne wore her bright pink wellingtons, kicking up the dust and puddles as she moved. She ran in fits and stops, excited at the thought of the whole family out in the grass.
Con walked ahead, stooping low and looking at the ground.
‘He’s growing up isn’t he?’ Frances said to Noel.
‘He is, and getting a mind of his own.’
‘You should let him lead her down the road. It’ll make him happy to know he’s the little man today.’
Noel thought for a moment and nodded in agreement.
They found her in the corner of the garden field, stretched out in the afternoon sun. Ringed around her, the daisies and buttercups were in full bloom. The white down of the thistle flowers floated gently in the air, parachuting their way to new ground.
‘Now watch her,’ said Noel quietly as he gestured his stick towards the heifer. ‘She’s a wild bitch. Mammy, you and Anne mind that gap. Con, I’ll ring round here and you drive her out.’
The party disbanded and quietly took their places. Anne held Frances’s hand as they stood poised and ready.
‘Look, Mammy, a flower for you,’ said the child, and held up a broken clump of wild broom. The yellow flowers fell to the ground delicately as she waved it in the breeze.
‘That’s lovely,’ she said, and focused her attention on the animal.
Con moved slowly towards her. The heifer gently rose to her feet and with a sudden panic darted for the gap.
‘She’s coming, Mammy, she’s coming!’
The heifer bore down upon Frances in full flight, seeing only the break and opportunity. Frances pushed Anne and began to shout and wave her rubber stick.
The heifer slowed her pace and sniffed at the broken broom and its flowers on the ground.
‘She likes it, Mammy,’ said Anne, and laughed.
She moved towards the heifer, but at that the beast was gone again, throwing up sods of grass as she galloped through the field. Con moved in behind her now and steadily drove her towards
‘C’mon, hup, hup, ya girl,’ he called.
By the second meadow her spirits had calmed and she pushed towards the gate. Noel ran to the road and slowed the oncoming traffic.
Frances took the child’s hand and they followed the group.
By Trapp’s old house on the corner, the heifer slowed and tore the sweet grass from the verge. Noel ran ahead of the beast. He quietly opened the roadside gate of the rented field and stood ready to turn her in.
Con moved with confidence now and hushed the beast towards his father.
‘C’mon, c’mon, that’s the girl,’ he said, and praised her for her calmness.
‘Mammy, I’m tired,’ said Anne.
‘Hang on, we’re nearly there,’ Frances said gently.
‘I’m tired,’ Anne repeated, and stopped walking.
Without taking her eyes from the heifer, Frances picked up the child with a sigh and continued walking. Two cars had gathered to their rear and were waiting patiently for the animal to leave the road. The day was sunny and warm and they did not seem to mind the delay.
Slowly the heifer moved towards the final bend and with a gentle trundle ran into the field and buck-leaped through the grass.
Noel quickly closed the gate and waved the cars on. ‘Couldn’t have went better.’
‘Right enough,’ Con replied, imitating his father’s style.
The family stood leaning out over the worn gate, gazing at the field and sweet young grass.
‘Would you ever buy this field, Da?’ asked Con.
‘I might,’ said Noel, smiling at his wife.
‘In time,’ Frances said, and ruffled her son’s hair.
‘And you, were you on this job at all?’ Noel said to Anne.
‘I was working,’ she said confidently.
‘Ho ho, I don’t know if you were. Didn’t I see you trying to give the cow flowers?’
‘Those were for Mammy.’
‘I think they were for the cow,’ said Noel, who picked her up and carried her home, a pink wellington dangling loosely from a foot as the pair joked.
Frances and Con walked back towards the house together. ‘You did a right job, Con.’
The boy nodded quietly.
‘Daddy will drop you to training this evening,’ she said.
‘We’ve the match on Friday.’
‘I know. You can call me at work and tell me how it went.’
At home she rested for a time in bed again, counting the minutes before sleep came. She closed her eyes eventually and listened to the children playing in the yard.
Seven o’clock was not long in coming and her alarm sounded again. She washed herself quickly, put on her uniform and applied a layering of light lipstick. Then she walked into the dining room to say goodbye for another night.
The children were watching television and at the sight of her got to their feet.
‘You’re off, so,’ said Noel.
‘Mammy, can I call you tonight before bed?’ asked Anne.
‘Now bed early and don’t be acting the bousy on Daddy.’ She kissed them both and the family walked her out to the car, waving her off.
The town was littered with tricolours and bunting in ready excitement for the next World Cup match. You could not help but be swept up in the frenzy of it all. She stopped by the Esso station, bought a frozen curry for her dinner and glanced over the day’s papers. Jack Charlton smiled out across the headlines. He was a fine man for an Englishman.
The evening sun waned out by the hill of Mount Bridget’s as she moved up the driveway. The crows were returning to the rookery.
She signed in and went to see the matron before starting.
‘Hello, Matron,’ she began, after opening the door.
‘Frances, come in,’ said Sister Loyola distractedly. She hurried the last of her writing before closing her notebooks. ‘Now my child,’ she began. ‘Is it that time already, another day over?’
‘It’s that time, Matron.’
‘Well let me see, Brid Doherty is very low. I’ve told the father to be ready to come this evening. The other patients are fine, we had a good few visitors today so the spirits are high.’
‘I’m glad to hear that.’
‘And the casualty called already. They think they’ll be busy in the next few days with the World Cup match, so be on your toes.’
‘I will, Matron,’ she replied.
‘Well that’s it all, you know the rest.’
Frances excused herself from the office and made her way to the staffroom to deposit her things in the locker. She left her frozen curry on the draining board. It would be a welcome treat this night, better than any sandwich.
She began to make her rounds, visiting the patients in the day room.
‘Ah, Frances, I’m up, see I’m up?’ said Maura Haney, gesturing towards her wheelchair.
‘Well, that is a welcome sight.’
She sat in the room for a while and enquired of the day’s events. The pensions had been paid and the women clutched their handbags close to their chests. Those few pounds made all the difference to their pride.
Peter Cadam proudly walked down the hall in his old black blazer. The new attendant stood and blocked his way.
‘I asked the matron, I asked the matron,’ he said.
‘She didn’t tell me,’ the girl insisted, making herself wide.
Frances walked towards Peter and touched his shoulder. ‘What’s the matter, Peter?’
‘I asked the matron, and I wanted to go for me pint,’ he explained.
‘You see,’ said the young girl, ‘he’s raving; the matron would never let a patient go out unattended.’
Frances paused and looked at the mockery on the girl’s lips. She who tucked the patients in too tight, she who cared not a fig if they wet the bed in the night. She who had no nature.
‘I’m sorry to say, Maeve, but Peter can do whatever he pleases, he’s here under his own care. Is it Quinn’s you’re going to, Peter?’ Frances enquired.
‘It is, just me two pints of a Friday.’
‘And Madge is picking you up?’
‘Well you tell her I asked for her,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll see you before bed.’
With that, Cadam walked slowly out the hallway and through the front door, leaving the smell of his Brylcreem behind in the air.
Maeve walked away sullenly. She would learn patience, Frances thought. She would learn patience or she would see the road.
By eight the evening tea was served, a simple fried rasher and toast, which none refused.
She called round the various rooms, helping the patients get dressed, cleaning bedpans and turning down covers.
Walking down the corridor she could hear the Bradys call out to one another from across the hall.
‘Packey, Packey,’ the voice called.
‘What do you want, woman?’ came the response.
‘Are you bringing the cows in this morning?’
‘Didn’t I bring them in already? It’s out from the parlour they’ll be going,’ he replied.
Frances stood in the hallway listening to the elderly couple’s chat. It was the same each evening, both as senile as one another. They would never forget home.
She tended Mrs Brady first and found her settling into bed.
‘Frances, how are you?’ she asked lucidly.
‘I’m fine, Mrs Brady. Are you all set for the evening?’
‘Yes, yes,’ she said, and tucked her purse and rosary beads under her pillow.
‘How are the children? We haven’t seen Con in an age,’ she said.
‘He’s busy with his father on the farm.’
‘A good place to have him.’
Frances helped her adjust her head upon the pillows and placed the blankets around her small frame.
She gave her the tablets and a glass of water to swallow them down.
‘Give me a call if you need anything else.’
‘I will, I will surely,’ she agreed.
As Frances moved towards the door, Mrs Brady turned to her anxiously.
‘Will you tell Packey to put the kettle on for the tea?’ she said, and with that her sharpness of mind was gone once again.
‘Nurse Frances knows you’re to have the pot on,’ she shouted towards the wall.
‘Haven’t I it sitting steeping for you?’ came Packey’s reply a moment later.
Frances smiled and left the room, checked on Packey and continued her rounds. It was a great comfort that they had one another. For no one else called to see them. They were forgotten people, as the matron described them. Forgotten people yes, but they refused to forget themselves.
Frances moved past the oratory and down the single corridor. The evening sun shone through in a glow of red and hazel to illuminate the stained-glass windows and blinds.
Brid Doherty was indeed as low as the matron had said. Her breathing was laborious and strained. Frances wet a cloth and daubed her forehead, cleaning the dried skin from her face. The rosary beads were clutched between her thin fingers and she could pass at any moment. The priest had heard her last confession; there had been little to confess, Frances imagined. A life lived in simplicity in this rural setting. She never had enough money to do the wrong thing.
She wiped her face once again and thought of how she had washed her own children in the same gentle manner. The room took on a quiet calm as Frances watched over her, Brid’s chest rising and falling.
Frances sponged her dry lips which now gasped for air, wetting the cracks. It was a scene Frances had experienced many times. Sometimes there had been a fight, a reluctance to let go, but in the end there was always peace.
Brid had no one to sit with her tonight. Her son was on the way from London with his wife, but it might be too late. Frances would come and see her again before the shift was out. And keep a vigil should Brid slip away unseen.
Frances checked her watch and marked the time; it would not be long.
A knock came at the door and she turned to see the face of Mary-Anne Collins.
‘A phone call for you, Francie,’ said Mary-Anne shyly.
‘Can you sit with Brid?’
‘But . . . I’m no nurse, what if something happens?’
‘It’s not a nurse she needs now but company,’ explained Frances, and she led Mary-Anne by the hand to the bedside.
‘What will I do?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Frances rested a hand on her shoulder to reassure her, then left on her way. The receiver sat off the hook on the staffroom’s table.
‘Mammy!’ cried Anne.
‘Ah hello, and how are you?’
‘We’re great, Mammy. You said I could call so I wanted to call – is it OK?’
‘It’s more than fine,’ she laughed. ‘Is Con back from the match?’
‘He is, he’s just having a bath.’
‘He’s watching telly. The Late Late is on.’
‘Oh, very good. You’re ready for bed, so?’
‘Yeah, but Daddy said I could stay up till half past.’
‘So long as you’re in bed on the dot.’
‘OK, well I have to get back to work now, love.’
The child sighed and agreed, but as Frances moved to replace the receiver her voice came again.
‘Oh, Mammy, Mammy,’ she said, ‘can I go fencing with Daddy and Con tomorrow?’
‘Ha, you can. Are you going down to the river, is it? Yeah, well that’s fine, but don’t go till I’m home.’
‘OK, Mammy, I’ll tell Daddy,’ she said, and shouted off the phone to Noel before returning to the receiver. ‘I love you, Mammy.’
‘I love you too. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘I’ll bring in my wellies and have them ready.’ She made a kissing noise and ended the call.
Frances decided she’d bring them a few ice creams home in the morning; it would be the weekend after all, they deserved a treat.
As she made to walk out of the room, the casualty alarm flashed amber and sounded off.
The first of the weekend drunks would be coming in, she guessed. She told the young attendant to keep an eye on everything and that she would return in a few minutes.
Though the evening sun was bright and warm, a cool breeze pecked at her feet as she walked down the small hill to the medical building.
There she found the doctor sitting with the tinker family from the night before. The small one lay on the examination table, sweat rolling from his face and chest.
Dr Cullen passed his stethoscope over the child’s frame, unbuttoned his faded check shirt and listened to his breathing. The boy did not react at the cold metal upon his skin. He tossed and turned in delirium and began to cough violently.
‘What is it, Doctor?’ the mother asked in her thick Midlands accent. It was a voice unlike that of the doctors’ or anyone else she knew. It spoke of the road and hard living.
‘John Paul has pneumonia, I’m afraid,’ the doctor said.
‘But you said yesterday it was just a chest infection.’
‘That was yesterday, and this is today. He’s got worse.’
‘Well, what’s to do for him, so?’
‘He needs to be here overnight, but I’m afraid the casualty beds are full.’
The father remained silent and looked adoringly towards his son. A small watery tear in his eye.
‘If it’s money,’ he began, and produced a wad of notes.
‘It’s not money, Mr Stokes. We don’t have a place for him, I’ll have to send him in the ambulance to Mullingar Hospital,’ said the doctor and gestured away the money.
‘He’ll go to no hospital, we’ll be forgot about up there.’
‘I’m afraid that’s all we can do.’
‘But he’s suffering something awful, Doctor, can’t we help him now?’ Mrs Stokes replied.
Frances moved towards the child, placed her palm on his head and felt the heat of the infection on him. ‘I don’t think moving him is a great idea, and he can’t go home,’ she said.
‘No,’ the doctor agreed.
‘What’s to be done, what’s to be done?’ cried Mrs Stokes.
The doctor recoiled in the face of such raw emotion.
‘You’re a good woman, I can see that,’ said Mr Stokes, turning to Frances. ‘You’ve got learning, you can see my son needs help. He needs tablets, medicine. He’ll not go home this evening.’
All the room turned to Frances now. She paused and thought. ‘And there’s really no beds here in casualty?’ she asked the doctor.
‘None,’ he said, and began to pack away his things.
‘We’ll bring him up to the geriatric hospital,’ said Frances.
‘To the geriatric?’ asked the doctor.
‘The child needs a bed and I have one. I’m sure the matron would not mind.’
‘Would that be right by you?’ she said, turning to the boy’s parents.
‘That’ll be fine by us,’ they agreed, and relief swept over their faces.
‘We’ll bring him up and have a bed made ready for him,’ she said.
‘John Paul, John Paul,’ his father called. ‘You’ve a great lackeen to mind you.’
The family carried the child up the hill, refusing a wheelchair. The mother’s earrings jangled with each step she took, until they reached the front door of Mount Bridget and quietly followed Frances in. Maeve the attendant stood waiting by the door, smiling.
‘I hear we have a sick child,’ she said politely.
‘We do,’ said Frances.
‘Blessings on you, nurse,’ said Mrs Stokes.
Upon hearing her speak, Maeve’s face froze. She called Frances to one side. ‘You’ll bring no tinkers in here.’
‘I said you’ll bring no tinkers in here.’
‘I’ll bring whoever I see fit,’ said Frances.
‘I’ll call the matron,’ retorted Maeve, ‘I don’t care what time it is, I’ll call her and bring her up here to see this, this clot.’
The child whimpered quietly as the family stood waiting by the doorway.
‘I’ll serve no tinker, I’ll not carry even water to them,’ insisted Maeve.
‘You’ve nothing to do with this, Maeve, and I’ll remind you, it was the matron who gave you this position and she can as easily take it from you. Now get out of my sight.’
Maeve moved aside and hushed bitch under her voice as the family entered the corridor.
The Stokes were quiet as the father placed the boy in the bed.
‘The doctor gave me these,’ said Mrs Stokes, and handed her some tablets.
Frances examined the bottle and read the label. ‘We’ll keep the medicine in him and I’ll set up a drip for him; he’s in need of fluids.’
The parents stood quietly in the middle of the room as Frances prepared the boy, swabbed his arm and inserted the drip.
‘Can we stay, Sister?’ asked the mother.
‘It’s Frances, and yes you can, we’ve broken enough rules this evening, I don’t see what else for it.’
‘What should we do?’ the father asked.
‘We’ll pray,’ said Mrs Stokes.
‘If we get him through the night, he’ll be fine,’ said Frances.
‘Would you pray with us?’
‘I . . . I don’t know,’ she began.
‘It would mean a lot,’ they said.
Frances agreed and they kneeled by the bedside.
Mrs Stokes began:
Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,
We turry kerrath about your moniker.
Let’s turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,
And let your jeel shans get greydied nosher same as it is where you cradgie.
Bug us eynik to lush this thullis,
And turri us you’re nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydied,
Just like we ain’t sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us.
Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that’ll make us greydi gammy eyniks,
But solk us away from the taddy.
She did not know the tinker’s language but recognised the Lord’s Prayer. She blessed herself as they did and prayed her own silent prayer for the child.
She looked at their worried faces, their devotion so strong and clear; if prayer alone could mend the boy they would need no doctor.
‘I should make my rounds,’ she said.
‘Right you are,’ said the father, and turned back to his son.
Frances quietly closed the door and walked back down the corridor. She had hoped to see Nan Mulcahy before bedtime, but the night had worn away and the lights were starting to go out across the wards and corridors.
She walked to Nan’s room, gently knocked on the door and opened it to find her sleeping. They would talk in the morning. She would bring her a good strong cup and they would discuss all the news.
By eleven that night, she paused and broke for coffee. Her legs were stiff and she gently massaged her calves as the kettle boiled. When she had her cup in front of her she breathed in the strong aroma, feeling it roll down her throat as she came awake again.
The attendants were cleaning the day room and Maeve was sulking in the canteen. She had no time for the girl now; the matron would deal with her tomorrow.
Tinker or not, he was a child in need. It was nothing but the girl’s own backwardness that had blinded her to that.
God is good but He gives us our lot to do.
She looked to her watch and was reminded of Brid Doherty. It had been hours since she had checked on her. She knocked the remains of her coffee over as she stood up quickly and cursed herself as she moved through the wards.
The scene was as she had left it. Mary-Anne sat by the bedside, Brid’s hand in hers. She gently stroked it by the pale light of the side table lamp.
‘Is everything all right, Mary-Anne? I’m so sorry to have left you for so long; we had a child come into the casualty and I had to bring him here and the time got away and –’
‘It’s fine,’ said Mary-Anne. ‘You don’t need to be sorry.’
‘Is Brid well?’
‘Brid is at peace,’ she said, and continued to stroke her hand. ‘I did not want to leave her, you see. My father always said it was bad luck.’
‘Your father was a good man,’ said Frances.
She moved towards the corpse and checked the pulse. Her skin was growing cold already.
‘She was a good soul,’ said Mary-Anne. ‘She never treated me any different to the rest, even if I had come from the institution.’
‘No,’ said Frances. She looked at the time. She would call the priest and get Maeve to lay out the body. Perhaps something of the occasion might wear off on the girl.
‘You can go on to bed now, Mary-Anne,’ said Frances. She knew the sisters must be wondering what kept her.
‘If it’s OK, Frances, I’ll sit with her a while more. Till the father comes.’
‘If you want.’
Frances stroked Brid’s face and left the room, closing the door behind her.
The night wore on and finding herself moving towards sleep, she began to clean. She washed the staffroom, cleaning out the presses and cupboards. She heated some water and washed the corridors and wards. It was a way of keeping on, to ensure sleep did not come over her.
The priest arrived from the cathedral and she led him to the room. She left Mary-Anne to talk with him.
Night moved to dawn and now she heated her thawed curry in the oven. Looking out the window, she could see the last of the stars wear upon the sky, twinkle and fade.
The birds would call out soon.
She took a solitary round through the quiet wards and rooms. In the distance, she could hear a low murmur, chanting on and on. She walked further then closer in search of its source and found herself at the door of the tinker boy John Paul’s room.
His father and mother sat by the bed. The father was asleep on an old wooden chair and his mother was still steadfastly praying.
The drip was nearly finished and the child looked visibly better. The sun’s rays moved slowly into the room, illuminating the scene like a sacred grotto.
A floorboard creaked under Frances’s foot and Mrs Stokes looked up from her prayers. ‘He’s coming back to us.’ She ran her hand over her son’s face.
‘The worst is over,’ said Frances. She changed the drip and found the boy’s fever was gone.
The child stirred with the pain of the drip’s needle and opened his eyes softly, looking around the room and settling on the face of his mother.
‘You’re getting better, John Paul,’ she said.
‘Mrs Stokes, will you come have a cup of tea? You’ve been awake all night.’
‘I think John Paul is OK now. A cup would do you well.’
The two women walked to the staffroom and Frances prepared a pot. She realised now that they were not so very different: would she herself not spend the night awake by her sick child’s bed? Would she not pray furious prayers to see them through safely?
‘You’re a good woman,’ said Mrs Stokes. ‘Have you children of your own?’
‘Two: a boy and a little girl,’ said Frances. ‘And you?’
‘We’ve seven,’ replied the woman, and laughed. ‘I’ve a lively husband!’
The pair smiled and giggled. The pale colour of the woman’s face began to lift as the hot tea brought her back to herself.
‘I don’t know what we would have done without you this evening. It was God’s hand.’
‘I’m a mother too,’ Frances said simply.
‘That you are, and a good one, I’d say.’ She stood now and reached out her hand towards Frances. ‘Dhalyōn mun’ia,’ she said, and closed her eyes, mumbling unheard words, secret words, and then she blessed herself. ‘That’s a Traveller blessing,’ she explained, ‘that’s to keep you and yours.’
‘Thank you,’ said Frances, and she felt a cold tingle run up her back.
‘We’ll go now,’ said Mrs Stokes. ‘John Paul is better, as you said yourself. The worst is over him.’
‘It is, I did, but I think he should stay on just to be sure.’
The woman shook her head. ‘No, no, the morning’ll come and there will be too many questions. We don’t want to make trouble.’
‘But it’s no trouble, no trouble at all. The matron is a good woman, a good sister, she won’t say anything.’
‘Mabye she won’t but there are others who wouldn’t like us here,’ replied Mrs Stokes, and moved out the room and back towards
‘But, but . . .’ stammered Frances.
They walked back to the room but the child was no longer there.
‘Where’s John Paul?’ Mrs Stokes said, shaking her husband.
‘He’s here, he’s in the bed,’ he said, waking up suddenly.
‘He’s not, he’s gone!’
‘He can’t be gone far; maybe he needed the toilet,’ reassured Frances. ‘Just wait here, pack your things and I’ll find him.’
She moved quickly through the corridors now, checking the washrooms, the oratory – but the boy could not be found. She walked through the ward and saw the pearly lights of dawn on the leather-clad chairs, the flecks of loose skin and dust caught in the slowly moving beams and hovering in the still air.
She began to check the rooms, walking past sleeping patient after sleeping patient. At Mrs Mulcahy’s room, she gently opened the old wooden door.
John Paul stood by the open window, with Nan still fast asleep. The small birds gathered round him, the robin perched in his outstretched hand.
He stroked the small bird and it chirped towards him. She stood a moment transfixed.
Nan would never believe it, never.
John Paul turned to her and smiled and with that the robin and his comrades took flight and raced for the window.
The boy’s eyes were bright and green, the fight returned to them. She gently led him by the hand back to his worrying parents.
‘I found him,’ she said, and handed the child back to them. ‘You’ll need these,’ she said, pressing some antibiotics into his father’s hands. ‘Two of the blue ones in the morning and two of the red ones at night. Keep that up for a week and if he is not better come back to me.’
‘Thank you, Sister,’ Mr Stokes said, and made again to give her money. His knuckles were thick and worn.
‘No, no, there’s no need for money. I only wish you’d stay.’
‘No, we’re better moving,’ the mother responded. ‘The van is below, John Joe, will you bring it up?’
They walked towards the front door and waited for him to bring up the motor. Frances heard the low cough and splutter of the red Toyota Hiace as it rounded the corner and came to at the foot of the door.
She gently kissed the boy and shook the woman’s hand.
‘I never got your name,’ said Frances.
‘It’s Margaret,’ she said.
They wrapped the boy in another blanket and bundled him into the front seat. Frances waved them off as the sun began to rise up out over the town, past the cathedral and the railroad. In the streets the tricolours and bunting flapped lazily in the breeze, blowing for all they were worth, for everything and nothing.
(c) John Connell
The Visit by Orla McAlinden from The Accidental Wife, published by Sowilo Press (USA)
In the seconds before the visitor pulls a balaclava over his five o’clock shadow, you already know he is bad news. A solitary figure slouching up the long farm path, no friendly wave, no shouted greeting. Skin-tight denim, drainpipes your father would have called them. No dungarees, no boiler suit, you know this is not the unrecognised younger son of a neighbour come to borrow a half pound of staples for a barbed-wire fence.
Just before his face swims into focus, he pauses and pulls on the mask, taking all your attention, and you gasp in amazement as two other wraiths materialise from the shadows behind you.
Strangers on your land, in your yard. How strange are they? Let’s find out.
“Dia daoibh,” you say, strong and loud. “May God and Mary be with you,” replies the first stranger. The words in the Irish language roll off his lips without thought, as automatic as the responses at Mass on Sunday. If you had intoned “The Lord be with you,” he would have chanted back “And also with you.” The man behind you to your left is more fluent still; “God’s blessing upon the work” is his reply. The third man is silent.
Before, you knew nothing about your visitors. Now you know something. Catholic, Republican, Catholic-educated, Belfast accents. They might be graduates of the University of Long Kesh, where all the Republican prisoners only speak Irish, thwarting their Unionist prison guards, clinging desperately to this hint of dignity. IRA, INLA, IPLO, someone like that. The bulges in the men’s coats are more obvious now— they have shifted their stance to bring the outline of the weapons into sharp relief against their cheap, nylon bomber jackets, but they have not produced them. Yet.
You are alone on the farm. Where is Baby? He is locked in the shed and you are glad he is safe. You have played many a good game with Baby, but you do not want to play it now.
When the Jehovah’s Witnesses call to the farm, you always give them five minutes to talk. Five minutes is not too long to ask of any man. When the time has elapsed, you gently suggest that you will return to your labours, that they will go home. Two minutes later, if their stiff, black overcoats have not folded back into the red Datsun Cherry, you interrupt them. Sorry, lads, I need to feed my little dog. At the first sound of his name, Baby comes charging into the front yard. Saliva drools from his powerful chops and splatters on the ground. Jehovah’s friends gasp, or cry out as the Dobermann slips and slides to a halt, claws grating beside your Wellington boot. The pamphlets drop to the ground as the men struggle back into the small car, and you pick the papers up and hand them back smiling. Sorry, lads, Baby hates waiting for his meal.
Yes, you are glad the dog is locked up. These trigger-happy city boys will shoot him at first sight, before the first rich, bowel-loosening bay escapes his throat, and they will almost certainly make a mess of the shot, no clean death that a noble animal such as Baby deserves.
You are alone.
The men are slow to speak, they are out of their milieu. You have noted the involuntary wince, the twitch of disgust as Number One planted his shiny, black shoe into a barely crusted cowpat on the laneway. Such impractical footwear, winkle-pickers your Dad would have called them.
They do not intend to kill you—you would be dead by now. Why would they kill you, one of their own, minding your business, bothering no one? What do they want?
At length, Number Three speaks, the singsong, nasal accent you have heard on the nightly news for two decades now, detailing the litany of woe; hard vowels, missing consonants, no country softness in this voice. “Now, Mr O’Donovan, we’re here for a tractor and a dung-spreader. No need for any unpleasantness. A wee donation to the war effort, is all.”
“The war effort, lads? But I’m not at war. A wee mistake, maybe? Maybe we’ll all go back to our business and forget this wee misunderstanding?”
Number Three replies from the closeness of your right elbow. He does not touch you, but he is close, so close. “Not at war, Mr, O’Donovan? The country is at war. The machinery will be put to good use, against the enemies of the Irish Republican Army.”
“Enemies, you say? Yes, enemies. Farmers have many enemies, boys. Drought is my enemy and more so the endless rain and inundation. Lack of fodder following a wet summer is my battle, and the winter frost that turns the poached fields to rutted iron is my nemesis. I have no human foe, unless you mean the men in the Co-op who set the price for the milk so low that I can bare squeeze a living from the good land my father left me. I think you have come to the wrong place.”
Numbers One and Two gawp and titter at you. Their mouths are open, catching flies your father called it. They glance uneasily to their leader for guidance. Slowly, and with menace, he claps his hands together, a bitter ovation. A thick gob of tobacco-brown phlegm lands on the concrete half an inch from your boot, preceding his words, calm, measured. “All well and good there, Hamlet. Ten outta ten for the composition, nice use of vocabulary there, yer teachers must be proud of you. They might be prouder still if you did your duty there, and gave us the weapons we need to progress the war. Nathin’ has been said yet that can’t be unsaid.”
In the small haggard beside the house a full line of washing flutters in the wind. The empty trouser legs and the flapping shirts bring into sharp recall a woodcut you saw long ago in an old book, a gibbet, its swinging, decaying scraps of bird-pecked humanity and wind-torn clothing blurred indistinctly into one. Will you end up as a propaganda woodcut for a new generation, a photo in tomorrow’s Irish News, a misshapen heap on a wheeled gurney on the bedtime news programme?
Under the laden clothesline a swoop of swallows, a hundred strong, frantically pecks, seeking worms, seeds, roots, anything that will sustain them on their journey back to Africa, away out of this mad hellhole. You know that any moment now, this massed gathering of rats on wings will take fright and take flight and with a sound like the rattle of distant machine gun fire will wheel up and away over your heads. You know that the visitors will jump and flinch, taking their eye off the ball, your father called it. If you are to take a chance, a fight or flight, it must be then.
“What time is it, boys?” Whatever is to happen, it must happen before Cormac comes cycling back from the Sacred Heart College in Omagh. What time is it? You know that if the boy comes home, you are lost. You know that if the men speak to your motherless son, if they casually touch one inch of his precious skin, or ruffle his hair in jest, you are lost.
You see it unfold in your mind’s eye in slow motion, a premonition of the certainty of things to come. The man reaches out to touch your child, to take his bicycle from him, to inspire him in this heroic adventure against the enemies of God, motherland, and nature. You see yourself pivot and turn. Your teak-hard fist falls, like the sledgehammer you wielded all day yesterday, against the skull of this frail city weakling. Number Two you take down with a kick to the back of the knee, stamping and grinding your heel into his face, crushing his Belfast whine with your toe on his windpipe. Number One is lifted from the ground by the impact of your shoulder, massive from five decades of bullock-wrestling. Or else he has managed to extract his gun by now and has ended you. Either way, dead or in prison, murdered or murderer, you leave the boy behind, alone. Orphan.
Whatever is to happen must happen soon.
“Mr O’Donovan, we don’t have all day. There is an easy way and a hard way. We need the keys. Giz the keys, Mr O’Donovan, and then take a wee sit-down in a chair with a hankie in yer mouth for a few hours. It’s not much to ask.”
You know that these men have never set foot on a farm before. It is no easy matter for a novice to hitch a muck-spreader to a tractor, working by instinct, one toe on the accelerator, the length of the body at full stretch, twisted and hoisted, head out the rear window. If you are clever, and brave, this could work out.
“The keys are in my pocket, boys. I won’t give them to you. I daresay you will be able to take them, eventually.” No one has drawn a gun yet, but the faceless men are sighing and flexing their fingers. Whatever happens, you must not get shot. You must not go to hospital with a six-pack, bullets lodged in your knees, elbows, and ankles. You must get away with a clean deception.
“Alo! Quit acting the fuckin’ maggot. Giz the keys, and you won’t get hurt. Three armed men against one? No need to act the fuckin’ hero, no blame on an innocent farmer tied up and threatened by three masked men with guns.”
No more Mr O’Donovan, then, is that good or bad? you wonder.
“Lads, I feel sure it won’t be necessary to get the armoury out. What would people say? Shooting one of your own? On his own land, leaving a child orphaned? No, lads, there’s nothing to be gained by shooting me that can’t be obtained with a few slaps.”
Number Two is twitching now; impatience reeks off him like steam off fresh dung on a frosty morning behind the cows on their slow walk to the parlour. “I’ll cover you, get on with it,” he says, producing a sawn-off. He holds the gun surprisingly still. You were expecting a bad case of nerves, the gun barrel to execute frail, trembling circles in his shaking hands, but he is steady as a rock. He has pointed a gun at a man before.
You stand like a statue as the first blow sinks into your solar plexus. You will not fight back—it is essential not to get shot—but you are hard and strong as a bull in his prime; this is not going to be quick. You finally sink to your knees as the blows rain down one after another. Your eye is closing fast. A concerto of kicks plays out upon your torso, ringing dull in your ears, mingling with the sounds of the men’s demands.
They are wary, afraid to put their hands in your pockets. Is it a trap? Are you going to spring back to life from your bloodied mess, like the hero in a B movie, and turn the tables? You know you are not, you are not acting, you are close to the edge, blackness is creeping in at the sides of your vision. Soon you will be unconscious. You can barely hear yourself now, your first stoical grunts quickly turned to roars, but now all the sound that is left to you is automatic, each breath thumped out of you producing its own soft, chordal moan, as primal as a baby’s sob.
The men stop, you can hear their laboured breathing; it has not been an easy task to fell you, a giant country oak full of knots and sap. “Alo, there’s no call for this. We’re not animals. Give us the keys.” You can scarcely see, you can just about speak, “I don’t think you’re animals, you’re doing what you think is right, it’s in your nature.” You gasp and drag another hacking breath into your burning lungs. “But I can’t give you the tractor to plant your bomb. I just can’t, it’s not in my nature.”
Number Three bends down and kneels on the concrete beside you, a priest’s genuflection before the final benediction. In slow motion you see the handgun approach your left temple, lazily whipping you towards blessed oblivion.
You wake in the hospital bed. Cormac is on a plastic chair beside your locker, upon which rests an incongruous bunch of grapes. Your son’s face, still innocent of the razor, lights up at your first moan. Has it worked? The deception? Is it complete and clean?
You wake again tomorrow, you swim in and out of daylight. Hospital is wonderful you think, until you notice the spiders. The spiders are coming from behind the wallpaper, from cracks in the lino on the floor of the South Tyrone Hospital. Black-and-orange hairy, they surge from the locker drawer and out of the half-eaten grapes. The spiders swarm over you, making you claw and tear at your skin. The nurses hold you down, they murmur in your ear, they hush your screaming. “No more morphine,” you beg, “I’d sooner the pain than the spiders.”
One day the polis come. They toss their hats, with RUC emblazoned, onto your bed; Nurse Josie tut-tuts and removes them. Cormac is to give his evidence in your presence, he has no other guardian. He came home, he found you in the yard, he called the ambulance. That’s it. He has nothing to add. Neighbour men are taking care of the milking, he is feeding the calves. He is sharing a bedroom with Phelim McNeill. Mrs McNeill is a good cook, better than you. All is well. He looks to you for confirmation, you nod. “Good man yerself, son.”
Now it’s time for your statement. The Royal Ulster Constabulary man turns to a fresh page of his notebook, licks the nib of his biro pensively. At first he makes a few desultory notes, then pauses incredulous. “The bull? The bull? You’re telling me the bull trampled you? D’you think I came down the fuckin’ Bann River in a bubble, man dear? Someone beat the livin’ shite out of you . . . pardon me, Ma’am . . .” He blushes and looks quickly at the nurse. “I’ve heard worse,” she shrugs, “I used to be a midwife.”
You struggle to speak more clearly, every fibre holding your spirit to your body burns with a fiery ache. “The bull. He turned on me. Quick as can be. It happens. I was lucky to drag meself back til the yard.” You are coarsening your speech, acting the bumpkin. “He turned on me and the cows panicked. God alone knows how many trampled me. I’m a lucky man.”
“You’re a damn fool liar!” The officer’s outraged face is puce, a vein throbs in the very centre of his forehead. “The tractor was in the middle of the shed, the doors near ripped off, the slurry tanker cowped on the floor. We found the keys in a ditch. Explain all that, I’d love ta hear it.”
“I can’t explain none of thon, officer, I dunno what I was doing. I daresay I’d lost a bit of blood, had I, Nurse? Mebbe I was trying to drive meself to hospital…”
“In a tractor? In a tractor, and a Ford Cortina in the yard, half-full tank? Do you think that because the uniform’s green we’re all cabbages? We’ll be back—and you can think about obstructing the course of justice while you lie there.” The door slams back on its hinges, shaking a fine, sparkly film of dust from the top of the lintel onto the shiny, peaked hats as the men stalk out.
Cormac looks at you like you are the second coming of Christ. “God, Da, that’s amazing. You got back from the oak-tree field on your own? That’s a-maz-ing. Fuckin’ Rambo you are.” He takes your hand and a tear falls down his cheek. Your son is a toddler again, standing at the side of your bed, roused weeping from sleep, by a dream of his Mammy in Heaven. You blink and come back to the present, with all its pain and its joy. You have survived, you are here with him, he need not know about, nor fear, the shadows of the men in the masks. Nothing else matters.
“Will we have ta kill the bull now, Da? Now that he’s dangerous?”
Your fingers fall weakly from his hand, the joy of holding it outweighed by the pain.
“We won’t be killing him, he’s no more dangerous than he was last week, and no less. Animals are always dangerous, son. None of us can change what’s in our nature.”
(c) Orla McAlinden
K-K-K by Lauren Foley from Overland #222, published by OL Society (Australia)
The phone call comes while my mother is rinsing her hair in the kitchen sink, with one of those white rubber faucet attachments that don’t quite fit the tap so water spurts every which way out of its would-be seal. I can see from my vantage point sitting on the countertop that a pool is forming between the back of the sink and the windowpane; a couple of dead flies are floating, exposing their bloated bellies, and the spray from the tap is creating a water-feature effect so it looks like the scene is missing only a miniature palm tree. My mother wrestles with the tap and hands me the hose. I angle the spray over to the flies and watch as I make them swirl round and round. Mother winds a pink towel into a turban, then jabs at my arm. I take the phone from its cradle and twist the cord around my finger. She slaps my hand, then the tap shut.
Her expression says someone had better be dead.
Dabbing at her browline with a red and white checked tea towel she rolls her eyes.
—Yes. Yes. I come now. I come now.
Slamming the phone back on to the wall she swears in Kurdish and starts stomping around the house. I pick a tomato stalk out of the fruit bowl and place it upside down in the lagoon with the flies.
I cross the kitchen, grab the baby from the playpen and make a start on changing his nappy. I can hear my mother banging drawers shut in the bedroom. She kicks the laundry basket on her way into the bathroom.
The baby’s testicles and backside are bright red so I reach for some cream to rub on them. This baby is often sick. I hope mine won’t be the same.
I am almost six months pregnant.
I haven’t felt very nauseous, just not at all hungry. My mother makes flatbread and I nibble on it. When flatbread is the only thing I’ve eaten all day, she makes me have yoghurt in the evening. She counts each spoonful I swallow down. She tries to entice me with a small sweet treat after the other children are in bed. But I’ve had no appetite since we arrived in Australia. When we were in the detention centre on Nauru, meals were arranged for us. The food there didn’t agree with my stomach, I don’t actually like rice; it has always given me a stomachache. Before we were on Nauru we spent a couple of years in Zaatari.
All of my mother’s other children are younger than me.
Actually, that’s not true.
There was one other child, older than me, my sister, Esrîn. She died on the way to Australia. I try not to think of her or remember her name. It gives me a pain like I suddenly need to go to the toilet. So I call the other children ‘the baby’ and ‘the twins’ since then.
My mother says my baby will come next year, until then I have to stay indoors as much as possible. That’s why she’s banging about now. She doesn’t like going out, and our routine has been unsettled. She is hiding me, mainly from the other refugees living nearby.
I can join Australian school some time in 2016. The social worker agreed. I am really looking forward to it. The twins already go to school, but they are not interested their lessons and get into a lot of trouble.
My mother and I have to wear abayas and niqabs in public in Australia. We are only wearing them to conceal my pregnancy, so we can pretend my baby is my mother’s when it comes. It’s a new thing for us. My mother says we’ll maybe stop wearing them a year after my baby is born. We maybe can change to just wearing hijabs then. And maybe when we get Permanent Residency she can start working; then we could afford to move away from this suburb and our neighbours who remind us too much of home, war, camps.
I’m only fourteen so my bump is very small, neat and tight.
Mother has not prayed since we were in Nauru. One evening she told me she no longer believed. That was the only time I ever saw her cry.
She didn’t even cry when my father was killed at home right in front of us, nor when the men were on top of her one by one.
I’m not one hundred per cent sure how a woman gets pregnant, because I thought that only married men and women could have babies. My mother told me, shortly after we arrived in Australia, that I would have a baby after the Father Christmas they have here comes. I asked her how she knew I would have a baby. She just said, the baby is already coming.
I thought it had been almost four years since father died and maybe what those men who killed my father did to my mother could make a baby, but my mother had her baby less than a year after that happened. So I still do not know how I am having a baby.
Trying to work it out gives me a bellyache.
Then I feel cold like a block of ice, and smell flowers and tobacco all at once.
Aside from being pregnant, I love it in Australia, even though I can’t go outside very much. I listen to the radio and watch TV in English. My mother and my social worker have subscribed me to Overdrive where I can access literally hundreds and hundreds of ebooks for free online.
We walk to the train station and the baby alternates between uttering gargling nonsense or yammering away in Kurdish from his stroller, all the while swatting blowflies away from his face.
As I bend to adjust the hood forward a seven-foot man passes us by and even the baby holds his breath.
Australian flies are very stubborn. No matter how many times you swat at a fly it will keep coming back – directly at your face. Not a different fly, but the exact same one. These blowies (that’s what they’re called) actually make me glad of my niqab.
My mother sighs with every step.
We get to the train station and stand on the platform, a little girl in powder-blue dungarees flicks pebbles against the back of my legs. She is lying on the platform, making her dungarees very dirty in the process of flicking, rolling around pretending it wasn’t her; then rolling back, and flicking again.
Her mother says nothing to me, the girl or my mother.
My mother wouldn’t be happy if I said anything, or drew any extra attention to us. So I bite my tongue.
I have the beginnings of a headache. Coupled with the flies and the pebbles I’m starting to get pretty exhausted in this heat. My stomach contracts, and I will the train to arrive.
—Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong.
The baby won’t repeat any English words, even though he’s almost three. I play this game with him every day.
—Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong.
I was already bilingual by his age. I think his speech is really quite delayed.
Much like this train which is finally here.
A teenage boy with a hole in his earlobe, like a bullet went through it, also gets on and lies on the seat in front of us, kicking his window to an up-tempo beat.
I count trees and houses out of our already scuff-marked windowpane. Swear words and lewd pictures are scratched into the perspex.
Bullet Boy’s phone rings.
—If that slut gets on my train. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I’m looking out for her. I can’t fucking wait.
My mother sits in such an odd way in public. Her shoulders hunch and curve and her head drops forward like a raven stooping down for food.
Bullet Boy’s phone rings again.
—Yeah? Oh yeah. Great. I can’t fucking wait to see her the fucking bitch.
My mother places her hands on her knees and starts rubbing the fabric of her abaya against her fingertips.
—I’m looking out for the fucking whore. She’d better fucking not get onto my carriage.
My mother crosses and uncrosses her feet at the ankles.
—Yeah. She is. She’s a fucking bitch-faced whore.
My mother leans further forward.
The train stops and people board the carriage through the doors farthest away from where we are seated.
Bullet Boy jumps up and starts screaming.
—Lisa! You fucking bitch-face slut. I fucking see you.
—I fucking see you hiding down the back you whore. I see you.
—No, I won’t piss off you junkie whore. You c-c-c-cunt.
My mother is now bent forward completely, she has her head almost in her lap.
—Just shut up, alright?!
—You junkie bitch. You starved your dog to death and let it die. Spent your money on crack and ice and let your dog die. You fucking junkie whore. You bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Whore.
My mother’s breathing is getting very loud. The people across from us are looking over at her.
—I’m getting off now. Shut it. Just shut up …
—No I won’t shut up you cunt. You cunt. You fucking dog killing cunt.
My mother is shaking. Her niqab quivers.
—Fuck off then cunt. You cunt. CUNT!
I stand at the primary school gates with the baby in his stroller. He is yammering away in Kurdish now. I ask him to please speak in English.
—Te fehm kir Îngilîzî?
I rock his stroller in the hopes of silencing him. Aussie women are waiting several feet from me with their babies and strollers all lined up in a row.
One looks about eighteen, but doesn’t smile or say hello.
My mother has gone inside to get the twins. It’s lunchtime, only time for the infant classes to let out, but the twins, in Year 4, are being sent home early. Again.
The flies at the super school are closer to Adelaide city so they are less aggressive than country blowflies. But, from what little I’ve seen South Australia is all country. Even the city centre is tiny. It’s like it was licked then stuck on top of the countryside like a stamp on a letter. Destination, nowhere.
My tummy feels like some of the powder-blue dungareed girl’s pebbles are stuck in it. They are grinding together in the triangle just below my ribs. The sun is baking down now. If this is November in Adelaide, I am not looking forward to February; I hope my baby will be born by then.
One Aussie woman starts up.
—It’s very hot to be wearing black.
One of the other women gulps.
The first woman continues.
—It really is very hot to be covered in black … so not this season’s colours.
The others are looking at the ground. One stifles a snicker.
The first woman again.
—I personally find black attracts the sun.
The other women are looking at each other, and the youngest one starts pushing her stroller back and forth. Then moves it to the side. Their row is broken now.
—And … I like to show off my figure.
One woman shakes her head. The rest are still looking at the ground.
I feel very angry.
They think I’m stupid, that I don’t speak English, but I went to the international school in Aleppo and I was in the ninety-fifth percentile in my year. My father taught in the university. His English was excellent. He spoke English with me every day.
He used to read books to me in English, every night, before I went to bed. Those wonderful books I grew up with by renowned scholars and authors. My father would read them aloud until I fell asleep. I think it was for his benefit as much as mine, because he would continue reading then marking assignments late into the night. I hardly remember him without a pen or a book in his hand.
My father, my sister and I were always together in those days. He would take us to school in the mornings and tell us of the great many things he knew, the places he had been. And he would tell us that when we were older, over sixteen, he was going to take us to Paris and London on holiday. Until then, we could travel to any country we wanted if we could read, and being multilingual, we were the advantaged ones. We could read more than double the books of others.
It helped me.
It helped me.
Reading books in Zaatari and Nauru helped me.
There weren’t many, and even fewer in Kurdish. I read every time I felt sad, or wanted to remember my family’s names, and in those pages my sadness stopped for a time.
My mother is hurrying out of the schoolyard now. She is holding each twin by their wrist. Roughly. She’s yanking them, and they are scrambling to keep up. She is twisting their forearms a little in her rush. She is muttering to them in Kurdish to be good, and to learn to behave themselves.
My mother passes the Aussie women. Two of them sidestep and shuffle to the right. Quite rudely.
The first one, the loud one, rolls her eyes and says:
—I need to post a letter.
—On the way home?
—We won’t miss the mail. Calm down.
—But there’s a postbox right here … Two, in fact.
Then a shushing sound from the younger one. The rest of the women shuffle away from the loud one. One coughs her disapproval.
—I can just drop it in through one of their eye slots.
My mother motions to me to get a move on or we’ll miss our return train.
I turn our stroller around to face the Aussie women.
The baby says:
—K-k-k … cunt.
His first English word.
(c) Lauren Foley
What a River Remembers of its Course by Gerard Beirne published by Numero Cinq Magazine
Leo could tell you about the dam being a run-of-river structure. He could explain how the water flow is used immediately instead of forming a forebay upstream. He could talk about the spillway adjacent to the powerhouse, the five thirteen metre square steel gates, each over one metre thick with heaters fitted inside their hollow interiors to prevent freezing and condensation. Each gate, he might add proudly, weighed over one hundred tonnes. He could tell you that over a mug of tea at his kitchen table or he could tell you that while standing on the granite shield fishing for pickerel or while out in the forest hunting late winter moose. What he couldn’t explain was the group of over one hundred protesters who had marched almost twenty kilometres from their small remote community, the same one Loretta had been from, to the dam to occupy it.
He heard the commotion first as he left the powerhouse on his afternoon break. The protesters were marching in a long procession through the gates, singing and beating drums, holding up homemade banners. One man at the front carried the tribal flag and two others a large cardboard sign that Leo later found out was an over-sized eviction notice. He recognised the Chief and some of the other people from the community. Although not at the front, it was hard to miss Mervin, a relative of Loretta’s. He was six and a half feet tall and wore his long black shoulder-length hair in a ponytail.
Leo went back inside to advise the other workers – the operators, distributers, dispatchers, supervisors, technicians, and maintenance staff. They came out after him to watch as the plant manager and several security officers went forward to speak with the protesters. The Chief handed over the eviction notice and ordered the staff to leave immediately. The RCMP were called while the manager tried to negotiate, but by mid-afternoon only key personnel remained. The other staff had left under police escort. The housing complex was locked and the tribal flag raised above it. Leo, a maintenance supervisor, was one of the few permitted to stay.
“It’s going to be a peaceful protest,” Mervin told him when he went over to speak with him that first evening. “But we are digging in for a long occupation.” A teepee was being erected on the grass beside the powerhouse where he and Mervin stood. A few young men were building a fire off to the side. A sacred fire, Mervin explained. A lone drum struggled to be heard against the water surging through the spillway.
“Is there no other way to resolve this?” Leo asked.
“We have tried doing it their way. We have sat around their tables and signed their pieces of paper but still no benefits have flowed to us. They violate our Treaty rights and hide behind lawsuits. They have polluted our waters, destroyed our land, disrupted our way of life, left us only despair. It is time for us to take charge, assert our rights.”
Leo understood this. Loretta had suffered the same indignities. When she fell from the boat and slipped beneath the murky water, did not every indignity since the beginning of creation attach itself to her body and weigh her down?
“You do what you have to do,” he said and walked back to the office.
Despite the enormity of the structure, there was only so much regulation of the water levels of the lake the dam could control. No amount of concrete and steel could fully compensate for wind and precipitation. Ongoing erosion heavily impacted the shoreline. During high winds, Leo had heard of there being as much as an eight foot difference between the north and south basins, and due to its shallow depth the water was impeded from circulating back to the windward side of the lake, piling up instead on the leeward side. Furthermore, the north end of the lake was experiencing post-glacial rebound from the huge weight of the ice-sheets that had existed there thousands of years before. The land gradually rising back upwards, the lake slowly tilting from the north and moving southward.
It had been necessary to excavate the spillway and powerhouse channels through solid granite bedrock. A year later the first concrete was poured. Leo remembered it vividly. He was barely nineteen. That was almost forty years ago. Forty years that had flowed past like the water through the dam. Years that had been diverted, regulated even. Years that had been stored up and then let go. It had taken six of those years to get all of the generating units up and running. Leo was twenty-five by then. Loretta was twenty-three. She was thirty-six when she toppled from the boat and was swept downriver into the log-boom that prevented debris from entering the intake gates. The found her body trapped between the mounds of piled up logs looking for all the world as though she was clinging on for dear life.
Loretta started work as a cook in the camp about three years after Leo arrived. Her family were wary of the dam, the effects it might have upon them, but they were given assurances by the government and the company, and, besides, you take whatever work you get, Loretta told him. “My grandfather worked for the Hudson Bay Company.” She shrugged. “It provided food for his family, my father.”
For almost a year, Leo sat at his table in the camp and watched her while he ate the food that she had prepared, and for almost a year she sometimes watched him back. Tables of young men and old chewing and swallowing, talking loudly, swearing and laughing, belching. Their coarse talk and their rough hands swollen from manual labour. Leo’s skinny frame filling out with muscle and flesh. His mild manners peppered with grains of crudity.
“She likes you,” Glenn said. He was almost ten years older than Leo. His wife lived down south with their two young children. Glenn drove an excavator. The work was dangerous, but he didn’t think about that. He couldn’t afford to, he would have answered if he was asked.
They were finishing off their breakfast. Grits and gravy. Leo felt himself blush. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn said. He washed his food down with a mouthful of coffee, picked at a back tooth. “All the food you can eat.”
“I’m not interested,” Leo lied.
Glenn looked him right in the eye. “Course you’re not.” He nodded, pushed his plate into the centre of the table “Why would you be?” He stood up, burped. “You’re a young man. You’ve got the whole world in your grasp, isn’t that so?”
Leo wasn’t sure how to respond, but Glenn stood there as though waiting for a response.
“I mean, she is nice,” Leo said, “but…”
“That’s right,” Glenn said. “But….” He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “The whole fucking world.” He sighed heavily, looked past Leo now.
“I’m not saying…” Leo said.
“What I’m saying is that I’ve got children half your age.” He abruptly gathered up his cup, his plate and cutlery. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got some earth I’ve got to go dig great big holes into.”
Leo sat there after he left. Loretta was somewhere out of sight. He had no real idea how he had ended up where he was, in the middle of nowhere, shut off from the world by trees and inhospitable land. How was it that people were living here? Glenn was right. He would talk to Loretta, suggest that they take a walk together after they were both done their day’s work. A walk amongst the trees or by the banks of the formidable river. That was what people did, was it not?
Leo liked to find older cutovers, areas that still had some woody browse but offered cover and protection, small pocket cutovers that were a little further off the beaten track. The thick stuff at the back down impassible winter roads. At that time of year, moose tended to group up. He often found several together in search of food. Leo would survey the trampled snow, the damaged brush, and maybe then the outline of a bull moose a few hundred yards away, the two feet of antlers looping out from each side of its head, the heart stopping moment, the adrenalin pumping through the veins. The bull might still be in the back of the cut, Leo getting glimpses of it through the trees trying to draw it out with bull grunts and then it disappearing inside the bush line.
After the rut tapers off in late October, the moose hole-up. There are some who think they are drained by the rut, but Leo believed they were simply transitioning into their wintering areas. In any case, there is a lull. When Loretta was alive, Leo and she would fill that lull by making love. At least, that is how Leo remembers it. But Leo knows his memory is not dependable anymore. What, he wonders, does a river remember of its course? If Loretta had lived, there would have been children by now. They would be grown. But instead Loretta had stood up to cast her line and she had lost her footing somehow, and Leo was distracted lowering the block of metal he used as an anchor.
Leo would stop and talk with Mervin every few days. The Chief was trying to come to some agreement with the company and the Province. Mervin would tell him what he knew about the progress being made, if any, and Leo would let him know the mood of the workers, but mostly they talked about the fishing and the hunting, the way things had changed since the construction of the dam. The good and the bad. They would talk about the geese migration, and they would talk about people they knew in common. People from Mervin and Loretta’s community. They did not talk about Loretta, at least not at first, but as the protest, the occupation, went on over weeks, Leo knew that Loretta’s name which had been far upriver was drifting nearer and nearer.
Mervin was related in some way to Loretta. Leo never really knew how. She had endless relations none of which he understood clearly.
“Surely it is the same for you,” Loretta had said one time, but Leo could not say it was.
“I know most of my cousins, but after that…” He held his hands up in uncertainty. “We are spread far and wide. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario.”
“We live next door.” Loretta smiled. “I do have a distant cousin who moved to North Dakota. Someday we will go and visit him.”
Leo thought of this while speaking to Mervin. He had never been to North Dakota, and he did not think he ever would go now.
It was the fifth week of the occupation when Loretta’s name swept in upon the shore. Tensions were getting high. A truck, with parts and equipment, had tried to pass through the blockade without permission. The driver had been pulled from his cab. Punches had been thrown. Leo had gone forward to try and help calm things down. Mervin, all six and a half feet of him, was already standing between the driver and the group of angry protestors by the time Leo got there. It took forty five minutes of negotiations for the parts and equipment to be unloaded and the driver to get back in his truck and drive away.
Leo walked over to Mervin to thank him for his intervention, but Mervin was angry, infuriated by what had just occurred. “He need not think,” he said referring to the driver, “that he can trespass on our land whenever he feels fit to.” His voice was raised, his eyes glowering at Leo. And then he pointed his finger at him. “You know which side Loretta would be standing on if she was here. You know.”
Although Leo had for a long time been expecting this, he was nevertheless caught by surprise. Not just by the mention of Loretta’s name but the overwhelming rush of his own inner turmoil, the dam gate release of emotion. He stood there on the gravel road with the river in the background and the vast concrete walls that held it back and the endless forest of trees overshadowing all and Mervin fuming in front of him pointing his finger and Loretta, and Loretta, being washed up as if for the very first time. Leo felt his knees weaken and his legs begin to shake. And in the cascade, other accidents and other corpses. Tom Farrell who had been crushed when the large concrete wall section being swung into place had swung wide, and Michael Simmons, barely eighteen, who slipped from the scaffolding on the spillway, and Ed Williams who was struck by a steel crossbar while removing a roof from a Quonset that had housed concrete, and all the others who suffered tragic misfortunes and succumbed to their deaths at once.
There have been long periods of time over the years when Leo did not think of Loretta, weeks on end, maybe months if he was being truthful, and then something would bring her back to mind. When he first realised this he felt guilty, as though he had somehow let her down, even more so by how he had let her down by turning away to lower the anchor. But the thing was, and he knew this now, that Loretta was always in his mind even if not in a conscious way. There was no thought he had or action he made that Loretta did not influence. The general course of his life she had gouged out in front of him, and he was just following along.
Mervin was wrong. Leo did not know what side Loretta would be standing on. He could not determine the course of her life as clearly as he could his. Hers had taken an irreversible diversion after all.
When Leo and Loretta were first married, they moved back to Loretta’s community and lived there with her brother and his wife and three children. It was not ideal but, as Loretta said, it was a start. They could not afford their own house just yet, and this after all was Loretta’s home. She had lived there all of her life. Being white, not everyone welcomed Leo’s relationship to Loretta. Her grandparents on her mother’s side both disapproved. Her grandmother on her father’s side also disapproved, but her grandfather did not. Her mother said she understood, but Loretta thought that she probably did not. Her father said it was none of his business. “He is a hard worker. That’s good enough for me.” Leo was a hard worker. He helped his in-laws with cutting wood, hauling it, stacking it. He rode his skidoo and his ATV on their behalves. He worked on the engines of their vehicles. In time he was accepted.
Each day he and Loretta drove the nineteen kilometres to work. They talked about their plans for their own home together, about banalities, work details, and they sat in silence too and thought about those things that people think about in their lives that they scarcely remember later.
After the dam was built and the short-term construction jobs dried up, Leo moved into maintenance and Loretta was put in charge of keeping the lodgings for the workers clean. She was one of the few from her community still employed there. “We push brooms and fill plates,” she said.
They eventually got their own house about halfway between Loretta’s community and the dam. A small house not far from the river with a dirt road access. They got a boat, and they fished the river and nearby lakes. And if the accident had not occurred…
“We are not asking that the dams be removed,” Mervin said. Leo had stopped by the fire to talk with him before leaving for the day. One of the protesters would open up the blockade later, permit him to drive through. “We only ask that they apologize for the wrongs and make amends. Our people are frustrated, angry, but equally determined. This is not easy for anyone. Being away from family. The nights are cold and long.”
“Why not stay in the lodgings? You have them under lock and key.”
Mervin shook his head. “We have stayed in too many of the white man’s lodgings. No more.”
“Do you want me to leave and not return?” Leo asked. “Maybe I am now ready to do that.”
“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before. What is here is not going away.”
A young woman and a small boy approached the fire. She did not look like Loretta, but still he was reminded of her. Mervin shrugged. “There were many of our people who worked on the dam during its construction. You do what you have to do to survive.”
Unlike Mervin, the woman was too young to remember what the land had looked like before the flooding, and yet here she was. Leo put his hand in his jacket pocket and cradled the car keys. Could it be said, he wondered, that Loretta had survived?
It was time to go. He would walk to his car now and drive back to the house that he and she had built together.
When Leo and Loretta got their house by the river, they thought then that this was it, that they had reached a place in their lives where they were finally located, a place they would never wish to leave. The water flowed past their front door unobstructed, and it seemed to them that their life together was unobstructed also. They fished the waters and trapped along the water’s edges. Leo took his gun and hunted in the forest and in the skies. They drove the dirt roads and the snow-covered roads to and from their work at the dam, leaving in the early light of dawn and returning in the fading light of dusk. Loretta skidded off the road one time and ended up buried deep in the snow. She had to climb out through her side-window and walk the three miles remaining back to their home. She cried when Leo pulled her in towards him and put his large arms around her. There was no damage done to her or the vehicle, and if there was a hidden fault within their relationship, the shock of the accident and Leo’s comforting of her later surely repaired it. But despite all of this, when Loretta drowned, Leo would often think that they only had gotten their due. It was not necessarily something he had been aware of as he worked to build and maintain the dam, but deep down within him he had always known that there would be a price to pay. Even when he had travelled north for the first time, he had known he was not of the place, that in some way he was an impediment upon it. Initially in his relationship with Loretta he had thought this too, that he was an impediment to her. “I am not truly welcome by your family,” he said after first meeting them. “At best I am tolerated.” “We are who we are,” she reminded him. “That’s all there is to it.” And later, “there were white people in my family before.” When she drowned, he knew there were many of her relatives and friends who blamed him entirely, and he could not fault them for that.
Loretta and he had stood at their door and watched the river hurry past them. They had tried to stand their ground.
The skeleton crew of workers could hear the steady beat of the drumming as they went about their work. Leo tried to avoid the conversations that denounced the protest. Like everyone else, he wanted it to end as quickly as possible, for his life to return to wherever it had been before this interruption, but unlike his co-workers he wanted it to end in such a way that everyone was content with its outcome, that both sides could be accommodated, the gaps between them bridged. They spoke callously before him as though Loretta had never existed or as if uncaring that they might give offence. He felt certain that the beat of the drums that they heard were of a different rhythm to ones that sounded in his ears.
Loretta had heard plenty of abusive talk when she was working there too. There was no manner of insult she had not endured.
“We are an evolving species,” she told Leo on one occasion. “In our case, our skin has grown thicker over the centuries. They can say what they like about me or my people. It is they who grow weaker, become defenceless. Ultimately it is they who will die out.”
“Does that include me?” he had asked.
He remembered how she had looked at him with a mixture of surprise and disappointment. “You and I may not be the same, but we are not that different.”
That is what he wanted to tell his co-workers, we are not that different. There is nothing that the protesters are asking for that we would not expect. They have no anger that we too would not feel, that we would not wish to express.
Leo’s parents died two years apart, down South, twenty-three years after the construction of the dam. He had seen them maybe three or four times a year at most after moving up North. They were only a few hundred miles away but worlds’ apart. He had a sister married in a neighbouring town to his home town who had visited them almost weekly, a brother who still lived and worked at home. When Leo and Loretta got married none of his family travelled up for the wedding. Instead they waited to celebrate almost two months later when Leo and Loretta came to them. His father in particular was proud of him for the work he had done on the dam, his brother in his own way too, his mother pleased because his father was proud. His sister had no feelings about it in one way or another. You take work wherever you get it.
What is more, they did not travel up for the funeral either. They sent their condolences by phone. Leo although saddened understood this. There was a forest, a granite shield, expansive lakes, heaving rivers, a harsh climate separating them. White-water rapids, portages too arduous to undertake. A people who did not resemble them with a language they could not understand.
He had dialled their telephone number and waited for someone to answer. He wished it could be his brother or preferably his sister. Instead his father had picked up the phone. At least not his mother.
“Loretta is gone,” was what Leo said.
At first there was silence, and then his father replied, “Gone where?”
And still the white-water rapids were impassible and the portages too difficult.
The forest was thick and dense and unmapped. The lakes and rivers unnavigable. The words strange and incomprehensible.
Leo’s one wish was that she had died upstream of the dam, that her body had never been recovered.
“I could have lived with that,” he told Mervin on the last day of the protest, after the Province and the Chief finally came to an agreement.
Mervin nodded as though he understood.
Here is what no one else knew. Two weeks after Loretta drowned, Leo drove out to the dam in the middle of the night. He parked his car facing the spillway and let the beams from his headlights light it up. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the scene made visible by his lights as though he were at some huge outdoor theatre. He looked at the massive rectangular concrete and steel supports the spillway gates were hydraulically hoisted up and down upon to regulate the water’s flow, and he watched the rapid white-water that poured through them. Further up, unseen beneath the surface, water streamed through the intake and around the turbines underneath the generating station before emerging from the draft tubes to calmly reform as a river once more. Was it possible, he wondered, that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts, withheld and released, expending its energy to empower someone else’s world and then be brought back together again as a whole to carry on as if nothing had altered at all?
He stepped out of his car leaving the driver’s door open and walked towards the lower road that ran along the spillway. The lights from the station gave just enough visibility to carefully make his way. The shield, the spruce and brush to one side, the upper main road across the dam on the other. He heard a rustling in the brush and stopped, wondering if it might be a bear. He waited in the near-dark but hearing nothing more walked cautiously on. He passed along the back of the spillway, its towering support walls and gates rising to his left. The noise of the swiftly flowing water sounded oddly like radio static at high volume. He walked past and down behind the generating station, leaned over the protective railing and stared into the gushing water. If her body had broken free of the wood held back by the boom, it would have been swept mercilessly through the intake and around the turbine to be shredded in the furiously spinning blades before being discharged. Was it possible that a single human life could be diverted from its course, divided into parts and brought back together again? What no one else knew is that as he leaned over the railing he thought to find out the answer to that. Back up on the gravel and dirt, his car’s engine was still running, the driver’s door was wide open, and the lights splayed their beams uselessly.
Glenn, the one who had first encouraged him to talk to Loretta, was another casualty of the dam when he was just weeks away from retirement. He was hauling dirt to stablise the shores when the slope he was driving on gave out and his truck fell into the river with a million cubic yards of dirt. His Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox floated to the surface eventually, but his body was never found. At his memorial, Glenn’s son brought the recovered Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox in proxy of the body. There were others who had died from blasting, falling rocks, electrocution, heavy equipment accidents, and drowning of course. Exhaustion, pneumonia, heart trouble. Most of the deaths got a line or two in local papers if that.
Loretta’s got little more. She may never have existed as far as the outer world was concerned, Leo thought. “She’d be a good catch,” Glenn had said except Leo had let her fall through his fingers.
After she died, he threw himself into his work, taking on extra shifts, overtime. Often he stayed overnight at the lodgings. The house was empty without her. He would go back to her community to visit the grave occasionally but rarely visited with her family. He had done more harm to them than the government ever had. He had flooded them with grief.
Instead Leo made a memorial to her down from the house on the shore of the river and placed a few of her belongings there in place of her body.
In the dull evening light, a group of around twenty people either sat on folding chairs or stood around the fire in pants, winter jackets, toques, hoodies, and gloves. Men, women and children. Young and old. One elderly man stacked tall logs against one another over the flames as if he was about to burn the frame of a small teepee. Meanwhile people entered and left the white canvas teepee over by the powerhouse. Despite the cold, the overcast sky, there was loud talk and laughter. Leo could tell that something was in the air. He went over to speak to Mervin.
“We have signed a memorandum of agreement,” Mervin said. “We are negotiating a settlement. But there is a lot to be discussed yet. The locks will not come off until the agreement is finalised and an official apology is delivered. But at least we are on a path forward now.”
“Good.” Leo like most was eager for the occupation to end.
That night as he had stood at the edge of the dam contemplating joining Loretta in the water, Leo looked back to the strand of trees where he had heard the rustling earlier. An animal had emerged from the trees and was standing in the near dark as a large shadowy outline on the granite shield. As Leo watched, it turned its head and its massive antlers and green reflective eyes made themselves visible. Leo stared at the bull moose and saw himself within it – a lonely creature waiting on the call of a female that might not come. The moose stood observing Leo for a few moments then backed up, turned and disappeared again into the dark.
“We are not asking to go back to the way it was before,” Mervin had said. Leo knew he was right, there was no going back. The moose that had sensed Leo’s presence and returned to the darkness was no longer the same one that had stepped out of it in the first instance. The river could not reverse its course and flow back the way it had come. The young man, a boy really, who had gone north in the first place could at best stand there momentarily before stepping forward precariously into the uncertain future.
(c) Gerard Beirne
Green, Amber, Red by Jane Casey from Trouble is Our Business published by New Island.
Caroline chewed her thumbnail and watched her husband. He was standing by the deep farmhouse sink, staring out the window at the night. She hadn’t really looked at Fergus for a while, now that she came to think of it, not since Saoirse landed in their lives.
It was because of wanting Saoirse that they had moved all the way out beyond the safe little suburbs of Cork to the middle of absolutely nowhere. The house had been a farmhouse once, and had a straggle of outbuildings full of petrified shit from animals long since dead. There was a loose-stoned roofless cottage by the gate: the original house, abandoned 150 years before and not a moment too soon. Every time the wind blew, a handful of slates slipped off the roof of the big house. The gutters leaked. The septic tank was suspect. But it was what they wanted, even to the heavy dark furniture that came with the property, that belonged to the previous owner who had died in the bed where they now slept. They had a new mattress, of course, but thinking of it made Caroline shiver sometimes, when Fergus was snoring beside her and the shadows seemed to move across the old flecked mirror on the dressing table. The house creaked and groaned in the middle of the night, like a living thing. It smelled strange, like hot, dusty metal. Like blood.
Fergus said it was her imagination.
‘It’s very big for a couple of newlyweds,’ the estate agent had commented. And Caroline had smiled at her, and at Fergus, who was eyeing it with all the doubt he’d learned from his building experience.
‘We’ll fill it.’
She had imagined they would turn it into the house of her dreams.
The trouble with dreams, of course, was that sometimes they didn’t turn out just as you’d intended. Caroline suppressed a little sigh. Better not to think about it.
Caroline was very good at not thinking about things.
Now she thought about Fergus. His jeans were hanging lower than usual, a strip of pale skin visible between the waistband and his t-shirt. His feet were bare, the soles black with dirt. The state of the floor. It needed a good scrubbing. Caroline rubbed her forehead, trying to rub away the guilt. The house was her responsibility. Since Saoirse had come she’d neglected everything.
A good wife would scrub the floor. A good wife would put her arms around his waist and speak softly to him until he turned to kiss her.
Caroline stayed exactly where she was.
‘I just think we should have paid the extra.’
‘Not this again.’
There was an edge to Fergus’s voice that should have been a warning, an edge that Caroline acknowledged. She couldn’t seem to hold the words in. It was like running her finger along a razorblade: stupid and dangerous, but somehow satisfying as the blood bloomed on her skin.
‘It would be easier if we could see her. Instead of just listening.’
‘I looked at the reviews, okay? They were unreliable and overpriced.’
‘But if we could see her, we’d know what she was doing.’ Caroline chewed her nail again. ‘You know what she’s like. She’s an escape artist.’
‘She can’t get out of her room.’
‘You’d think. But you weren’t the one who found her halfway down the stairs yesterday.’
It had given Caroline the fright of her life when she found her there. Crawling down step after step, as if she was entitled to roam around the house whenever she wanted. And how she’d cried when Caroline took her back to her room. There had been no comforting her.
Wilful, that was the word. Caroline had been proud of her for it.
Fergus was the one who’d been angry.
And he was still angry. ‘That was your fault. Imagine if she was able to walk, Caz. Imagine if she’d got outside.’
‘I turned my back for five minutes. Five. It’s all right for you, being out all day. I’m the one stuck here with her.’
‘Remind me, wasn’t that exactly what you wanted? Wasn’t that why you had to have her? So you could spend every hour of every day with her?’
Caroline didn’t like his tone, but she didn’t want to provoke him either.
The monitor sat in the middle of the table. It was small, white, simple. A row of lights ran across the top, shading from green to amber to red. The louder the screaming, the more lights displayed, so even if the sound was off – which it was – it told them what was going on upstairs. Caroline watched the lights flicker back to green for a second every time Saoirse took a breath. Green. Amber. Amber. Red, red, red. She was sobbing her heart out, poor darling. Caroline reached out and pressed the volume button. Instantly, the sound of screaming filled the room. Fergus flinched. Caroline leaned forward, trying to analyse the sound.
‘She’s getting tired.’
‘Turn it off.’
‘We should listen.’
‘Because she might need us.’ Caroline glared at him. ‘You can’t just pretend she’s not up there.’
‘That’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t want to think about it. I think it’s cruel.’
‘We agreed that this was the right course of action.’ She muted the monitor again.
‘You suggested it.’
‘I suggested lots of things and you didn’t want to try any of them.’ Caroline couldn’t hold back the flash of anger but she regretted it. Don’t give him the chance to turn this into a fight. ‘We made a deal. This is the best way. It’s the most effective, the least demanding—’
‘Could you stop, please?’ The muscles flickered in his forearms as he dug his fingers into the counter top. Caroline really didn’t want to make him angry. He might take it out on her.
Or he might take it out on Saoirse.
Caroline felt her throat close up at the very thought, as if he was squeezing those calloused builder’s hands around her neck instead of just imagining it.
Because she knew what he was thinking. She knew him better than he knew himself. She knew his weak points. She knew the triggers for his temper. She knew what to say to make his hands ball into fists, to turn his eyes black with rage, to unleash the violence within him. She’d had to learn. She’d taken the bruises. The bloodied nose. The split lip. The cracked ribs. The arm he’d broken the night she spat in his face.
It had taken a long time to train him not to lash out. To show him that he couldn’t break her physically, that every time he tried, she became a little bit stronger. Every time he begged her to forgive her, she made it harder for him. He had to earn her love and her trust again. He had to prove himself. He had to see himself in all his violence and rage, and know that it made him less of a man when he lost control.
She knew how to taunt him. How to diminish him. How to break him into a million tiny shards of malice.
And she knew how to build him up. She knew how to wrap him in a cloud of love and caring, so he was devoted to her and only her. When he woke up screaming in the night, she was by his side. When he wept in her arms, she was his comfort. When she let him touch her, he knew it was a privilege. He couldn’t live without her.
He was everything she’d ever wanted, Caroline thought. Without him, there would have been no Saoirse. And Saoirse was the most important thing in her world.
The lights on the monitor were red for so long that Caroline started to worry that it was broken. She pressed the mute button again and caught a split second of the noise Saoirse was making: an unimaginable noise, an unbearable one.
‘How long do you think she can keep it up?’
Fergus shook his head. He was still staring out across the fields.
‘We’ll need ear plugs if she doesn’t give up soon. I’ll never sleep through that.’
He didn’t answer her.
Talk to me.
She didn’t like it when he was silent. Silence was dangerous.
She stood, the chair scraping on the floor so he knew she was moving towards him. It was better not to surprise him, she’d found.
‘What are you looking at?’ She ran her hands down his arms to his wrists. ‘It’s dark out there.’
‘Are you looking at yourself?’ She let the amusement into her voice. ‘Can’t say I blame you.’
‘You’re such a ride.’ She stretched up to nuzzle his neck, his ear, flicking the lobe with her tongue. ‘I’m so lucky.’
‘I’ve been missing you.’ It was the truth. She had wanted Saoirse – she had never wanted anything as much as Saoirse – but she hadn’t realised how much it would change things. Change her. She wasn’t the person she’d been before.
A desperate wail from upstairs cut through the air in the kitchen and Caroline hid a smile against Fergus’s broad shoulder.
‘It’s a good thing we don’t have any neighbours.’
That was deliberate. They were surrounded by farmland – good rich green land grazed by solid, dark-eyed cattle. The fields were enclosed with high hedges, the narrow boreens lined with spreading trees that dripped rain on Caroline when she was out walking. She went out two or three times a day, to feel the air on her face and let the rain run through her hair, and she never saw another person. It felt safe, to Caroline. She was tired of other people. Their stares.
The way you had to watch what you said.
The way you had to hide the marks on your skin, in case some busybody called the Guards.
The way no one would listen to her when she tried to tell them she was fine, that she loved Fergus and he loved her.
They wanted to climb inside her head. They wanted to hollow her out and wear her skin.
They wanted to stop her from living the life she chose for herself.
As if she had fallen into her marriage without knowing exactly what it entailed. As if she hadn’t walked into it with her eyes open. As if she hadn’t known what Fergus was the second she saw him on Patrick Street, watching the girls walk by. As if he had the ability to hide his heart from her.
She knew his soul.
And people had the insolence to tell her she could do better.
Caroline bared her teeth and let them graze the nape of his neck.
‘I can’t, Caz.’ He sounded exhausted. ‘Not now.’
‘I just want you to hold me.’ She made him turn around so she could nestle against him, small and vulnerable. It was his thing, he’d admitted: it was her doll-like prettiness that appealed to him. She looked younger than she was – certainly younger than she felt. And she was delicate. He could circle her wrists between his thumb and little finger. He could break her neck without blinking.
Intrusive thoughts. She chided herself for it, snapping the imaginary rubber band she could always feel on her wrist. She couldn’t help that her mind sought out what was violent and dark. It had been a genuine surprise to her when the therapist explained that most people didn’t look at a picture of a soft, fluffy rabbit and imagine how terrible it would feel to press out its eyes.
‘Would you not think of stroking it?’ he had asked her, almost pleading, and even at nine years old she’d known she should agree. But it wasn’t a choice. Thinking the unthinkable. Staring into the darkness.
It was no wonder she was drawn to Fergus. He burned so bright. She needed that light; she could bear the heat even if it charred her flesh and split her bones one day.
And Saoirse would bind them together forever.
She was the best thing either of them had ever done.
‘Is she still crying?’ Caroline murmured.
‘Can’t you hear her?’
‘All I can hear is your heart.’ It was true. Her head was pressed against his chest. The sound always soothed her.
A sigh hissed out of him, stirring her hair. ‘Caz, it doesn’t feel right.’
She leaned back so she could see his face: his eyes, averted from hers. His mouth, narrow and bitter and afraid. She kissed the corner of it. ‘You pretend to be such a tough guy, don’t you? Am I the only one who knows what you really are?’
‘God, I hope so.’ He said it with feeling and the tension eased for a minute, the two of them closer than ever. Then Fergus started again with the same old argument, a disjointed waltz in a minor key.
‘We shouldn’t be doing this. We should never have done it.’
‘How can you even say that? Don’t you care about Saoirse?’
‘Saoirse.’ He looked away again, not saying what he thought: that Saoirse was a stupid name. He’d said it once. He’d said it a hundred times. She’d had to talk him round. Of course he wasn’t convinced, not really, but she’d got her way. And he was wrong; Saoirse was a beautiful name, an Irish name, a long syllable followed by a short one. Seer-sha. It meant freedom. What could be more perfect?
Now she pressed her hands against his cheeks, looking up at him, forcing him to look at her. His stubble grazed her palms.
‘This was what I wanted. What we both wanted.’
‘If I’d known—’ He stopped and bit his lip. She could fill in the end herself.
If I’d known what it would be like. If I’d known I wouldn’t be able to rest. If I’d known I’d be worried all the time. If I’d known she would take up all our time. Our energy. Our joy.
If I’d known you would put her first all the time, and my needs would be forgotten, I’d never have let you have her.
It was very unfair of him to think that way, Caroline felt. She did her best. She’d given him what he wanted when he asked. She’d been smiling and kind, dutiful and loving, even if she’d been stretched a little too thin.
She had kept them apart, from the start.
It was partly that she didn’t trust him, and partly that she wanted to be Saoirse’s favourite. And it had worked. Saoirse turned to her for comfort, when she was hurt. Saoirse wanted her when she was afraid. Caroline lived for those moments. When Fergus came home it was time for Saoirse’s light to be turned out, for Caroline to settle her to sleep. In the morning, Caroline was up first, keeping him away from her door. He saw her at the weekend. He played with her while Caroline watched; he played the games that she suggested.
Never for a second.
Oh God, the fear of what he might do if he was alone with her. If he lost his temper.
If he lost patience with Saoirse altogether.
Caroline’s fingers tightened on Fergus’s arms so that he made a small noise of protest; she hadn’t even realised she was holding him.
‘You know what it said on the internet. This is a long process. It can take days and days, but it’s worth it,’ she whispered. ‘It’s a kindness in the long run. This crying – it’s a sign that it’s working. Tomorrow she won’t cry as much. She’ll know we’re not coming. She’ll learn there’s no point in all of this noise. One day, she won’t cry at all. She’ll just drift off, peaceful as an angel. Keep that in your mind.’
‘You don’t think it’s cruel. Leaving her like that.’
‘I read up on it and I believe it’s the best thing we can do.’ She held his gaze for a long moment, then went on tiptoe to kiss him. He held back for a second and she felt a jolt of fear: what if it didn’t work this time? What if she’d pushed him too far?
Then his mouth softened, his lips parting for her tongue. The passion was still there, not far below the surface. His hands were on her, pulling at her clothes, grabby and desperate.
A little shiver of disgust raced over Caroline’s skin – no, she couldn’t – and she pushed him away.
He was breathing heavily, his eyes blank with desire. She reached down and squeezed him hard.
‘Bitch.’ He lifted his hand and she showed him her face, offering it to him for the heady moment while he fought with himself. His fist eased open, the fingers straightening – a slap?
No. He had control of himself now.
Or rather, she had control of him.
‘Why don’t you go and watch a DVD? Turn it up so you can’t hear her anymore.’
‘What if something happens?’
‘I’ll be listening.’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t mind it as much as you do.’
‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’
And what did that mean, she wondered, watching him leave the room. He lifted the bottle of whiskey off the dresser as he went, as if she wouldn’t notice it was gone. Well, let him drink through it if he needed to. She was there to stop him if the liquor went to his head.
Hopefully he would drink until he passed out, and Saoirse would sleep, and she could get some rest herself. Her nerves were in tatters.
Caroline made herself a cup of tea and sat at the table, watching the lights on the monitor. Green, green, amber, red. Green, green, amber. Amber. Amber. Red, but briefly – the merest flicker. Caroline might have missed it if she hadn’t been watching so closely.
She was definitely getting tired. Caroline allowed herself a small smile. It would work.
It had to work.
As she sipped her tea, Caroline started to feel more like herself. Refreshed. Restored. As if she could cope with anything. She turned up the sound on the monitor, keeping it very quiet so Fergus wouldn’t hear over the noise of the TV. A low grizzle made it vibrate, a sound of pure desolation. Her throat had to be raw, Caroline thought, after all that screaming.
God love her, she would be thirsty.
Maybe it wasn’t that she didn’t want to cry anymore. Maybe it was that she couldn’t.
Caroline looked across at the sink.
Fergus would disapprove.
Fergus would really disapprove.
He didn’t have to know.
The trouble with Fergus was that he liked to know the rules, and then he insisted on keeping to them. She was more of an easy-going person. She’d learned to take life as it came. Being able to change your mind was a valuable skill, her therapist had told her. She could picture his face now, bearded and kind.
Caroline stood up, silently this time, and drifted to a cupboard. She found a plastic cup with a lid and a cartoon rabbit on the side. It was a second’s work to fill it with water.
Actually, it had been a different therapist who said it. The court-appointed one. Caroline frowned.
She hadn’t liked that therapist.
The door was open to the sitting room but Fergus had his back to her. He was absorbed in the action on screen, even though he’d seen it a hundred times. Caroline had too. She knew to wait for the gun battle to start before attempting the stairs. They were alive with creaks, the old wood shrieking when she stepped on it.
Up at the top of the stairs, the crying died away. Saoirse had heard her. Brave, brave girl, Caroline thought, standing in the dark, listening to the smothered sobbing as Saoirse waited for her.
Caroline almost danced down the hallway, feeling for the key around her neck. She flicked on the hall light and had the door open in a second.
Her hands were gripping the bars, her face red and swollen, streaked with tears. She was angry, obviously, but there was hope there too, and something Caroline thought of as love. She couldn’t do anything but sob.
‘Poor darling,’ Caroline cooed. ‘Are you thirsty? Do you want a drink?’
Caroline picked up the tongs and nipped the cup between them, staying well back as she pushed it through the bars. They had learned that the hard way – a couple of nasty incidents. A near miss or two. They’d got better at handling her, and she’d learned not to fight and they’d muddled through together.
Saoirse waited until she had the cup, until she’d drunk half of it in shuddering, sobbing relief, before she tried to speak. It was the usual nonsense but Caroline listened with an indulgent smile.
‘Please. You can’t do this. You have to let me go. I won’t tell anyone what you’ve done. I’ll tell them I was in an accident.’
‘Of course you will.’
‘Please. Please. You can’t leave me here with no food. No water.’
‘I’ve just given you water.’ Caroline gave a little laugh. ‘Greedy girl.’
Saoirse shook the cage but Fergus had made it well and it didn’t rattle at all. It wasn’t quite big enough for her, Caroline thought. It couldn’t be comfortable. But there was nothing she could do about that now. They wouldn’t take her out of it again. She’d promised Fergus.
When Caroline was bored, she held up her hand. ‘I’m going to bed. If I hear you screaming again, I’ll take your tongue.’
‘That wouldn’t stop me screaming.’
‘No. But it would be fun.’ Caroline closed the door on her and made sure it was locked; you couldn’t take chances with a girl like Saoirse. She still had spirit, after everything they’d done.
Caroline turned and stifled a scream of her own. Fergus was leaning against the wall, his arms folded. She hadn’t heard him; he must have come up the stairs like a ghost.
‘What are you doing?’
‘She needed a drink.’
A look of genuine pain flitted over his handsome face. ‘You said it would take longer if we gave her water.’
‘Yes, I did.’ She moved towards him, trying to look guilty. ‘I suppose I’m just not ready for her to go yet.’
‘Just a little longer.’ She brushed his cheek with her lips. His skin felt cold. ‘For me.’
Caroline put her face against Fergus’s, her mouth close to his ear, so when she spoke her breath would tickle him. ‘I know.’
The weariness in his eyes when she leaned back – oh, it made it all so much sweeter. It was everything she had ever wanted, everything she had ever needed.
And once Saoirse was gone, they could talk about having another one.
She had the name picked out already.
(c) Jane Casey
Best of luck to all the authors!