With some fabulous stories in the running, it was a tense moment when the 2014 Short Story of the year Winner was revealed at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards November 26th.
The shortlist is selected by a panel of judges and then it’s down to you, the public, to vote for your favourite, so the winner is truly the popular choice.
And this year John Boyne took the award with his story Rest Day (and said some lovely things about Writing.ie in his speech, muchly appreciated John!)
Here he is with his award, and the other stories that were shortlisted…all of which you can read below:
- Rest Day – John Boyne. Published in The Irish Times
- Absence – Christine Dwyer Hickey. Published in The House At Parkgate Street (New Island)
- Priesteen – Ciaran Folan. Published in The London Magazine
- Paprika – Frank McGuiness. Published in Surge (The O’Brien Press)
- Five Days to Polling Day – Danielle McLaughlin. Published in The South Circular
- Eveline – Donal Ryan. Published in The Irish Times
Watch John’s interview with RTE on the night:
Hawke, a gray wolf in human form, emerged from the forest on his hands and knees, pulling pine needles from his palms. A sticky resin from the verdure clung to the top of his tunic, sending a honeyed scent towards his nostrils, a perfume that reminded him of the private gardens behind his home on Hyde Park Square where he had hidden from his father on so many occasions as a boy. He crawled through the closely packed foliage, his eyes adjusting to survey the open land before him. It was night now. He was tired and hungry. He hadn’t eaten since that morning when Cole handed him a can of bully beef stolen from Westman’s backpack, the meat oozing red and fatty from its metal container in a manner that reminded him of the separated skulls on the bodies he dragged across the boot-tilled mud when he was on stretcher duty. This is a conchie’s job, he complained, but no one listened. Westman himself had taken a bullet in the eye an hour before; his brains were still drying on his face, growing crusty in his long eyelashes, while Cole’s hands were looting his supplies.
There were two cans, of course. Cole kept one for himself, eating it greedily, a finger soaking up the blood that remained behind, mingling with his own as he sucked on it, eyes closed in pleasure. He gave the other to Hawke because he liked him. They had a football team in common and it seemed that this was enough to forge a friendship.
The bully beef tasted rotten, the juices a ghastly slime that stank to high heaven, but Hawke ate it all before throwing up in the latrines. Next to him, Oakley was standing with his cock in one hand, leaning against the wall and pissing on his boots, crying. But then Oakley was a crier; everyone knew that. He cried when the sun rose. He cried when the shelling started. He cried when the news came through that Lord Kitchener had gone down on the Hampshire and it wasn’t as if he’d even known the man.
‘You’ve heard about Westman then?’ asked Hawke but Oakley ignored him. He didn’t like to be disturbed while he was crying. He finished pissing and Hawke finished throwing up. Before leaving the latrine he told Oakley to put his cock away. ‘Tidy yourself up, man,’ he muttered.
Back in England, it was Christmas Eve. Perhaps it was Christmas Eve here too, it was difficult to tell. It wouldn’t be like the Christmases of old, of course. Rationing is brutal, his mother told him in her last letter. It makes savages of us all. Fortunately I know a man in the War Department who is a tremendous help in this regard.
They were officially resting for a day. Staines started up a round of Silent Night on his harmonica but no one was the slightest bit interested. Shilton told him to be quiet or he’d ram that fucking thing down his fucking throat.
‘Here, Hawke,’ said Delaney, the Irish boy who everyone called Charlie Chaplin on account of the resemblance. ‘What’d you ask Santa to bring you this year?’
‘A night’s sleep,’ said Hawke.
‘I had one of them a few weeks back. Didn’t do me much good in the end. I still felt like death when I woke up.’
Why Westman had been in the forest was anyone’s guess. A rogue group of Germans must have been passing through and killed him rather than taking him prisoner. Easier really. There were Germans everywhere in this part of the world. It was hard to find them though. Westman had a dog that he talked about constantly. It irritated the men. Most of them had wives or sweethearts back home but all Westman had was a dog. You’d swear that he was married to the thing the way he carried on. He’d left the dog with his parents in Canterbury. Schubert was his name.
Hawke had clean socks in his backpack and he’d looked forward to putting them on all day. Mother had sent them as his Christmas box. She’d put a stick of cinnamon in with them and he wasn’t sure that was all about. The old ones, the ones he was taking off, were covered in dirt and blood and stank even worse than the bully beef but for some reason he held them to his nose for a moment, breathing in the stench. He never found his own smell objectionable. The smell of the other men, yes, of course. They were animals, for the most part. But his own, no. It reminded him that he was still alive, still producing all the slime and mucus that a human body leaked throughout the day. Queenie, his old nanny, used to play with his feet when he was a child. There was something disturbing about the way she would sit him on the couch and take a couple of his toes into her mouth, sucking on them while looking directly into the boy’s deep blue eyes, the ones that his mother’s friends said would break hearts one day. This behaviour carried on until he was eleven. Father caught her at it one day and gave her a slap; a few hours later she was gone. Took a job in the circus, or so Hawke was told. A few days later, Father was dead. Got run over in the street.
The clean socks were made from thick grey wool and were not standard issue. Mother had posted them to him and somehow they had got through without being confiscated. He could scarcely believe his luck when he opened the package. There was a letter in there too. Jane was engaged to a boy who was blind in one eye. His name was Harry Stanley and he came from a good family. Joseph had tried to sign up three times now but kept getting rejected on account of his age. It was only a matter of time, Mother said, before some fool believed he was eighteen, then he’d be shipped off to France or Italy or wherever they sent reckless boys who didn’t know when they were lucky. Granny had died and they’d buried her next to Granddad. The weather was good, surprisingly warm for this time of year.
He peeled off the old socks, emitting an unexpected whimper as the skin and bones and muscles slowly relaxed. He was uncertain whether this was tremendously painful or unbearably pleasurable. It reminded him of the sensation he felt if he didn’t masturbate for a couple of weeks. The intensity of the delayed orgasm. Almost too much to bear.
He looked down at his feet, which didn’t look like feet anymore. They were stumpy things, the nails on his toes torn and rotten, blisters all over the soles, black blood seeping from scattered sores. Queenie wouldn’t go near his feet now if she saw them. She’d faint or scream or do whatever it was that stupid women did when confronted by something unpleasant.
Hawke had always been brought to the funfair on Christmas Eve. A tall, thin steel structure, painted gold and yellow, rose from the ground, around which a spinning wheel turned and ascended, rotating quickly so the people on the swings at the end of its spokes could scream and laugh as they soared in the air. A sensation of weightlessness. A fear of falling. Hawke had been fourteen when his left shoe had fallen off while he was near the top, the sky a shattered rainbow alive with fireworks. The boy sitting next to him, a boy he had never met before, had laughed because Hawke’s toes were coming through his sock.
‘Are you poor?’ the boy had asked and Hawke had blushed scarlet with embarrassment. ‘Doesn’t your mother darn your socks for you?’
He hadn’t thought about this in years. It came back to him now.
He didn’t sniff the new socks. They were fresh; there was nothing to bother with there. He pulled them on and put his feet back in his boots, wrapping the puttees around his ankles. Somehow, they didn’t feel as comfortable as the old ones. He wondered whether he’d have more trouble with blisters over the days ahead.
Two boys, Arthurs and Crouch, started a fistfight nearby. A remark had been made. Something unkind. Arthurs punched Crouch in the nose and Crouch let out a cry as a pile of snot evacuated itself into his hands. ‘You bloody bastard,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ said Arthurs. ‘But you need to learn when to keep your trap shut.’
Hawke wondered whether he should try for a nap but it was almost six o’clock. The carol service would be starting at home now. The whole family would be there. Or what was left of them anyway. The year before the war broke out, when he was sixteen, he’d attended and Cathy Bligh had asked him whether he would walk her home on account of the darkness. There was a man about, she told him, a sex maniac who attacked innocent girls.
‘You should be safe then,’ Hawke said, smiling at her and she giggled, told him not to let her father hear him saying things like that. He walked her home like she asked and tried to kiss her when they were near her house but she slapped his face and asked him what kind of girl did he think she was anyway. The whole thing left him puzzled. Afterwards she told everyone that he tried to get fresh with her and her brother knocked on Hawke’s front door on Christmas morning, spoiling for a fight.
‘I’ll give you a fight if you want one,’ Hawke said quietly, strolling out into the street and rolling up his sleeves, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
‘Just you lay off my sister, do you hear?’ the boy responded, frightened now, out-matched. ‘Or you’ll get what’s coming to you.’
Hawke had shrugged and gone back indoors where Jane said the whole thing was too thrilling for words.
A dangerous hour now. If he napped, he would wake around two in the morning and probably not sleep again. No, he was better off as he was. He would sleep at nine. Perhaps half past eight if the sun went down quick enough.
The sarge walked past and asked whether Hawke had seen his book.
‘Haven’t seen it, sir.’
‘Well let me know if you do.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘Haven’t a clue. Something about an orphan. And there’s a woman in it who’s awfully rude.’
Hawke didn’t read much. Books bored him although he never would have admitted that to anyone, as he wouldn’t like to appear ignorant. No, sculpture was his thing. Had been since he was a child when he liked to fashion naked bodies out of clay. He had an idea that he’d be rather good with stone or marble but had never had an opportunity to try yet. After the war, he told himself, he’d give it a go. He knew a chap back home, Bestley, whose father ran an art gallery on Cork Street. Or was Bestley dead? Had he heard something about that? Did he go down on the Arabis at Dogger Bank? Well his father was probably alive at any rate. Perhaps he’d stop by when he was next in London and ask for some advice. There might be a chap there who would give a chap lessons. Show a chap how to get started.
But reading? No, that didn’t interest him much.
He decided to make some tea. Bellamy was in the mess-tent, scratching away at a piece of paper with a pencil.
‘Writing home?’ asked Hawke.
‘My missus had a baby,’ replied Bellamy. ‘I just got the news.’
‘Well done, you.’
Bellamy stared at him. ‘I haven’t been home in a year.’
Hawke struggled not to laugh. ‘Sorry,’ he said, looking around and frowning. ‘I can’t find any tea.’
‘I had the last of it.’
A few sprigs of holly were laid out near a satchel. Where had they come from?
He felt impatient now. That was the thing about a rest day. They came so rarely and you longed for them but once one arrived, your body was so accustomed to constant movement that it was almost impossible to slow down. The woods were nearby. He decided to take a walk. He put his helmet on, carried his rifle in case the Germans who had killed Westman were still lurking around.
‘Where are you off to?’ asked Sumpton.
‘Delivering presents,’ said Hawke. ‘To all the good little boys and girls.’
It felt pleasant to walk away from the battalion, to enter the woods alone. That carol went through his head, O Holy Night. He’d always liked that one. On that last Christmas Eve, a boy from two doors down whose voice hadn’t broken had performed it in a solo and when he came to the part where the key changed he felt a shiver run down his spine. Music sometimes affected him like this. Mother said the carol service was the domain of boy sopranos and women now, a strange combination. And the buffet is simply appalling, she wrote. She was going again this year; she was probably there right now, with her man from the War Department, whoever he was. A few pairs of stockings or a bar of chocolate, that’s all it took, and Mother was a young woman still with her looks. In the past, Father and Mother had always made such a song and dance about Christmas. They were like children the way they carried on. Even as a child Hawke had always thought it was a lot of fuss over nothing.
The sound of the branches crunching beneath his boots pleased him and he brought them down heavier for a while, forgetting about the Germans. Then he remembered and thought, oh sod it. He kept stamping.
Something turned inside his mind and he realised he’d had enough of this bloody war and decided not to turn back. He would just keep walking. Did people do that kind of thing, he wondered? Unpremeditated desertion? He’d taken nothing with him, no supplies, no overcoat, so everyone would be surprised. They might even assume that he’d been caught by the enemy in the forest. Westman’s Germans might have got him. There was nothing to show any sign of actual desertion. Actually, he realised, this was probably the best way to do it.
He started to laugh. It was rather funny, all things considered. One minute he’d been sitting around, doing nothing, the next he was a deserter from the British Expeditionary Force. He’d known a few. Browne and Peace had made a run for it one day and been caught in each other’s arms a few miles away, hiding in a barn. They were brought back and shot. The sergeant had told them to stop holding hands and go down like men but they told him to fuck off and then the bullets flew. Bancroft had been shot too but he hadn’t deserted, of course. He’d put his guns down after that business with the German boy in the trench and said sorry, I’ve had enough of this nonsense.
Would this mean that he would never be able to go home again? That he would never meet Jane’s blind-in-one-eye fiancé? Never answer any more of Mother’s letters? No, the war couldn’t go on forever, after all. It had been going on long enough as it was. But hold on, just because the war might end didn’t mean that it would all be forgive-and-forget when it came to deserters, did it? Might there be an amnesty of some sort? Unlikely. He shook his head. He couldn’t think about all that right now. He’d made his mind up.
Of course the trouble was that he didn’t know exactly where he was. He wasn’t even entirely convinced that he knew what country he was in. He could narrow it down to two or three, of course, but it would be a tight call to pick the right one from there. Where should he go? Switzerland, he supposed. That’s where everyone went, wasn’t it? He could help them out along the Jura. Or just hide out on the other side of it.
The clearing before him didn’t make a lot of sense. It was like a harvested field in the centre of countless acres of forest. He could walk across it but the trees on the other side might stretch on for several hundred miles. If that were the case then he would be marching towards his own death. This didn’t seem to bother him enormously and he worried that he was losing his mind. Something like that should bother him, after all.
He heard a rustling sound behind him and crouched down, burying himself in the undergrowth. A bird flew from a branch, followed by another; further along something noisier, more cumbersome. He held his rifle out before him as he tramped through, expecting a fox perhaps or something more malevolent. But nothing appeared and he relaxed again, slinging the rifle back over his shoulder.
He walked on, glancing up at the gibbous moon and guessed it was close to nine o’clock by now. Mother, Jane and Joseph would be home by now, laying stockings out by the hearth. The man from the war department might be with them, on the receiving end of cold stares from Joseph. The servants would be making early preparations for Christmas morning breakfast. The ones who were still there, that is. He’d run into William, who had been with them for seven years, when their battalions had crossed paths a few months before.
‘Hello William,’ he’d said. ‘Fancy seeing you here.’
William had knocked on his bedroom door late one night when he was seventeen and asked whether there was anything he could do for him. Hawke had shaken his head, surprised.
‘Not a thing, thanks,’ he said.
‘Are you sure about that, sir?’ asked William.
‘Quite sure,’ said Hawke. ‘Think I’ll turn in now. Goodnight, William.’
It had been months before he’d understood what that was all about and when he did he desperately wanted to tell someone but couldn’t think of anyone to tell. It felt as if he might not come out well from the story.
‘It’s Private Hinton, Private Hawke,’ said William, when they met in the trenches, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and examining the tip. ‘We’re the same, you and me.’
He thought of goose now and roast potatoes. Parsnips, Brussels sprouts and pheasant. Mince pies, brandy butter and bread sauce. Mother asking for more wine and telling them the story of how, when she was a girl, her brother’s friend had taken her on the bar of his bicycle to the church for Christmas morning mass, a scandal from which it had taken her months to recover. Father, when he was still alive, toasting the King. The time Jane had choked on a turkey bone. The morning Joseph threw a tantrum when he finished opening his presents. Were they thinking of him now, he wondered?
Ahead of him, voices. His rifle raised again. He paused and listened, wary of German accents, harsh words, guttural sounds formed at the back of the throat. Would it be so bad to be taken prisoner? Or to be shot? He’d seen it happen so many times and it was usually over in a moment or two. It was hard to imagine that you’d feel any pain. He’d prefer it in the chest though, if it came to it. He didn’t like the idea of his head being split in two. He felt uncertain which way to go, the trees were surrounding him, claustrophobic now. He marched through; he would take his chances.
McGregor, with a red hat on his head. A Santa hat. How on earth had he found this? Oakley, not crying for once, sitting still and staring into the distance. Summerfield, handing around pieces of marzipan, a Christmas treat.
‘Anything to report, Hawke?’ asked the sergeant and he shook his head. He’d doubled back on himself. He looked down at his boots; they had betrayed him. What year was coming up? This couldn’t go on much longer, could it? It was getting ridiculous, the whole thing.
‘Thought you’d done a bunk when we couldn’t find you,’ said the sergeant.
‘Me, sir? No, sir.’
‘Only joking, Hawke. Don’t take everything so seriously. Have a piece of marzipan, why don’t you? Summerfield, come over here and give Hawke a piece of marzipan. My mother used to make it every Christmas Eve, you know. Filled the house with the smell of it. Wonderful memories.’
Hawke took a piece and chewed on it, the flavour of almond and honey sweetening his saliva. He stepped down into the trench and continued along into one of the empty foxholes, placing his rifle beside him and leaning into the wall, closing his eyes. Sounds in the distance, across the fields, beyond the stepladders and the barbed wire, the divots and the bloodied mud. Boots dancing on the duckboards. The shelling starting, the guns firing. The noise of the men as they fell down into their lines. Christmas Eve and no rest for the wicked. He grabbed his rifle again and settled the Brodie on his head. He needed to be at ladder five. No time to waste. Rockets exploded in the sky above him, one of the great free light-shows on earth. Better here than in a forest all alone, he decided, as he put his boot on the rung and climbed up, not hesitating as he threw himself over, stood up straight and started to charge.
It’s a beautiful sight, he thought, as the land lit up before him like an entrance to another world. You don’t see things like this at home.
The first thing he notices is the silence. He’s in the back of a cab, a few minutes out of Dublin airport, on a motorway he doesn’t recall; cars to the left and right of him, drivers stiff as dummies inside. And he thinks of the Mumbai expressway: day after day, people hanging out of windows, exchanging complaints or pleading with the sky. The outrage of honking horns. And the way, for all the complaining and head-cracking noise, there is a sense of something being celebrated.
Frank had known not to expect an Indian highway – youngfellas piled on motorbikes and leathery-faced old men wobbling along with the luggage on top of buses – but what he hadn’t expected was this. This emptiness.
He has the feeling they may be going in the wrong direction and, when a sign comes up for Ballymun, wonders if the driver could have misheard him. Frank thinks about asking but doesn’t want to be the one to break their silence. At the airport there had been a moment, while lifting the luggage in, when a word might have been enough to start up a conversation. But a look had passed between them for a few tired seconds, and somewhere inside that look they’d agreed to leave each other alone.
He’d been expecting the descent through Drumcondra anyhow. Had it all in his head how it would be. The escort of trees on both sides, the black spill of shadow on the road between. There would be the ribbed underbelly of the railway bridge and then, where the light took a sudden lift, a farrago of shop and pub signs running down into Dorset Street. He’d been half looking forward to playing a game of spot-the-changes with himself.
A memory comes into his head then: a day from his childhood, upstairs on the bus with Ma. They were on the way to the airport, not flying anywhere of course, just one of those outings she used to devise as a way to keep them ‘off the road’ during school holidays. They’d spend the day out there, hanging around, gawking. At the slant of planes through the big observation-lounge windows. Or the destination board blinking out names of places that vaguely recalled half-heeded geography lessons. Or outside the café drooling over the menu where one day, when Susan had demanded to know why they couldn’t just go in, Miriam had primly explained, ‘Because it’s only for the fancy people.’
Miriam loved the fancy people – passengers with hair-dos and matching clothes. Johnny had no time for them. too showy off, he said, flapping their airline tickets all over the place like they thought they were it. And because Johnny had felt that way, Susan and Frank had too. In any case, they preferred to look at the pilots and air hostesses who really were it: striding through the terminal, mysterious bags slung over their shoulders, urgent matters on their minds. Not a hair out of place, as Ma always felt the need to say.
Upstairs on the bus – three kids kneeling up at the long back window. Ma sitting on the small seat behind. In the reflection of the glass her head sort of see-through like a ghost’s. He’d kept turning around to check she was still there, with a solid head and real brown hair on top of it. Her hands were in their usual position – right one for smoking, left one for her kids: to stop a fall or wipe a nose or give a slap, depending. He’d been holding onto the picnic, the handles of two plastic bags double-looped around his wrist. Minding it and making a big deal out of minding it too, because the last time when Susan had been in charge she’d left the bag at the bus stop. A low throb in his wrist, he’d the handles wound that tight, and the farty smell of egg sandwiches along with the fumes of the bus making him feel a bit sick.
In the memory he doesn’t see Susan, and this bothers him now as it bothered him then. That was the thing about his big sister: it was a relief when she wasn’t with them, riling Ma up and agitating the atmosphere with her general carry-on. Yet when she wasn’t there, he always felt the lack of her. She was being punished, most likely, left behind with one of the tougher aunties or locked into the box room for the day. Punished by exclusion. Because as Ma would often say, ‘Slapping Susan was a complete waste of time.’ Not that it ever stopped her.
And that’s it – the memory. No beginning, no end, meaning little or nothing. Yet it still manages to catch him by the throat.
Frank leans forward, ‘Actually, that was Ballyfermot I wanted, not Ballymun,’ he says.
‘Yeah, I know,’ the taxi man grunts.
The first Dublin accent he’s heard, apart from his own, in nearly twenty years – and that’s about all he’s getting of it.
The road sign for Ballyfermot gives him a start, like spotting the name of someone he once knew well in a newspaper headline. A few minutes later they are passing through the suburb of Palmerstown and Frank is struck by the overall beigeness: houses, walls, people, their faces. At Cherry Orchard Hospital, the traffic tapers to a crawl. The hospital to the right, solid and bleak as ever and, still firmly in place, the laundry chimney that had been his view and constant companion during his three months there when he was a kid. He can feel Da now. Trying to get inside his head, shoulder up against it, pushing.
They draw up alongside the hospital gate, walls curving into the entrance, and it comes back to Frank, the lurch of the ambulance that night, the pause and stutter of the siren as if it had forgotten the words to its song. And him coming out of his delirium just long enough to see snowflakes turning against the black glass of the ambulance window and wondering how come he was sweating so much when outside it was cold enough for snow. He had asked where they were, and when the ambulance man said Cherry Orchard he’d thought it the loveliest name he’d ever heard.
The taxi man tuts at the traffic then switches on the radio. A voice comes out talking about money. Another voice over a phone line, shaking with nerves or possibly rage. The taxi man reaches out and switches the silence back on. Frank remembers now the sound of the ambulance doors whacking back and the sensation of being hoisted up and lifted into the darkness and the cooling air. And looking up into the muddle of snow, he had got it into his head it was cherry blossom falling down on him.
He must have been ranting about it all during the illness anyhow, because after he got better Da bought him a book of the Chekov play. He was a fourteen-year-old youngfella who fancied himself as a bit of a brain, mainly because that’s what everyone kept telling him. Yet he couldn’t get beyond the first few pages of, what seemed to him, a boring old story about moany-arsed people with oddly spelt names. He’d kept turning back to Da’s inscription – To Francis, my namesake, who, unlike the author, got out alive. With fondness, Frank Senior – and trying to understand at the time what the hell did it mean or why – why would his da write to him like that? Like he was a grown up, like they were strangers?
The taxi begins to move again; the cars break away from each other and Ballyfermot comes into view. Frank looks out the window. As far as he can see, nothing much has changed, apart from one modern-looking lump of a building further down the road. It looks like the same old, bland old Ballyer that it always was. Rows of concrete-grey shops under a dirty-dishcloth sky. Even the weather is utterly familiar: stagnant and damp. The threat of rain that might or might not bother to fall.
He can’t remember the address. Not the name of the road, not even the number of the door – it just seems to have fallen out of his head.
He can remember everything else though: that the road is long and formed into a loop, and that the house is on the far end of the loop, and that the turn for the road is coming up soon. He begins to feel queasy; in his gut, the Aer Lingus breakfast shifts. And he wonders again, as he wondered while eating it, what had possessed him to order it because it certainly hadn’t been hunger. Nostalgia then? For what? Sunday mornings, bunched up together in the little kitchen, steam running down the walls? Or Saturday nights when Ma and Da would come rolling home from the pub? Ma slapping rashers onto the pan. Da voicing the opinions he hadn’t had the nerve to express in the pub, hammering them out on the Formica table. Ma agreeing with each revision, laughing at just the right moment. The waft crawling upstairs into Frank’s half-sleep: black pudding, burnt rashers. Shite talk.
He presses his fingertips into his forehead, rotating the loose flesh against the bone of his skull. The skin on his face feels greasy and thick for the want of a shave, and even though his nose is stuffed from the flight, he can tell he doesn’t smell the sweetest. He should really go to the house first, clean himself up a bit. A quick shave, a change of shirt. But he isn’t ready for the family, the neighbours – all that.
‘What time is it there?’ Frank asks the driver, whose finger even manages to look sardonic when it points to the clock on the dashboard. Frank looks down at his own watch, sees that it agrees.
Three minutes to eleven. All he has to do is say, ‘If you wouldn’t mind taking the next right – just up along here.’ He holds the sentence in his head for a moment. But the car skims past the turn and the moment has gone. The taxi man speaks, startling Frank with the sudden rasp of his voice.
‘Oh. Let’s see, you know the church just up the road there? If you could just –’
‘Actually, maybe if you could, you know, pull in around the corner down the road a bit and –’
He sees the eyebrows go up in the rear-view mirror. ‘No, that’ll be fine. Down that road there, near the school, grand, that’s grand.’
The car takes the broad corner, passing the slate-grey church. Frank looks down at his feet.
The shock of the taxi fare: he feels like saying, Christ you could travel from one end of India to the other for that. He hands over a note and says nothing. The taxi man picks up a pouch and begins pecking at coins. He opens it wider and peers down into it. ‘You home for good or a holiday?’ he mutters as if he’s talking to some little creature in the bottom of it.
‘A fortnight,’ Franks says, holding out his hand for the change.
‘Listen – I do the the airport run, so when you’re headin’ back give us a shout – right? I’m only down the road. And I’ll do you a good deal,’ he pokes a business card at Frank, ‘off the meter, like.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ Frank says, ‘that’s good of you.’
The taxi man shrugs. ‘Yeah, well, business is crap is all.’ Frank slips the card into his pocket.
He pushes the haversack back into the seat, opens the front zip and edges his hand in. The haversack is bloated, the space tight. He can feel the taxi man watch as he rummages around. He pulls out a black tie, bit by bit, holding it up for a moment like a dead eel between his fingers. Through the mirror their eyes meet. The taxi man nods. Frank nods back.
On the kerbside he goes to work on his tie, slipping it under his collar, sliding the ends into place, planning the next little tie-making step in his head. He considers his entourage: one large suitcase bandaged in plastic – courtesy of Mumbai Airport security – and one bulky brown haversack plonked down beside it. His most recent mistakes scurry like mice through his head. Why hadn’t he replied to Miriam’s email, told her he had decided to come? Grand, if he couldn’t face the house – but why hadn’t he at least had a shave in the airport? Or at the very least, why hadn’t he thought to get out of the taxi at one of the pubs down the road – had a wash, a quick drink to steady the nerves, maybe even asked the barman to hold on to the luggage for a while? Why? Why? Why?
Frank stops. From the school across the road comes the flat chant of children’s voices. Choir practice. A phrase is repeated three, then four times. In between, a woman’s voice calls out, ‘Again. And again. Now and gooood.’ He imagines her lifting her hands, holding the blend of voices and notes on her palms for one perfect second before letting them slip through her fingers. Frank thinks of his first job in India when, as a young teacher, he was railroaded into taking choir practice even though he hadn’t a note in his head. His hands shaking as he tried to remember the hurried instructions the headmaster had given him. Dozens of keen brown eyes following his every move. Until suddenly he’d just got the hang of it. The pleasure then, in the power of his least little gesture. The music passing back and forth between himself and the children. Waves of sound on a small ocean. Every child bursting to please. One boy, an awkward child, had frightened him with the intensity of his emotion. His name gone now, but the face still there. The boy had his arm in a sling – he was a child who always had something bruised or broken.
Frank stands listening to the end of the song. His mind begins to quieten. He completes the knot in his tie, patting it into place.
A few minutes later he is struggling through the doors of the church, suitcase before him, big brown haversack like a chimpanzee up on his back. Frank keeps the boy in the choir in his head – the gapped front teeth, the flap-away ears, the sling on his broken arm stiff with dirt. He pushes the luggage into a back corner under the balcony floor and then steps into a nearby pew. Dilip – that was the name of the child. One day he just stopped coming to school – vanished. Nobody seemed to know where or why.
The interior of the church settles around him. There’s a chill, musty odour on the air: old incense and decades of sweat. The top half of the benches are filled with people. The last quarter empty. The bit in between sparsely populated. He glances up towards the altar – the coffin catches his eye. Too small. It seems way too small for Da. Da had been a big bloke, tall, with plenty of meat to go with it. Unless he had shrunk.
Frank sits down and begins sidling along the empty pew, moving in fits and starts, as if making room for nonexistent people behind him. He takes Miriam’s email from his pocket and reads it again.
Frankie, I’m sorry to tell you Da passed away yesterday – a sudden death. He was gone before he hit the ground so at least there was no suffering. I hope this message gets to you, Frankie. I got the address through the embassy who got it from the old school where you used to work. It’s the only way I have of contacting you. Anyhow I’ll hope for the best. Frankie, Ma is not well at all and it would mean a lot to her if you were here. She’s an old woman now and what happened, well, it was a long time ago, Frankie. Anyway, I’ll leave it there. It’s been such a time. I really hope you can make it. But try to let me know, Miriam xxx.
Frank folds the email back into his pocket and moves up another space. Maybe all men feel this way in the end, he decides, that the coffin built for their father is built for a lesser man.
Beneath his line of vision he can make out the frontrow mourners, banked together, solid and dark. Yet he can’t bring himself to look directly at them, knowing full well that if he does he won’t be able to stop himself from guessing who owns which head on whose shoulders; these people he would have grown up with, these now strangers. He can’t find anywhere to put his hands. He tries clasping them in front, then shoving them into the fold of his arms, then down into his jacket pockets. Finally, he grips them onto the bar of the pew in front.
The priest’s voice drifts into the echo. ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels …’ And suddenly he thinks he sees Susan. He gets it into his head that she’s over there, on the far side of the church, and that if he were to turn and look he would find her: hair tied back in a long black ponytail, dark-green coat on her straight Irishdancer’s back. He feels a bit shaken – disabled, almost. As if his legs don’t belong to him. His stomach is bouncing. The breakfast churns. Air. He needs air.
Outside in the grey light, he loses his bearings – morning or evening? But if it were evening, it would have to be dark by now.
In the middle of the churchyard, the hearse is waiting, big square jaw open at the back, ready to suck the coffin in. A long Mercedes car for mourners is parked a little way behind it. Two funeral attendants stand nearby, heads close together, under-breath laughter and a night-before story. They see him and break apart, soft sprung steps taking them off in opposite directions. They remind him of FBI agents: the height, the long black coats, the haircuts, the inscrutable faces. And the broad shoulders of course: coffin-ledges. The Mercedes has three rows of seats and Frank wonders why they should need so many. It comes to him, then, the whole shape of the family will have changed by now: a husband, a wife maybe; sons, daughters, nieces, nephews. Grandchildren.
It begins to rain, sharp little pins on the skin: not heavy but spiteful – he’d forgotten Irish rain could be like that. One of the attendants opens the boot of the car and begins teasing out large black umbrellas. The bell tolls, a slow funeral toll. Frank presses the collar of his jacket into his neck and moves around to the side of the church, staying close to the churchyard’s boundary wall. He notices long marks scrolled on the concrete – piss stains or rain stains, he can’t decide which.
In a few minutes’ time Da will be carried out, and he wonders whose shoulders will bear him: Johnny, the uncles, the cousins? Maybe they’ll leave it up to the funeral attendants. Not that it really matters who takes him out, who sinks him into the clay. In a short time he’ll be gone anyway. Worm-meat, as Advi once said.
Out of sight now, Frank steps into the alcove of the porch on this side of the church. A favourite spot when he was a kid: the door always locked – a place to see without being seen, to smoke and slag anyone who passed through the gate. He misses the smokes now, the company of them, the distraction they would bring.
He needs to think. But his mind is already blocked up with too many thoughts: his first monsoon in Bombay; Advi’s father’s funeral; the girl in the church with the darkgreen coat; Da’s coffin; the worms wiggling in the ground in a knot of greedy anticipation. The green coat again. He comes back to his first monsoon.
Up on the flat roof with Advi and Gopal. Stoned, of course, which had lit up the details and made everything seem oh so profound. Advi’s father not long dead. Frank not that long in India. The sky, one minute a hearth of orange and red, the next splitting like the skin on an over-ripe fruit. In a matter of moments, people on the streets below were wading through water, schoolbags and briefcases over their heads. It was high tide and across the rooftops they could see the Gateway of India being bashed by sea waves. It had looked like a ship out at sea. Youngfellas making a run at the waves, spindly legs and arms frantically waggling. After a while all visibility was lost to a thick dirty curtain of rain. They’d squeezed under the shelter, a sort of makeshift construction on the east side of the roof, Frank rolling another joint, the other two telling funeral stories. At first he hadn’t been sure if they were having him on – Advi with his vultures, Gopal with his burning widows, although by then, even just a few short weeks into his first year, nothing would have surprised him about India. Advi told them that when his father died he was laid out on a slab at the top of a tower, under an open sky. Vultures looping overhead. The Tower of Silence, this place was called. The name alone had chimed in Frank’s head. ‘You mean you don’t put him in a coffin?’
‘Oh, no, no. Just lay him out naked.’
‘Not a shroud or a blanket or something?’
‘Nope. Total birthday suit, man. Go out as you’ve come in.’
‘And the vultures actually, you know, actually –?’
‘Eat him?’ Advi said. ‘They pick the bones clean – yum, they love it. It’s the Parsi way.’
The idea had horrified Frank and he said so.
‘Oh, come now, really – what difference does it make?’ Advi asked. ‘Coffin or not? Above the horizon or below? Worm-meat or vulture-feed? We’re all fucked by then anyhow.’
It was the funniest thing they’d ever heard – or at least the dope had made it seem so. The three of them fell on the ground laughing. Advi and Gopal had rolled out from under the shelter. Frank had very nearly pissed himself, could hardly move or even see. Except for the odd glimpse through the beating rain – of a coffee-coloured face, a crescent of gleaming teeth, clothes plastered on two slender bodies, a hand reaching out to touch a blue-black head of glistening hair. And, of course, the first brief crossing of his mind that there may have been something more than friendship between his two new Indian friends.
Frank sees a man walking towards him, coming around from the front of the church, huddled into himself, smoking a cigarette. He can feel the man watching him. The step slows and now he’s standing right in front of him, uttering a cautious ‘Frank?’
A small bloke, legs like two sticks in denim; could be any age from forty to sixty.
‘Frankie, is that you? Jaysus, it is.’ The man smiles, showing a bar of brown teeth. ‘Ah, it’s great to see you it is, great you could come, man, you look bleedin’ great you do, like a – I don’t know – banker or a politician or some big bleedin’ shot anyway. How’ve you been, where’ve you been even? Like, everyone thought you were – you know – dead. Or somethin’.
The man’s handshake is weak, his voice has a womanish whine to it. Frank tries to find a place for him in his memory. A neighbour? A friend of Johnny’s? A relative then? Whoever he is, he stinks of last night’s beer.
‘Sorry to hear about the Da, Frankie, and that. I know, now, we had our differences but, like, he wasn’t the worst.’ ‘Thanks,’ Frank says.
‘I wouldn’t mind but I only seen him the other day. Ah yeah. We passed each other on the road, like. I didn’t speak to him or nothin’ but he looked great, he did, Frankie.’
Over the man’s shoulder Frank sees the churchyard filling: legs, elbows, a bloom of black umbrellas. There’s a smell of cigarettes, little hums of reverent chatter. He is struck by how big everything is: the cars, the people – especially the people.
The man squints up at the rain then edges in under the lip of the roof. He starts talking again. ‘Here, Miriam was only sayin’ about you last night at the removal and that the way she didn’t know what to do about finding you and all and she’d sent a whatyoucallit email and was –’
‘I’ve only just arrived, haven’t had a chance yet to – how is she anyway?’
‘Well, like, I wasn’t actually talkin’ to her meself, I sort of more overheard her, like. She was a bit upset about poor old Susan and that. Brings it all back doesn’t it – a funeral?’
‘Yes, yes, it does.’
‘Ah, she was a lovely girl, Susan. A bit wild, but sure so fuckin’ wha’? Here, where is it you are now in anyway – Australia or somewhere is it?’
‘India! Jaysus, what the fuck were you doin’ there? India! Ah, don’t tell me, Frank – smoker’s paradise, eh? I mighta bleedin’ known. Ghanji on the Ganges and all that – wha’?’
‘Ah, I gave that up a long time ago. I live there now.’
‘Oh. And what do you do there – like, how do you spend your time?’
‘Oh right, yeah.’
‘I’m in education.’
‘Ah, you always had it up there, Frankie.’ He tips the side of his head. ‘So what are you, like, a teacher and that?’
‘I used to be a teacher. It’s more administration now. For a charity.’
‘What, like, you work for nothin’?’
‘No. It’s – it’s difficult to explain.’
‘Oh.’ The man looks away – disappointed or embarrassed, Frank can’t tell which.
He can’t find the hearse – the crowd, the brollies have blotted it out. He’s beginning to think he’s missed Da’s exit when the murmuring voices suddenly stop and, although he can’t see the church door from here, he can tell the coffin is coming out. The crowd parts. A space is made around the hearse and at last he sees the high-gloss finish of coffin wood. There’s a funeral attendant at each side: shoulders of experience keeping everything steady. The rest of the pall-bearers are of uneven height. Something familiar about one man, the shape of the profile, the dip of the head. The coffin is hoisted then lowered towards the opened back of the hearse. It still looks too small.
The funeral attendants stand aside and he can see now that the man who had looked familiar is Johnny. He watches his brother pass through the crowd to the far side of the churchyard, joining two men by the railings. He looks old; older than he should do anyhow. Hands in the trouser pockets of a suit that is way too big for him. He doesn’t seem to notice the rain. He reminds Frank of a chicken, the way he stands, half talking to his mates, half looking around with an agitated eye.
‘For how long were you there in anyway, Frankie?’ the man says then.
‘In India? About twelve years.’
‘I thought you went, you know, after Susan?’
‘Well, yeah, I went to London first, then India.’
‘And you never went back to the old house after – you don’t mind me askin’?’
‘No, and no I didn’t.’
‘Ah, they done it up lovely after, Frankie. Brand new. Not a mark on it. Your ma does keep it like a little palace, she does. Ah, look – there’s Miriam now. Looks great, doesn’t she, Frankie?’
He sees her then, a middle-aged woman, well preserved, well dressed. A tall man beside her, obviously the husband, two tall sons who are almost men.
‘She done well for herself. Married a solicitor, she did. That’s him. Kids go to college and all. Are you married yourself, Frankie?
‘Not that you know of in anyway – wha’?’ The man nudges the air and gives a little laugh.
‘No,’ Frank says. ‘I’ve none.’
The man lights another cigarette then takes a step closer to Frank. There’s something needy in the gesture, like he’s desperate to hold on to his company. Frank looks away. He sees Ma now. He sees her standing close to the hearse, surrounded by aunties who are buckled and harmless with age. Miriam’s husband is holding an umbrella high over her head.
Ma’s face. Her face, when he sees it. Not as old as he’d expected but just as hard. A man comes up to pay his respects; she rests a hand on his arm. Her slapping hand. He can’t look at her face any more, only the hand. He thinks of it, now, as a separate entity, cleaning and polishing windows, doors, brasses, removing stains only she can see. He thinks of the sound of it slapping a leg, a face or folding into a fist to punch the back of a head. He thinks of it half drunk and slightly off kilter, flipping rashers onto the pan and later, floppy on the edge of the sofa, trying to smoke a cigarette. He thinks of it turning the key in the lock of the boxroom door, a voice above it. ‘And you can fuckinwell STAY there.’
‘Susan wasn’t wild,’ Frank says.
‘She was different.’
‘Oh yeah, well of course, of course, I didn’t mean like –’
Frank listens to the man beside him sucking on his cigarette, hawing it out in sharp, short breaths. After a minute he turns back to him. ‘Were you thinking of going up to the graveyard yourself?’
‘Ah, you know me, Frankie, I wouldn’t like to intrude and that. I’ll probably just go to the fuckin’ pub after. Pay me respects then, you know?’
Frank looks at his thin face, cold sores around his lips, skin on his hand mauvish and blotched, his lip struggling with the tip of the cigarette. ‘Look, could I ask you to do me a favour?’ he says.
‘Sure, man, of course you can. Just name it.’
Frank reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fifty euro note. He holds it towards the man. ‘Could you keep it to yourself that, well, you know, you saw me here.’
‘Ah, you don’t have to give me that, Frank, honest you don’t.’
He can see the man’s hand is trembling to take the note. Frank presses it into his fingers. ‘No, go on, really. Take it. Have a drink on me – I want you to. Just don’t say anything about seeing me.’
‘Sure, Frankie, if that’s what you really want?’
‘It’s just … I mean, I just –’
‘All right, Frankie, yeah, I know. I know. All right.’ The man scratches his face, then his hair. ‘You haven’t a fuckin’ clue who I am, have you?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Frank says.
He shrugs and lifts his hand as if to shake Frank’s, then seems to change his mind and settles on a half-salute. Frank watches him go, head down, shoulders hunched, close to the churchyard wall.
He looks over the churchyard: the arrangement of people, each to his own little group. The funeral attendants look like FBI agents again, sending out silent instructions. Everything shifts, everyone moves. There’s a sound of car doors slamming, the spark-up of individual engines. A black-haired girl in a green coat hurries across the churchyard, dashes the butt of a cigarette to the ground and hops into the back of a car. The green coat he saw from the corner of his eye in the church. Not really like Susan, after all. Nothing like her, in fact.
The hearse budges towards the gate now, the coffin inside it snug between glass and chrome: a perfect fit. The long Mercedes, filled with shadows, following behind. They pass out onto the road, skim the far side of the railings, then disappear.
He imagines the hearse, the cortège behind it, skirting the roundabout, gliding past the school, the shops, the pub on the corner, before taking the turn into the road where Da lived all the days of his married life. He pictures it then, nosing along the slow, endless curve past the squeeze of houses he’d counted every day on his way home from school and the railings he’d sat on and the gates he’d swung out of and all the kerbs he’d battered with footballs and later then, much later, the hundreds of windows behind their veils of net that had followed him like eyes behind burkhas during the black weeks and days after Susan.
He takes the taxi man’s card out of his pocket and waits for the churchyard to drain – of cars, of sound. Of people.
He’d watched from the kitchen window as the disembarking passengers made their way from the pier, some of the day-trippers stopping to hear the prices the jarveys were offering, most of the islanders sitting into waiting cars. It didn’t take him long to spot them – the couple coming past the hotel now, following the directions he’d given over the phone. They were older than he’d imagined: mid- to late fifties, probably. He’d told them to come as soon as they’d got off the boat. We won’t be too early for you? the man had enquired. You will not, he’d told him. It was almost eleven o’clock, but he’d been up since dawn, as usual.
He drew his thumb along his left cheek. He hadn’t shaved in days, but it was too late now; he’d have to do. And if they smelt drink off him, it was none of their business, anyway. They’d as good as invited themselves.
But no point being ignorant; he would offer them tea. He’d cleared a spot on the table for the two cups and saucers and the matching plates, the last of the good set with the rose pattern on them. On a separate plate, he’d spread out some digestive biscuits and Bourbon creams from the Spar. Good enough for them. He’d left his own mug over by the range, far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to see into it or get a whiff of what was inside.
Michael the man had said his name was when he rang to arrange the visit. He’d rung the hotel first and they’d passed on the number. The bould Michael hadn’t given much away over the phone. He’d said something about how his late uncle, the priest, had been fierce fond of the island and the people of the island. He was cute enough and only mentioned the other business in passing – how he’d heard so much about it over the years and wouldn’t mind having a look.
Michael had taken off his jacket and now he walked with it slung over a shoulder. He was a farmer, all right; you’d know by the go of him – feeling and looking awkward being idle on the glorious day that was in it.
The woman stopped and took a drink from a bottle of water. She turned to look down at the bay, then called to her husband up ahead and they both stood for a few moments, admiring the view of the glittering emerald sea and the pale grey and blue mainland beyond. With a view like that, people thought you must have money. That was how their minds worked nowadays. It all came down to pounds, shillings and pence. Well, by golly, this pair was in for a shock.
Now, they were seated at the table. The woman – Eithne was her name – had nibbled on a digestive. But Michael had eaten a good few of the biscuits and downed the tea. She was a nurse in Roscommon; he’d been in and out of hospitals enough to know the kind she was. He’d taken against her from the start because the first thing she’d done when she’d come in was go over to the window above the sink and look out and declare that if she were living here she’d knock out that wall and put in those French windows. The view, she said, was only fabulous.
They’d each had a good look around the room by now, in the country way, and would have taken in the piles of old newspapers, the bits and scraps from the shop and pub long ago, the cardboard boxes full of God knows what. Take me as you find me: that had always been his motto, and he was hardly going to change now.
They’d brought a box of After Eights – always a sign of meanness, he’d learnt over the years. He’d ignored it when she’d put the box down on the table, just to let them know it was nothing to get excited about. He might be able to pass it onto someone again, come Christmastime.
After the usual chat about the weather and the time it had taken them to get to the island, Michael said, “Well, you know what’s brought us.”
“You said on the phone.”
“We just thought we’d have a look,” Eithne said.
“You’ve come far enough, anyway,” he said.
“Well, it was worth it for the view, if nothing else,” she said, smiling.
“Hold on a minute, so, and I’ll get it,” he said and he got up and went over and opened the door and went into the room, closing the door behind him. This had always been the good room, but over the years the cardboard boxes and tea chests, and the piles of clothes had taken over; the light from the Sacred Heart lamp had got dimmer and dimmer beneath its coating of dust. He made his way to the sideboard, opened the centre door and took out the cardboard box. He’d only been in last night, checking it was still where he’d thought it was. He could hear the two talking in low voices in the kitchen. He’d left the stick in the bedroom – he didn’t want them thinking he was a cripple – and he had to steady himself against the jamb before he opened the door again.
They stopped talking as soon as he stepped back into the kitchen and turned and watched him carry the box towards the table. Michael cleared some of the dishes away to make space.
“Hunky Dorys,” Eithne said, referring to the writing on the box, “I remember those from years ago.”
They’d still had the pub at the time. Hunky Dorys, Tayto and peanuts were all they’d sold in the line of food.
He pulled up the two flaps of cardboard and lifted it out, still wrapped in pages from The Connaught Tribune from October, 1981. That was the month he’d gone to Dublin to collect the few possessions after Martin’s funeral. Nobody else to claim them. Not a sign of her ladyship. Fifty-two, Martin had been – twelve years after he’d left the priesthood. Would he have lived any longer if he’d stuck it out?
The landlord had been in an awful hurry to clear the place and he’d almost missed the tartan holdall. That was where he’d found it later – wrapped in a towel at the bottom of the tartan holdall. He’d thrown the whole lot into a suitcase and taken it back down on the train and out on the boat. Most of the stuff was useless, only fit for burning or dumping, but he’d stuck it in the box and hid it in the scioból, in case the mother might see it. (Lord help us, but she was bad enough as it was.) You’d think Martin would have had the decency to wait until she was gone, at least.
Now, Michael reached out and lifted it off the table. “Gosh, it’s heavier than you’d think.” He turned it around slowly. It was badly tarnished, no doubt about it. “Imagine that,” Michael said, his voice quiet.
“Oh, isn’t it beautiful,” Eithne said.
The two seemed genuinely taken with it.
Michael tilted it and ran a finger along the inside. “You could nearly smell the wine,” he said.
“Hardly, now,” Eithne said. “Here,” she said, reaching out to take it.
“It would have cost a fair few bob in its day,” Michael said.
“You can bet,” Eithne said. “Look at all the detail along the rim and the base.”
“The workmanship is tremendous,” Michael said.
“You said it,” Eithne said. She put it back down on the table. “Well, there you have it,” she said.
He said nothing, waiting to see when they would show their cards.
“I’ve heard tell of it over the years,” Michael said. “From the parents, and from Father Kevin himself. But, look it, they’re all dead now, God rest them. Every last one of them.”
“That’s the way,” Eithne said.
Father Kevin: that was the bastard’s name. It was Father Kevin who’d come to the island that summer long ago, looking to improve his Irish. He’d stayed in their house, this very house, for a month or so. The mother thought it was great, having a priest under the roof. The meals he got! He’d taken a shine to Martin – not in that way, mind – and somehow had got it into his head that Martin had the makings of a priest.
Martin had always been the delicate one and the mother had fretted over him and how he would make out on the island. The sean lead didn’t take much persuading. It was clear from early on that he never saw Martin – though he was the elder – running the shop and the pub. And what else was there for him to do on the island. “We’ll make a man of him,” he’d overheard the bould Father Kevin saying to the sean lead. And indeed they did!
The killing thing was, it was he, not Martin, the teachers in the National School had always singled out for his Irish and English essays. He was the one getting the top marks in Maths and History. But he was too busy that summer to be sucking up to the priest; he’d been off out in the boat with Peadar Jimmy most of the time, fishing for lobster and crab. Next thing he knew, Martin had the cardboard suitcase packed and was heading off to the boarding school down the country.
One thing for sure, Martin wouldn’t have drunk the place into the ground. And he wouldn’t have sold the licence to Aldi in Galway in the end, either.
“Awful sad, really,” Michael said now, “the way things ended up.”
He said nothing in reply to this. But, maybe now, he thought, we might be getting somewhere. Eithne was looking towards the window, where the sky sat blue and plain, as if she had decided to stay out of things; or was biding her time, more likely.
The silence seemed to make Michael uncomfortable, forcing him to speak again. “Not that you can blame anyone, I suppose,” he said.
Well, he thought, for a start you could blame that bitch of a woman that lead Martin astray and then fucked off when he got sick. And that fucking uncle of yours. Now that he remembered it, wasn’t there a framed photo of the good Father Kevin somewhere in the house still. Wherever the hell it was. They could take that away with them free, gratis and for nothing. Now that would be a good one!
“When Father Kevin presented your brother with the chalice there on his ordination,” Michael continued, “I suppose nobody could imagine what happened would happen.”
(He’d be a good man in Macra, no doubt about it; well able to talk shite all night.)
“Why would they,” Eithne said.
“Father Kevin was fierce upset when he left,” Michael said. “Stop!”
“I suppose that’s only natural,” Eithne said. She looked over. “I’m sure your family were upset too.”
He nodded. “They were,” he said. (“God has surely put a curse on this family,” his mother had said when they finally told her. She had never got over it to the day she died.)
“In them days, I suppose, it was unheard of,” Michael said. “When you look at it, though, it took courage.”
“It certainly couldn’t have been easy,” Eithne said.
“No way,” Michael said. “To leave when he did.”
“It was the sixties, wasn’t it?” she said.
“1969,” Michael said. “A different Ireland.”
“It sure was,” she said.
They were silent then. From outside came the sound of seagulls shrieking.
“Gosh, it’s so peaceful here,” Eithne said.
In the distance now, they could hear the clip-clopping of horse’s hooves. “That must be one of those jarveys we saw,” Eithne said.
Michael nodded. “Must be.”
Then before he knew it, Eithne had taken the yoke out of her bag. “You won’t mind if I get a few photos, I’m sure,” she said, and before he could say anything she was pointing the yoke at the chalice.
Michael grinned over at him. “You can do anything with them phones they have these days,” he said, seeming a bit embarrassed.
“There,” Eithne said, holding the yoke up to show Michael.
“Grand,” Michael said. “Perfect.”
She slipped it back into her bag. “I suppose we should go and have a look round the island, now that we’re here,” she said. “It’s way too nice a day to be stuck in.”
“That’s right,” Michael said. “Let this man get on with things.”
The two of them stood up together. He got to his feet now, as well.
“Is there any place in particular you’d recommend us to see?” Eithne said.
“Ah, sure, we’ll see what’s to be seen,” Michael said. “The boat isn’t until six, anyway.”
Eithne made a move towards the door, but Michael lingered behind. “All we’re asking is that you have a think about it,” he said, glancing towards the chalice.
“I suppose what Michael’s trying to say….,” Eithne began.
“I think he knows well what I’m saying,” Michael said. “Come on.”
He followed them to the door.
“Isn’t this just glorious,” Eithne said, as she stepped outside.
“Well, thanks for the tea, and everything,” Michael said.
“Not at all,” he said.
“Bye now,” Eithne called, waving from the gate.
Michael stopped at the gate and pointed to the overgrown hedge laden with red flowers. “What’s this you call this again?” he said.
“Fuchsia,” Michael said. “That’s what I was thinkin’.”
Eithne waved again from the road.
“The best of luck,” Michael called. “We’ll be in touch,” and they were gone.
He shut the door and went over to the range and took a gulp from the mug. He hadn’t sent them packing at all, he’d let them go. They’d slipped through his fingers. But they’d be back, more than likely. But they needn’t be expecting another céad míle fáilte. He’d make sure of that.
No doubt they’d have a story to tell when they got home. The old man living in squalor on the island. You should have seen the state of the place, he could imagine the woman saying. A sad case, your man would say.
He looked over at the chalice on the table. He had known Martin hadn’t been cut out to be a priest from the start. But Martin had been taken in by all the shite – the fancy boarding school, the colourful vestments, the pomp and ceremony.
If it had been him, not Martin, would things have been any different? Would he have stuck it out to the end? The women would have been a problem. He had seen it himself – some of them fussing over you, others leading you on in ways. He’d often told himself he’d have had no problem getting a woman if only he’d had a collar round his neck.
There was worse. He might have gone the other way. He sometimes wondered would he have been one of the ones you see on the television every so often. Men in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties, even, with the hoods of their anoraks pulled tight or with scarves wrapped around their faces as they are lead away from court. Could he honestly say he mightn’t have ended up like one of them?
He went over to the table and lifted up the chalice. It was the first time he’d ever really looked at it. He rubbed the silver hard with the cuff of his jacket, seeing if he could get a shine on it. He turned it upside down, studied the hallmark imprinted on the dull metal. It had to be worth a few bob. But, soon as he felt up to it, he would take it out and bury it in the ash pit. They could go to hell. He raised it up in front of his face, held it so the cold rim was touching his lips. He could get the taste of the wine, surely.
Paprika – Frank McGuiness
If you were to put a gun to my head and demand I tell you what I believe to be the loveliest aria in all opera, I think I would surprise you. You could not guess my answer in a million years. I can hear obvious choices being recited. Perhaps you would be able to show off and tell me it is some hidden piece buried in an obscure work you chanced upon hearing in some little village festival you stumbled across in the wilds of Ireland or in the reclaimed wetlands of some Dutch province. Maybe I too came upon this wonderful gem and am sent here to agree with you, to confirm your choice, to prove that as in my own art there is fate, a force of destiny intent on bringing us together, we who share such an esoteric taste in beauty.
You would be wrong to assume so. I take no pleasure in closing that gate to you. I do not allow you to enter, invited through to my room – make yourself comfortable, kick your shoes off, you know what we like to listen to in it. But you cannot be my welcome guest for you don’t have permission to come into my house, my company. I do not give you the key. I do not know who you might find prowling there, walking the feet off himself, tiring the day and night out of his limbs so that sleep might at least – a little sleep might even be possible. Who knows what exhausted breathing might follow your footsteps? Who might be on the very brink of expiring in your arms should you dare to cross my threshold? Better to be refused entry – to be denied any access. So, as I say, I do not give it to you and already I owe you an apology for misleading you.
This is how I madden my friends. I make a statement that I am about to reveal something about myself – then I stand back at the last minute and say nothing. It is an appalling habit. Perhaps it accounts for my coldness. For why I rarely married. Women’s flesh now bores me, and men’s has always disgusted me. I live apart. I am honest enough to admit that I prefer the sound of my own voice. Am I alone in making clear that preference? When it comes to my voice, am I flattering myself when I say it is in demand? I shall not bore with the names of leading companies where I have performed and continue to perform. There is a type of singer whose list of roles is their sole topic of conversation. You can hear their soprano sweetness even as I accuse. A little of that company is sufficient. Whatever else may be made of my arrogance, I can argue I learned my lesson well from these ladies. I avoid talk about opera when I can.
I admit this is because I find so few people capable of interesting me on the subject – they simply lack the verbal accuracy to speak with any degree of intelligence about music. It descends almost always into what I truly despise: gossip, which is all most criticism comes down to, if truth be told. The squalid daydreams of some silly queen longing to try on some diva’s frock, masquerading as the lush lyricism of a Puccini expert, dying to expire as Butterfly, pining onto death for his Pinkerton. Then there are the academics. The odour of pipes, the grey of their beards, the rot of their teeth and breath, the unreadable analysis, the technical mysticism, all of it hiding the deepest ignorance, all of it disguising the simple truth – they do not understand their subject. Inevitably, by their side, the not quite pretty girl or boy, accompanying the ageing master, ever ready for the ride, the kamikaze screw that will disfigure them for life, disfigure them sufficiently to take up the teaching profession.
That is why I make a point of never thanking my teachers. I have been known to race from funeral services rather than to shake the hand of any one of them. I once risked nearly jumping into the open grave to avoid these creatures. I would certainly never go to any of their farewells. I did hear of a Jamaican professor whose relatives insisted his mourners, family and friends, his former pupils, actually dig the earth he was to lie in – I do not fancy dirtying my soft hands in that way. Certainly not for anyone who wasted my time and energy. They all know this. I have never received even a word of congratulations from that jealous shower. It is not that I need nor have looked for such encouragement. I presume my quote, made in an interview, deeply offended. I dared to say I succeeded despite them. Yes, I know it is the kind of predictable joke a clever schoolboy might crack. I was never acknowledged to be clever as a boy. I was never considered special in any way. My instrument was judged to be merely promising, and not especially so. There were fellows in my class who were expected to surpass me. They are now teaching beginners. So, if it were a juvenile insult, I am the happier for that. Really, do they need to take it so seriously? I heard – believe me, I so frequently heard – that I had hurt them. Well, it was my intention to do so. They might have believed that as I aged I would mellow and recover the modesty they had so abused in my childhood and teenage years, suffering under their complacency, learning what took me too many years to discard as utterly worthless in my pursuit of my full voice, my full soul and self. They could whistle for all I cared. Not my way, I’m afraid. Not my style.
And what is that? I like perfection. And, to me, the perfect piece of music, the one I would most like to sing – it is in the very opera I came to deliver in the Big Apple. This is not my first Otello. I shall not reveal to you how many times I have sung it. It is obvious there are only so many performances one voice can despatch in that role. Suffice to say, I am not within spitting distance of that total. There is life in the old tar yet. It is imperative to let your Iago and Desdemona know this. You do so by allowing them to believe that for all your fame, your reputation, your stature, your size – you are a jolly fellow, you are a good sport. I tell them, truthfully, my favourite aria is the Willow Song, Desdemona’s pathetic cry before she is strangled, as she remembers a maid called Barbara, a girl martyred by a lover who has now deserted her and left her to go mad. I am naturally not alone in adoring Verdi’s genius as it caresses and disturbs me through that shattering lament. But there must be, I am sure, few celebrated tenors who for the amusement of their fellow troupers can sing it. It is quite extraordinary that now, in my hefty fifties, I can resort to a near parody of my boyhood’s beautiful voice – even the threatening break – the disfiguring – I can make an uncanny fist of it.
Piangea cantando nell’erma landa,
Piangea la meste.
O Salce! Salce! Salce!
Bravo, Iago praises. Brava, the conductor smiles to correct him. Desdemona throws back her golden hair and sings, ‘O willow, willow, willow!’ Does the silly bitch think I cannot translate salce? Then I speak, asking, as Desdemona does, who is knocking at the door? In ridiculous falsetto, Iago answers as Emilia does, ‘E il vento’, it is the wind. I resume my boyish brilliance.
Io per amarlo e per morire.
Salce! Salce! Salce!
I eye Desdemona. I wait for her to translate. ‘I love him and I will die. Let us sing, let us sing, willow! willow! willow!’ I wait in vain. She is strangely quiet. She joins in the generous applause, but she alone knows I am not joking. She will perform this exquisite hymn to female weakness. The house will listen to a woman abandoned, perfectly pathetic. Then I will arrive onstage, her ravager, her rope around the neck, the beautiful twist and chain of neck, the weeping face, the eyes darkening beneath the pillow. She will not fear that I might actually kill her. No, she will see in my own eyes, hear in my voice that I mock her. I have more regard for my mockery of the role than her sweet relish of its music. I would make a better Desdemona than she could ever sing, bound and big as I am, perfectly cast as Otello. It is my mission to destroy this woman, throttle her, leave her voice shattered, changed beyond recognition for the rest of her career. Desdemona is born to die, and I know how to do it, how to be her killer, sing her to death. That is my job. She knows it as well. That is why, when I finished my mimicking party piece, all through rehearsal, she never takes her eyes off me. So attentive is she to me, I am sure word must be spreading through the scandal-addicted orchestra and chorus, there is surely about our attentions all the signs that an affair is beginning.
There isn’t. Our soprano was considered to be a beautiful woman, but I had tired of beauty. I had even begun to dislike it. This was when I was friends with a photographer – in those days I was not choosy. He could wield a camera like a butcher’s knife, cutting girls into glamorous glory, and yet the man was effectively a eunuch. He hated the female of the species. I was most fascinated in his many affairs when they were ending. He would begin to remind these women incessantly that they were ageing. He was deeply in love with the speed of his vision. He would tell me in wonderful confidence when each love was on the point of collapse. He would start to profess to her that he had always confused love with sorrow. The women would begin to receive a rose that had started to wither. It would be delivered at exactly the right instant of her discontent with him. Then he would vanish from her life. Vanish completely, even though he’d tied the knot with a few.
All right, I was that man. In those days I did dabble with a camera. But I had no ambitions there. I shared the secrets of my love life to a sympathetic couple in their restaurant – Hungarian – where I would eat alone, scorning any company but that man and his wife. She was first to notice I’d put on a little weight. But my voice was improving as my girth was gaining. For a man who loathed cliché, this one of the fat tenor I actually enjoyed. Still, she advised me not to grow too heavy. She passed on to me an old Danube secret. Sprinkle paprika, as much paprika as you can tolerate, on everything you eat. That controls your diet. You will eat less. Again, it had the opposite effect on me. I had found my addiction, my potion, my elixir. I could not get enough of it. Smear a chicken with paprika. Inside and outside. The flesh cooks like the sun. I’d devour it. The spice seemed to break into my bones, my blood, my brain, into my singing, so that it burned with warmth, it loved the sound of itself, it healed the sick and the lame, it fed the multitude of five thousand after five thousand, and had plenty left to feed five thousand more. I had never tasted such a dish. Had never enjoyed such success. Place a plate of an entire bird, a feast of chicken paprika – its breasts, its legs, its wings – I will eat it in one sitting, and for my supper I will find notes of such fulfilment, music of such thanks, a voice you will drink like the reddest, purest wine, quench your thirst with the sweetest, most fragrant white. And I can do this with the lovely, natural means of paprika – doses of paprika – my spice, my drug, my magic. I could not do without it. The food, the weight suited me. Yes, I grew, so did my art. Music more and more marvellous. Offers more and more frequent. Roles increasing in demand. Paprika – it did me no harm whatsoever. I sang my soul – I do believe a singer must bare his soul. Blacks are right to call their music soul. Although they weren’t black, the boy and girl, lying on Fifth Avenue, making strange moan.
That is where I saw them, he lying against a yellow wall of an apartment building. She had her head on his stained lap. I was walking from the Waldorf – I know it has gone down, but I still love the old girl, gliding through that golden foyer, the bar’s strong, stinging martinis, the bad manners of the rude staff – none of that has changed, and, strangely enough, in New York, that city of constant crises, I like stability. That’s why I enjoy walking everywhere. And I adore its opera house. On my first engagement, the doorman confused me, asking if I were here with the construction company doing extensive renovations on the building. That was a joke grown soon stale, sorry was I to have cracked it only once, but never let forget it. Now in the bowels of the Met, grown so familiar I might as well have built its nooks and crannies, I love to trawl through the labyrinths of corridors, so marvellously easy to get lost in, its highways and byways, able to stroll for miles through the ghost city buried beneath the Lincoln Centre, giving what might be my best performances as I serenade the dust and the dead I sense are hiding in that haunted building. As I ramble there, I imagine I sing to my dying father, that enormous man grown thin, eaten by Alzheimer’s, endlessly trekking through the prison of his hospital, remembering what he alone could remember, starving to death, demanding he’d dine on nothing but long forgotten food and drink, wishing to give up his ghost, for life was now nothing. I hope he could listen to me pour my heart and soul out, knowing he is dead and hears nothing. He is only cinders and ash.
When I myself die I would like my ashes to be thrown into the Met’s great fountain. I would like its towering waters to be the only tears shed for me. I have found that mourning is a desperate waste of time. My parents would both have agreed with me on that. We’re born, we breathe, we die, we’re dirt. It is utter nonsense to feel the need to grieve. We should all be cut from tougher rock. Wailing is ridiculous. It is what theatre – what opera – was invented for, so we can dispense with such conduct. The stage is the best place for such behaviour. Weeping is written out for you. You perform, and the task of tears is done. Sorrow is finite here. It is efficient. It is clean. You make your song and dance, and that’s it over. That is why it would be so convenient if I were to pass away on stage in New York at the grand Metropolitan Opera. Of course that shall not happen. Life is never that lucky. And I have had my great share – my more than fair quota – of luck – my paprika – it has granted me, that sacred powder, all I can wish. Do not ask for more.
What were they asking for, the boy and girl in the street? What was the crying boy asking? What was his girl listening to, as she sleeps by him, her dreams the stuff of the boy’s delirium? Could he be on something? I know nothing about drugs. I detest any lack of control. If I am to admit any addictive weakness, let it be solely paprika. Natural, nourishing, gentle as milk. I would feed it to these hungry children, but they would spit its goodness back at me and even might turn this goodness into something wickedly infected with the saliva of the damned. Is that what they are? Is it some demon who moves through them? I could not tell for sure. The boy’s voice was one long litany, a list of gibberish, unrelenting, pouring from his shaking head, her a bag of silent bones, still, always still, asleep on his knees. To my shock I started to believe that his voice was singing in Russian – could it be Russian? No, I could now decipher it was English. He was definitely speaking in English. For some reason I reckoned I should be afraid of his nonsense.
Die boy die stupid fuck
You father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
Do this favour
Bred into you
Be hard honest we are honest
He touched my throat
My father forgive
The bastard denied me
Me chapter and verse
Help me please
Do you know what the smell is
Shitty pissy smelly bastard
Being asked if children sure I do
It turns me
Your child turns
Why not ring
They answer things
Who is she on my lap
Red hair all short
She is who I am
We recognise you
Die boy die stupid fuck
You father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
I am walking to the New York branch of Fauchon, my first port of call in Paris, that shop where food is the rainbow, the pot of gold, myrrh and frankincense, all bright with tastes. Hell, I’d pay fifty bucks for a pint of its milk. So much do I adore its delicacies, I’d smear myself with its mustards, perfume myself with its oils – fuck it, since I gave up sex, the place is my porn site, there is where I get my hard-on, so I thread through its pleasure dens slowly, daily, all those classy French people, sitting in Manhattan, sipping coffee. Could I place something brown in the bottom of those fancy little cups, and make them drink paprika, then they would stand up and fill the air with good cheer, blasting into the neighbourhood the news that I am like them, well-fed, content, searching for – searching – looking for – what? I know what I look after. What I must look after. I am a sensible man, who must look after his throat. His precious jewel. His bread and honey. I must stock up on honey – superb for the voice. The jams, the matchless sweet nougats. Now that I more or less disdain drink, they are my reward after the opera. The reason I adore nougat is that I associate it with my childhood. It was cheap as tuppence then. I loved its white chew with the pink stripe through the white. As a child, I could put it between my teeth and pull – such pleasure. My teeth then were white and my tongue pink. I had to use my tongue and teeth to sing. The boy and girl I noticed on Fifth Avenue, were they turning into something pink and white? Turning into me? Into my father? My father, he used enter me in talent competitions. The boy and girl, to the best of my knowledge, they do not beg. If I did well in these competitions, my father would stay sober – that was how he rewarded me. I’ve convinced myself this young couple is harmless. My father knew how to make his son feel wanted. The cops do not move them on, despite their frequent noise. But if I failed – if the winner were to be decided by the audience – if the volume of their applause did not merit me the winner – some pretty tootsie won their fickle heart – then I would feel the tightening of my throat as I heard them decisively limit their appreciation of me, by far the best voice on that stage – and my father would side with them, angry at my desperation. I want to cross the wide avenue to avoid that pair. My father put it down to my lack of preparation, that’s why I lost, and he’d see to it I would not eat tonight. I do vow, tomorrow, when I take my daily exercise, I will pass them by on the other side until I reach the confectioner. Then I will feast on French sweets.
Their pleasure does not drown his disapproval. He will – I still hear him – voice his – voice – hear his voice. He tells me I am a fat, ugly boy. I take after my mother in my grossness. She too had a sweet voice, so-so, forgettable. When he looks at me, when I fail, I am her son. He tells me, I would disown you if you could not sing. Even your singing will disappoint me. We all know your voice will break. It will vanish. Like your fat, ugly mother, it will be no more. It will die. I start to laugh at him. I hear my mother in my laughter. We will continue laughing at this fool of a father. Sing.
Die boy die stupid fuck
Your father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
I stop. Why am I singing this in the middle of Fifth Avenue? Why are people looking? Where are the boy and girl who protect me in this savage town? I have come out without protection. Without paprika. I am at the mercy of my Magyar advisers. What should I do? They say, sing. Go to the opera – sing Otello. That’s what you’re paid to do. Do it. They talk sense. I do obey. I eat some paprika.
Was I not in such good voice tonight? I question myself because the inevitable compliments from my Desdemona and my Iago are particularly sincere this evening. I know of one ancient lady, now long dead, who had a sure way of unsettling anyone, and letting them know how she would do it. If you were good, the bitch would find some way of upstaging you – a slight cough, a ruffle of a dress, even, if things were going seriously well, a sneeze. If you were bad, she would be still and listen. This night, the pair of them were still as still can be. Perhaps I flatter myself. It was not at me both were looking, nor were they listening to my good self, for in true theatrical fashion, they have surprised everyone. She is an item, with him, and I rejoice for both, particularly her, as I have now had time to study her mournful beauty. Shakespeare described his Desdemona as a white ewe, and myself as a black ram tupping her. With her lengthy face that could be measured in feet if not furlongs, she does have the features of a hungry sheep. Tonight in the Willow Song her voice soared into the tiered echelon of the opera house – the yellow from its gold reflecting like a thousand wedding rings, all threatening to distort me from what I am. Her rendering is greeted with some applause, sympathetic in its way, although I am sure many are willing the strangulation swiftly on its way – a tough shower of bastards at the Met. Ask that of a certain celebrated couple – if you can endure the breath of one. Which, I cannot say, but the Atkins diet does not entirely agree with everyone. All denials have their consequences.
I am scraping Otello’s black from my face when temptation struck. What if I did not wash the colour from my body? What if I were to walk out of this dressing room into the silver light of Columbus Circle, my darkness still intact? What if I were to shuffle back to my hotel, a black man in his native city of New York? No, that does not make sense – why would a New Yorker be staying in a hotel when he has a home to go to? What if I were to pretend I was instead a visitor but I come from – where? Make it Washington. I’ll hail a cab and ask my bro to show me from the back of his taxi the sights of this magnificent city. I tell him I too drive a cab. This is only the beginning of a serious bond between us, sharing our liking for ladies, knowing what we both mean when we say we like our queers to keep their distance. This leads to tales of failed marriages out of which spring clever children who will someday, God willing, do their daddies proud, and the mamas who reared them – we are big enough to acknowledge that. We also acknowledge our flings with white girls we betrayed because we could not help doing so. We wonder what happens to them, wishing them only luck. We end the night shaking hands, palm against palm. We say we’re good guys. The best. By the time I have fully planned this escapade, I am white again. The make-up is removed. I am safe to face the world.
It is a mild night in New York. How rarely that occurs. It is a sure sign something is to happen, something that I cannot control. I give myself to the mercy of events. I cannot stop what comes my way in this perfect weather. Relieved, I will walk the shiny streets of Broadway. Who was ever fool enough to believe they were paved with gold? Well, me for one. And I still do. Beneath the rotten, broken pavements, there are rivers of precious metal, a liquid mine of every mineral, some never yet seen before, and that river of Hades rather than the Hudson is what has truly made New York what it is today, the city where we can be what we want to be. I suppose I should be grateful for the dreams it allows me to possess. Millions of others would be, but I have no thanks, for now all the city does is remind me that dreams are my duty, wishes are my work, and my art is hard slog until my voice breaks again into the crackle of old age and I am forgotten. Then everything starts to fade all about me. I stop recognising where I am. The streets’ neon signs turn to blue water and wash them away. The revels, the carnivals of Times Square do not sound in my deafened ears. I may as well be in the Australian desert as here, so parched and cold is the night. I see the great glitter and glamour turn to rack and ruin. The buildings, once so handsome, so virile, have been flattened into dead men. But I know how to walk about this apocalypse. I know where to find food, drink and shelter. It is now very, very late, but in this wilderness many shops open for twenty-four hours. I will soon come across one. I must have been walking miles, but in this town it is always squares and circles, so I have not strayed too far from my hotel. Indeed, at a distance, who can I see?
It is them – there they are – my little twosome. Both on their feet now. Him this time the quiet one, her gorging her thirst from a bottle of whatever is her choice of poison, as they say in London. And she is loud, screaming some snatch of a pop tune, letting the neighbourhood – no, the whole world – know, you’ll never get to heaven if you break my heart. Her voice hideous. Her face a mess of freckles. Her red hair dirty as he is dirty, they sway, and he laughs as she screams, look, look who it is – look, I told you I saw him. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t believe he would come to us, but I saw him, he did come, look. She points me out to the boy, the fat man, the fat man with the beard. Santa Claus. It’s him, she runs to me. The boy is now roaring with laughter. Santa – Santa, she calls out. She puts her arms around me. I hurl her aside as if her arms lanced me. I open my throat. I give her my voice at full, terrifying blast. Fuck you don’t touch me. Fuck you never touch me. Do not dare touch me.
She is silent for a second. She looks at me as if I’ve ransacked the breath from her body. As if I’ve sliced her face in two. As if I’ve taken her favourite doll and smashed its plastic head in. Then her wail breaks. Filth bursts from her lips. You fat dick. You ugly queer. You piece of pervert shit. I know you – I know what you are. Cocksucker – cocksucker. I know what you do. Fat fucking dickhead. I know where you live. I can tell the cops. I’m going to tell the cops.
She now resumes crying. He joins in, and in duet they label me, in so far as I can decipher, cocksucker, dick and, many, many times, motherfucker. But then, in a voice, clear, strong as my own, the boy warns me again: I’ll get the cops, you’ll see. You’ll be sorry, I’ll get the cops. If my career has taught me anything, it is to avoid hysteria everywhere but on the stage. It is unseemly as … as hunger. It is my mission to quell its pangs, and I know how to do so. I carry about my person always a small, plastic portion of my charm, my protector. Paprika. It is what I pour on that red skull, that freckled face, staining it even more orange, telling her, be calm, my child. I christen you Paprika – henceforth your luck shall change, you and your charming lover. The demon who possesses you, I would free you entirely of his powers, but that cannot be, for mankind is bound to suffer. We are born to suffer. Let me bless you with the shadow of my dust. Become my little helper. Protect your sacred self with most holy spice. Here for you is gold, frankincense, myrrh, call them paprika, devour it. Anoint all your senses. Cease your lamentation. She yells. The fat fucker’s blinded me. What has he put into my eyes? It’s burning the sockets out. What has he done to my eyes? I look into her ugly face. She is now pleading to her boyfriend, has he blinded me? If he has, don’t let me live. Why did you let him do that to my eyes? If I can’t see, end my lousy life. Fucking end it. Just put me down – please, put me down.
I am now well ahead of them. I sneak a look back. She is sobbing in his arms, the sobs mingling with the chant of fat fucker. He reassures her about getting the cops. Their faith in the New York Police Department is not infectious. I feel more than safe enough. I leave them to their revenge. No one could connect me with that pair of tramps. I am a respectable gentleman in an expensive overcoat, his silk blue scarf wrapped wisely around the exquisite instrument of his throat, walking to my suite in the Waldorf hotel, having done a good night’s work playing more than a little proficiently one of the most demanding roles in opera. I look for no more credit nor recognition than that. If I had reacted – if I had engaged in any way with those dangerous children I glimpsed – if I had allowed that vermin infest me – who knows what trouble would have followed? And yet I still hear her cry. Put me down – please, put me down. I do believe she moves me to tears. I am sore tempted to sing back.
Io per amarlo e per morire.
Salce! Salce! Salce!
To interrupt would be bad manners. Let the little one have her moment of glory. I am not a vengeful old woman. I keep my silence and stillness even if she is good at this outburst. I will not mock nor push myself centre stage. I will let her weep her heart out. I will console her. I will do as certain tribes in Africa do for women wronged beyond remedy. They are led in scarlet procession to a tree that weeps. Then she may die nobly by her own hand using her red tresses as a rope to break her unfortunate neck. Neither man nor beast shall lay a claw on her corpse. Left to the exposure of the benevolent sun, its light shall turn her flesh to gold. But this gold does not last. And it turns, not to rust, but to paprika. In smearing her thus, in telling this, I forgive her. Perhaps I save her. So I let her weep. Salce, willow, salce. Willow, salce, willow.
The photographer is back. He is a long-legged, skinny young man in a black polo neck and black leather trousers. A black cap is pulled low on his forehead and as the afternoon light fades, he scuttles around my sitting room like a spider, knocking over my potted orchids.
‘Over here, Mrs Kelleher. Hold it, hold it . . . That’s the one! Now looking towards the conservatory please . . .’
A camera – also black – obscures most of his face, the lens a giant, glittering eye.
The baby stirs in my arms and makes a snuffling noise. Since I got home from hospital, I have been photographed more often than Angelina Jolie on Oscar night. There is no red carpet, only this ugly blue one with orange swirls. Maurice brought his mother with us the day we chose it. She said that it would ‘wear well’.
Milk is leaking from my breasts. I button up my cardigan to hide the stain that is spreading across my blouse. The baby can smell the milk – clever little thing! – and starts nuzzling for a breast.
‘Eyes to me, Mrs Kelleher.’ Now the photographer is on his haunches beside the coffee table, pointing the lens with the menace of an AK47.
Geraldine hovers in the doorway, keeping an eye on everything. She has had her blonde bob blow-dried and is wearing bright red lipstick. In her hand is a copy of Maurice’s campaign schedule for the election. Geraldine is Maurice’s right-hand woman. His Girl Friday. ‘Geraldine,’ he says at least twice a day, ‘what would I do without you?’ And then he slaps her on the back. Or, if he thinks I’m not looking, on the backside.
Earlier, I heard Geraldine talking to the photographer in the hall. ‘I want a close-up this time,’ she said. ‘It looked like any normal baby in those other photos.’ Geraldine is chasing the Disability Vote. The Diversity Vote. The Parents at the End of Their Rope Vote. Even Geraldine does not dare to call it the Sympathy Vote.
She drums her manicured fingernails on the doorframe. ‘Don’t mess up this time,’ she says to the photographer. ‘Just five days to polling day.’
What is it that Maurice says about Geraldine? Ah yes. She takes no prisoners. It is one of the things he likes about her. Geraldine is always telling people not to mess up. To Get. It. Right. God knows what she must think of me. I hardly got it right, did I? Four years of IVF treatment. A Down’s Syndrome baby at the age of forty-three. Still, with just five days to polling day, Geraldine has found a way for me to be useful. Maurice’s campaign is languishing; the seat is no longer considered ‘safe’. For the first time in eight years of marriage, my husband needs me.
Geraldine is coming at me across the carpet. ‘Sorry darling, but we need to see that baby.’
Darling, indeed! It’s Mrs Kelleher to you, I want to say. Mrs Maurice Kelleher and don’t you forget it, young lady. Instead I say: ‘Her name’s Siofra.’
‘I know.’ Geraldine is tugging at Siofra’s blanket, pulling it back from her face.
‘It means changeling,’ I say, ‘a baby swapped by the fairies.’ I look at her, daring her to say something, but Geraldine knows when to keep her mouth shut.
Maurice appears in the doorway. ‘Is that what it means?’ he says, ‘I thought it was something to do with flowers?’ Maurice’s clothes hang looser on him these days. He is on a diet and the stress of the campaign, too, is taking its toll.
‘No,’ I say, as the photographer circles me, ‘it’s nothing to do with flowers.’
Maurice comes to stand next to me, puts an arm around my shoulder. I catch a glimpse of us in the mirror above the piano: husband, wife, baby. The perfect family tableau.
‘Siofra’, Geraldine says and my daughter’s name sounds foreign in her mouth. ‘A good Irish name. Just what we need, five days from polling day.’ And for a second I am sorry that I did not call the child Britney.
Oh Siofra. My little fairy! There is no denying that she has magical powers. When people look into her pram, it is as if their tongues have been cut out. Their mouths twist uselessly for the words people say to normal babies. Grown men back away, their smiles fading. Nobody says ‘congratulations’. Nobody says much at all. Apart from Maurice’s mother. Maurice’s mother says it’s only to be expected at my age.
Geraldine is young, of course. In her late twenties or thereabouts. Oh all right, she’s twenty-seven, will be twenty-eight in September. She left her purse in the kitchen one day and I took the tiniest peek. The photo on her driving licence was from a few years back. Her hair was longer then and she looked . . . I don’t know . . . less severe. There were the usual credit cards. Loyalty cards for a coffee chain and a hairdressers. And tucked away behind them all, a photo of two elderly people who might have been her parents. That surprised me.
What was I doing when I was twenty-seven? I was living in a bedsit in London with my best friend Emily. Dear daft Emmy with her Curehead hair and purple lipstick. I had a job in the stockroom at Tesco. At the end of every shift, I would fill a bag with bruised strawberries, over-ripe bananas, crushed plums. Emmy and I would sit in the park, juice dripping down our chins and running through our fingers. We would watch everyone go by and laugh as if life would always be that sweet and that funny.
I hear the clatter of feet in the porch, hear the front door open and close, footsteps in the hall. The campaign workers are making themselves at home in my kitchen. They turn on the radio and I hear them chattering as they make tea. I don’t mind. It’s good to have noise in the house again. When I came home from hospital, you could have heard a pin drop. It was as if there had been a death. I almost expected someone to stop all the clocks.
Of course, it was a death of sorts. That girl Maurice dreamed of walking down the aisle on her wedding day? She died. And the girl I imagined meeting for lunch when she was an architect? Or a cardiologist? She died too. There is a whole procession of dead girls. We bury a new one every day, Siofra and I: all these stillborn sisters.
The photographer has finished and Geraldine sees him to the door. I sit on the sofa with Siofra in my arms. Evening is settling in, there is a faint chill in the air. Maurice fetches a shawl and places it around my shoulders, then perches on the edge of the sofa.
Maurice can be kind sometimes. He can still offer comfort. He has never sought to deny me this baby: this baby that I wanted at any cost. Not once has he reminded me of that day in Eason’s cafe when I told him, no, he wasn’t enough. And in the dark hours when I cry and rage, though he no longer kisses me, he holds me and strokes my hair. Maurice’s own hair has grown greyer these past few months, there are bags beneath his eyes. He is my husband but I cannot think of one single thing to say to him and so I concentrate instead on Siofra. She is sleeping now, her chest rising and falling in tiny, almost imperceptible, breaths.
With my finger I trace her barely-there brows, her paper-fine eyelids. Maurice reaches out too and when his hand brushes against mine I draw back as if burned. His hand comes to rest by Siofra’s eyes: those beautiful eyes with their treacherous slant. I watch his rough, calloused fingers skim the edges of her long, dark lashes splayed over porcelain skin. He misinterprets my frown. ‘They can do all kinds of things nowadays,’ he says, patting my knee. ‘We’ll get them fixed when she’s older.’ Then he goes into the study after Geraldine.
The sofa sucks me in, inviting sleep, but I am snatched back by a burst of the national anthem. It is Maurice’s mobile phone, fallen behind a cushion. I let it ring out. But as soon as I have done that, I start to feel guilty. My conscience begins to niggle. What if it was something important?
I take the phone in one hand, holding Siofra close with the other. She is like an extension of my own body. All the fairies in the underworld couldn’t steal her back now. I look at her and know that I would fight tigers for her. I would fight Geraldine.
I go down the hall to the study. The door is slightly ajar and I don’t knock, just nudge it open with my hip. I have surprised them. They are not at the computer but are standing by the window that looks out on our raggedy back garden.
They are both fully clothed, of course. It is just five days to polling day. And yet there is a nakedness too. Geraldine does not look like Geraldine. Her face is gentle, vulnerable, as she raises it to Maurice’s. Maurice’s hand is poised mid-air as if he was about to brush her hair back from her forehead. When he turns, there is something different about him, something that I cannot quite place. A thing that is new and at the same time strangely familiar, like a fragment of a dream that is lost on waking, yet lingers at the edge of consciousness. I say nothing, just turn and go out of the room. I am halfway up the stairs when I remember what it is. That thing that is different about Maurice. It is love.
I manage to strap Siofra into her rock-a-tot in the back seat of the car without waking her. As I drive down the Stillorgan dual carriageway, the sky is darkening to violet, the particular dusky violet of a baby’s eyelids. I have the stepladder in the boot. I do Mount Merrion, Foxrock and Cabinteely first. I make great progress. Even Geraldine would be impressed. I have brought the knife that Maurice’s mother gave us last Christmas and I am gouging out the eyes on the election posters. Not all of the posters. Only Maurice’s.
The blue lights are gaining on me and the sirens are so loud that I am afraid they will wake the baby. I put my foot to the floor but the squad car is alongside, gesturing at me to pull over. I stop on the hard shoulder and roll down the window. The Garda is young, about Geraldine’s age.
‘Step out of the car please, Mrs. Kelleher.’ He is nervous and who can blame him? ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he says, ‘It’s an offence to deface an election poster.’
‘I’m not defacing them,’ I say. ‘I’m fixing them.’
Other cars are arriving now. Men holding cameras jump out and run towards me. They are all over me, jostling for position, flash bulbs exploding like tiny, dying stars.
‘Over here, Mrs Kelleher.’
Out of habit, I turn towards the camera. I take a hanky from my sleeve and I dab at the cut on my face where earlier the barbed wire caught my cheek as I scaled a ditch in Cabinteely. I shake the worst of the mud from my shoes. I run a hand through my tangled hair and I pose, slightly sideways, toe pointed, the way I have seen Geraldine do.
And then I smile. It is, after all, just five days to polling day.
What good is this? Mother asks nightly, and gestures about her. What good is any of it, with nobody to share it? Oh, Augustine, she wails, my Augustine! And brandy slops from her bulbous glass onto her monstrous lap. A portrait of my father hangs apologetically above the living room fireplace; she sits at an angle from it in a hard high-backed chair and contorts her neck backwards and upwards to regard him censoriously. I nursed you through three illnesses, she says, and my reward is to be here, alone. My oil-on-canvas father avoids her eyes, preferring to gaze balefully at the crumbling cornice. She swings her eyes toward me and allows her pupils to dilate, as though to focus on me would be to acknowledge my existence, diluting her argument with my father’s image.
Mother’s friend Reeney organised the first Welcome Night. She booked a medium-sized conference room at the Radisson Hotel and nobody came. I think Reeney forgot to distribute her leaflets at the reception centres. Mother and Reeney and her blank-faced sisters and Reverend Black and a group of press-ganged dancers and musicians sat before a table of apple tarts and sandwiches and assorted cordials and Reeney tutted and sighed and pinked and reddened and eventually gave up and instructed the surly serving staff to clear everything away, there had obviously been some misunderstanding. Mother was ecstatic, she was replete, energised, on the drive home. The. Whole. Thing. Disastrous! Not one foreigner! How would they even have gotten out there from the city? And the shrill glee in her laugh made my eardrums vibrate.
Mother organised the second Welcome Night. In the Protestant Young Men’s Association hall on Athlunkard Street. People came, of various shades. She counted and catalogued and licked her lips, almost curtseying to the more regal Africans. She unwittingly inverted people’s names, addressing them by their surnames. Reeney gently, discreetly corrected her and Mother thanked her through gritted teeth. She poured tea and tepid coffee into mugs from giant flasks, and words into the embarrassed silence. She asked whether they were Christian or … otherwise. What is otherwise? a man asked. Oh, you know, Islamic or some such, Mother replied. What is sumsuch? the man asked. I think he was ribbing her, in a playful way, but it was hard to read his face, the stony blackness of it. He reached out a massive hand for Mother’s proffered tea, to stop the terrible rattling of cup against saucer, I think. He sang a keening song of long, unwavering syllables at the end of that night, and clapped and hooted wildly at our Irish dancers, and Mother declared herself his friend, and declared her night a victory. There were people there, at least. Real live refugees. That was the first night I saw Hope.
Hope travelled from France to England on the Eurostar in the summer of 2008 in a car with a man to whose friend she had given three thousand pounds. She was told she still owed seven, and would have to work it off. She travelled across England and Wales in a lorry driven by a silent man, lying on his narrow curtained bunk, and to Ireland across a stomach-churning sea, and to Dublin in the back of a white van with flowers painted on the side. When her trafficker slid the panel door back she kicked him in the testicles with all the force she could muster in her half-starved, dehydrated state. Force enough to dump him on the pavement, moaning. He sounded like a dog about to die of thirst, Hope said. Mweeeeh, mweeeeh, mweeeeh, she mimicked softly, and laughed, and looked in my eyes and through them and into the centre of me and I laughed with her. Work THAT off, she said to him, and stepped over him and ran away. I fell in love with her as she told me that story.
Evelyn. You have a girl’s name, she said. I laughed and told her how as a teenager I considered my mother’s naming of me to be an act of violence. My schoolmates needed no nickname for me, just a chanted elongation to keep time with their blows: E-ve-line, E-ve-line. I never fought back, just curled myself tightly on the ground. I didn’t tell Hope that part. I asked my mother once why she’d called me Evelyn. Waugh, she said. The humourist. Waugh was a man, you know. Anyway, it was your father’s idea. Her raised eyebrows and downturned mouth said that was an end to it; the matter was not to be raised again. She knew I knew the truth.
I told Hope I would support her application for asylum. She thanked me and told me there was no way to do so. She knew the system, it was almost the same in every European country: form- filling, refusal, appeal, refusal, deportation. Except here there is more welcome nights, yay! And she raised her arms in mock celebration and laughed and looked in past my eyes and I sat rigid, priapic, praying she wouldn’t notice. Her legs stretched sweetly out from her, creamy- brown, viciously muscled. Her firm breasts strained the fabric of her light summer dress. I wondered how it would feel to be kicked in the balls by her.
I drove to Galway and scoped out hiding places; hostels and cheap hotels where cash would be unquestioningly accepted, where long- term arrangements could be easily, namelessly made. I read ads in the Advertiser, for cottages on the coast, in the mountains, in the cracked and cratered Burren. I found a renovated cottage thatched with reeds and daub on the midway of a boreen that led to a tiny sheltered bay. I doled fifty twenties into a callused hand and was thanked in Irish. I vainly searched my ancient memories for the words for You’re welcome. I drove home filled with a feeling of lightness, of freedom, a taste in my mouth of delicious exile. Hope was sitting cross-legged, absorbing the sunlight, on the steps of the reception centre. I don’t know, she said. What about your mother? I cannot love a man who will mistreat his mother.
Mother’s bladder loosened itself as she climbed the stairs that evening. She made her way onwards in deliberate oblivion, leaving an acrid trail of thin wetness on the cream stair carpet. What message was there for me in that haughty pissing? She turned from the landing and her swollen cheeks were dissected by tear tracks. All of her was leaking. You go, she said, and leave me here, and you may stay gone, my fine boy. Oh, she could see me now. I had told her I was going on a speaking tour with my father’s books. Ha! she said. Who would want to hear about that … flimflam! That … weasel’s … pornography! It’s all arranged, I told her. Well, and a sob flew wetly from her, unarrange it. Please, Evelyn, I need you here. I almost believed her.
Hope didn’t like the car I had hired. Why not a Mercedes? Everyone drives a Nissan. My mouth dried as I drove and no amount of water would moisten it. We need to be low-key, I explained, to meld with the background. Meld! she spat, Ha! We stopped in Spiddal for petrol and food. The counterman was gruff and regarded Hope darkly. You see, she said as we drove away, everywhere I am watched, suspected, hated. She stood still before the cottage, looking at the mottled thatch. What is this? A hut. She turned and pierced me with her eyes and I felt my desert-dry mouth open and close again soundlessly. The low wooden door was stiff; she sighed as I struggled and pushed past me, entering the dark cottage with an exaggerated stoop. She unbuttoned her coat and stood in the kitchen and said It will do.
Do you think I will let you touch me, because you have brought me here, hidden me away? Do you think I’m your slave? No, no, I whispered. I just love you. You don’t have to do anything. I cooked a stir-fry and she sat silently across from me, looking past me through the window at the darkening sky. My throat constricted, my stomach clenched. My cutlery rattled against my plate. I’m sorry, I whispered. For what, she whispered back. I didn’t know.
I lay that night on the broken springs of a musty sofa-bed and thought of Mother and the duty I was leaving undone. To care for her into old age, to see her to the end of her path. I imagined her lying prone and buckled at the foot of the stairs, soaked in brandy and blood. The sound of Hope’s soft, long breaths floated from the bedroom. I imagined the warmth of her body, the nakedness of it, feet from me. I imagined her anger if I appeared at her bed and woke her. I imagined her softening in the sunlit morning, walking hand in hand with me through the salty breeze to the sandy cove at the end of the boreen and saying Yes, this is good, we will stay here a while. I imagined her lips on mine, our mingled breaths. I said a childish prayer and wondered if my father could see me, and what he would think of me now. If he would say Go home to your mother, you fool. Or, Well done, my son, now you’re a man. What had I done, really, but fall stupidly into unrequited love and make a promise to save a woman from deportation that I couldn’t possibly keep? My money would be gone inside six months. Hope thought I was rich. I let her think it. I thought of Mother at her best, laughing, calling me Ev, her blue-eyed son, before she fell to drink. Fell.
The rent for the cottage was paid for a month. I left a small bundle of notes on the trestle table before the fireplace. The heavy door, swollen from the damp air, scraped again on the threshold and shrieked as I pulled it open; Hope stirred, then appeared at the bedroom doorway, silhouetted in moonlight. My breath caught in my throat, the shape of her. She saw the money and knew I was leaving her. I set my face to the dark world outside, to the moaning wind. Evelyn, she cried behind me as I started the engine, Evie, please.
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