In a sparkling evening on Wednesday 25th November at the Double Tree Hilton Hotel, the Bord Gais Irish Book Award 2015 winners were announced including the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year.
The 2015 shortlist included 2014 winner John Boyne, and featured in addition to Donal Ryan, Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Kevin Barry, and Paul Lenehan. Donal’s story is the title story from his stunning new collection A Slanting of the Sun. Here’s the blurb:
An old man looks into the fearful eyes of a burglar left to guard him while his brother is beaten; an Irish priest in a war-torn Syrian town teaches its young men the art of hurling; the driver of a car which crashed, killing a teenage girl, forges a connection with the girl’s mother; a squad of broken friends assemble to take revenge on a rapist; a young man sets off on his morning run, reflecting on the ruins of his relationship, but all is not as it seems.
Donal Ryan’s short stories pick up where his acclaimed novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December left off, dealing with the human cost of loneliness, isolation and displacement. Sometimes this is present in the ordinary, the mundane; sometimes it is triggered by a fateful encounter or a tragic decision. At the heart of these stories, crucially, is how people are drawn to each other and cling on to love, often in desperate circumstances.
In haunting and often startling prose, Donal Ryan has captured the brutal beauty of the human heart in all its hopes and failings.
The perfect gift, this collection is a must read for every short story writer. Pick your your copy online here!
Read Donal’s story below:
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan
I knew well that boy hadn’t it in him, from the very first second. Every part of his face and head was covered by a black mask, bar his eyes and mouth. It was his eyes gave him away. I knew he was young by the cut of him: the legs of his tracksuit pants tucked into his socks, the bit of bum-fluff I could see sprouting through the pimples above his lip. I could hear Michael crying inside in the kitchen; they had him dragged in there from his room and he sitting up straight and tied with a rope to the back of his chair and his hands up high behind him. The noise of him was cutting and slicing through the air. I was lying on my side at the top of the stairs without the power of myself, and the boy was standing half the way up the stairs so that our eyes were about level. Mine were sideways and full of tears; his were the right way up and shining. With fear, and something else, I didn’t know then what. Drugs, I supposed, in that first moment. I had a fair dig already got from one of the fellas that had turned over my room and dragged me out as far as the landing and were now interrogating my brother. I could just make out the side of Michael and the pose of him in the chair. All I could think as I looked at him was: That’s the straightest he’s sat in donkey’s years. And there was me and that young lad, facing one another, and both our hearts crossways.
Michael and myself had nearly that whole evening given over to composing an ad for the Ireland’s Own. God, we had great sport doing it. We had the finished article left on the sitting-room sideboard, folded in two, awaiting an envelope. Several drafts were balled up inside in the recycling bin. Several more were burnt in the fire. Michael was kind of embarrassed starting off the writing of it, but once he settled into it he knocked great fun out of it. Lord almighty, says he, what’ll land up to the door? I’d say now you’ll have to meet the first time in a hotel lobby or something, I told him. Oh, says he, sure yes, of course. And he nodded and smiled at the thought of it, and removed and replaced his spectacles several times in quick succession, and rubbed his cheeks in pleasant nervousness.
I think this is near enough word-for-word what we decided on for a finish for Michael’s ad.
Bachelor farmer, retired, quiet, mannerly, respectful, RC, NS, SD, Mid-west, own car, early sixties, likes walks, country and western music, some dancing, WLTM similar lady of any age, preferably younger, for friendship and maybe more.
RC is Roman Catholic. NS is non-smoker. SD is social drinker. We got them from a little box at the bottom of the page of personal advertisements. Michael said wasn’t it a pity we had no computer, the way we could send off the ad by the email. I allowed it was, if only to save paper. What about it, says Michael, probably we’re as well off. Those yokes only draw trouble. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. But I agreed away all the same and he went off to his bedroom across the hall smiling and I stayed up and smoked two or three more fags and listened to the murmur of him saying his prayers.
There was a silence inside in Michael, like a space where nothing existed. A hole, kind of, or more than that. A vacuum, isn’t it, where an empty space hasn’t even air in it? Some would just say it was loneliness, a longing for a sharing of his days with someone besides his older brother. More would contend he had a want in him. He did, but not in that way that they meant. He was forever trying to fill it in, cover it, with prayers and going to Mass and helping out in the parish and what have you. Night after night he gave whispering up at God, reams of words written by saints and holy men, imagined things, if only Michael knew. I’d never have disabused him of his holy notions, but I knew the hollow centre of those things, the untruth of the Word that gave him such comfort, the conceit that was attached to it, invisible to Michael and his fellow believers.
I often walked the road home with vicious thoughts bent into the shape of my mind. Of women with tight skirts hiked up and bunched at their hips, bent forward before me, and torn stockings and redness in their faces from a mingling of pain and longing and I’d cut over across the bottom meadow to the stream and stand in the ruts of the tracks of cattle hard from frost and look into the water and up at the sky and wonder why such torments invaded me. Why such natural thoughts turned in me to such unnaturalness, why any god would create a creature such as me. It was those days that the truth of myself and of wider things started to come creeping clearly to me: that there was something twisted and cruel existing unwanted inside in me; that the world had neither god nor devil in it or over it; that humankind wasn’t commanded or battled over or even thought about by any divine or lowly thing but we were all only accidents of the meeting of flesh, flesh wrought from the meeting of tiny things wrought by a chance slanting of the sun, things without meaning or rhyme.
From this remove now I can consider those moments on the night of the robbery far more clearly than before. I don’t shake as much from the recollecting and my breath doesn’t catch and turn jagged in my throat so that I feel I might suffocate. There was a shadow all the time after on the wall and floor that seeped back out through the paint and the plaster. Where the blood of my brother splattered and splashed. A young cousin of mine scraped off the old paint that had the blood on it and sanded the wood of the floor and varnished it and laid new paint on the wall. And back came the shadow through the new paint and varnish. So my cousin took away the old plaster and took up the boards of the floor and re-plastered and re-floored and still the shadow rose through from below and when I told him he just put a hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes not unkindly and I saw in his face the certitude of my madness. I could nearly hear him telling his wife: Poor Alphonsus. He’s gone as mad as a brush ever since. Ever since. And their thoughts must surely then have turned unbidden to my fallow fields and the uncoined worth of them and the subvention that might be available to them for the new nursing home away over in Lackanavea.
The Kilscannell Robbery, it came to be known as. Talked about like a story, a made-up thing, a sort of a legend. It sounds like the name of a Western said that way. The Kilscannell Robbery. And isn’t that really all it is, a story? It only exists inside the heads of people; it can’t be grasped or touched, only rendered in guesses and surmises, people saying I’d say this and I’d say that. And for me it’s a story too, of Michael’s terrible ending and of that young lad and how he looked at me and the pain in him as he watched me watching down along the stairs and through the kitchen door as a hulk of a man with a familiar darkness in him drew back his hand again and again and roared and screamed the same question over and over in time with his blows. Where’s the money, where’s the money, where’s. The fucking. Money. The Credit Union, Michael whispered with the tail-end of his breaths; it’s all inside in the Credit Union, every penny, and he said he was sorry, sorry, sorry and he slumped forward as far as their binding of him would allow and he died there in his bloody pyjamas in the hard high-backed chair he’d bought in as part of a set in hope or expectation of the arrival into our home of someone who’d appreciate or admire such things.
And I wished the paralysis would lift from that masked boy and that some fountain of anger or strength or badness or desperation would spout from within him and empower his arm to bring down upon me his weapon, the hooked thing in his hand, the wheel-brace or toothed crowbar or whatever it was he held – I only saw it through the blurriness that veiled my eyes whenever I turned them away from my brother. Sort out the other cunt, one of his mates had shouted to him, and he’d come all shapes the halfway up the stairs to meet me, prostrate on the landing. He never knew his own soul until that moment; I saw the knowing descend on him. He never knew the distance between the imagining of violence and the doing of it.
The only movement of him I could see was a trembling. Even his eyes were still, but shining all the while. The leader of them hadn’t yet laid into Michael, and the thought about the strange sight of the straightness of Michael’s poor back was still fresh and foolish in my head and all of a sudden I knew all there was to be known about that boy. It was the very same as if I was looking into a mirror that reflected only what was inside of a person. I was visited by a new kind of clearness I had never once possessed in all my days. Maybe that’s the way of epiphanies: that a man must be at his most desperate before they bless him. Not that I counted myself blessed in that moment, lying without the power of my legs or control of my bladder, with no defence, at the mercy of madmen, and a child before me being chased by the Fates towards a precipice.
I was never able to do the things that I thought of doing inside in my head. I never had the boldness to close my hand on twisting chance. Whenever the wind blew right for my desires I hadn’t my sails set. I was resolute in my unpreparedness: designedly I sat becalmed and drifted, away from opportunity. I knew myself. But this same self-knowing that I gained in sorry increments over a lifetime was descending all at once on this boy as he stood on our ancient stairs, though what he was all of a sudden coming to see inside himself was different from what I had discovered inside in me. There’s a lot to be said for an eventless existence all the same, where knowledge can be gradually gained, examined and tested at leisure, coped with and brought more easily to terms. While standing in a high meadow burning gorse, or looking at a hurling match, or watching from a distance the bare shoulder of a woman and the thin line left white where a strap of some garment had held off the sun. A slow, drawn-out facing of the truth, a lifetime of gentle revelation.
But no such ease for this boy. He was being crushed under the weight of his discovery. He knew now in this sudden stillness on the stairs of the house my father’s father built that he wasn’t like his savage comrades: he hadn’t what he saw as their strength, their bravery, their careless fists; he wasn’t able to look with derision on an old man lying in his own water with his mouth opening and closing in silent pleading and spit on him and beat from him the whereabouts of balls of imagined money. And he had only seconds left before he had to separate his back from the wall that had been thrown up unexpectedly behind him and if I’d had my voice I’d have told him, Don’t worry, son, you are who you are, go on back down to the scullery and take down the biscuit tin from the top shelf that’s tucked in behind a load of empty marmalade jars and there’s a Visa card in there and the number of it is nine-seven-nine-oh and you can draw out as much as you want out of it and won’t that placate the other two and you can buy yourself a bit of time that way to put distance between yourself and this life you’re trying to make yourself live and you can go somewhere and be good, the way whatever set of chances that brought you into being meant you to be.
What design is there, though? The killing of Michael started then and still the boy stood and flinched each time a roar sounded followed by a wet thud and after a long few moments he looked back over his shoulder and the borders of flesh I could see around his eyes and mouth were paler again when he turned back and the trembling of him was even in his legs. And the dark man was in the hall now and his comrade was a shadow behind him and I couldn’t make out what he was screaming up at us for the loudness of it but I think it was Do him, do him, do him to fuck will you, do him, and I saw the boy’s lips move in the shape of I’m sorry and a tear fall from each of his blue eyes and his arm swing back and over his head and down and the night came falling in.
And when all that was done and they were gone and I rose out of that darkness, I tried to move myself to untether my brother and lay him down the way he’d be respectable-looking, the way he’d wish to be, but I hadn’t the strength to crawl from beneath my blanket of pain and it was the end of the morning before my cousin came in through the door and found Michael dead and me not far from it. And I couldn’t bide long with that shadow haunting my days and for a finish one frosty morning some tiny dam inside in my head gave way and the workings of my arms and legs and tongue were drowned in blood and I was carried here to this home and I won’t stir too far from this bed again until they carry me to the flat-roofed mortuary that’s appended to this place, itself like an unmoving limb.
My carer comes in here even on the days he’s not down to be working at all. He doesn’t let on at all but I know. I heard that shrieking shrew of a matron one day and she interrogating him outside in the corridor. What in the name of Jesus do you mean, coming in here and you not rostered on? Well, I was doing nothing else and I kind of promised Mister Reilly I’d stay going with that book we’re reading. And she tutted and huffed and shot something at him about how he needn’t think now he’d be getting paid for it and no overtime had been approved by Upstairs and he said Oh God no, I’m here as a visitor, and she clomped away, still giving out as she went.
And as he reads, slowly, stumbling on the odd word, I feel relief that he’s here, and a joy I never felt in all my days, and a peacefulness, and I allow myself the warm foolishness of imagining that we are father and son. I look at his blue eyes and I think how they’re the same, the exact same, as they were the day they first met mine on the stairway, except for that feverish light is gone from them. He’s calm now, in the knowing of himself, making his reparations. And though barely a word has ever come between us that wasn’t read by him from the pages of a book or a newspaper, we know one another the same as if we had a lifetime gave in one another’s company. And I sit still, and I watch his eyes as they cross the pages, and I love him.