writing_ie-logo

  • www.inkitt.com
gerry-chaney-interviews-header

Magazine

Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2019

w-ie-small
Article by Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin © 26 November 2019 .
Posted in the Magazine ( · News for Writers ).
writing.ie

The An Post Irish Book Awards found a new home last night in Dublin’s Convention Centre, and this year the event was even bigger and more glittery than ever! With #ReadersWanted projected across the walls, 600 authors, publishers, publicists, agents and editors gathered to celebrate the Irish book industry. Stunning is a silver dress, Miriam O’Callaghan presented from the stage and Evelyn O’Rourke was tucked away in the green room doing those crucial post winner interviews. We were absolutley thrilled with the winning short story – the shortlisted six were a tough bunch to choose between but Nicole Flattery’s story ‘Parrot’, from The Stinging Fly, took the trophy. You can watch the full awards show on RTE 1 at 11.15pm this Saturday night (23rd November 2019).

Presented by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie, this award is in its seventh year and previous winners are Billy O’Callaghan, Donal Ryan, John Boyne, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Orla McAlinden and Roisin O’Donnell.

Read the full 2019 shortlist here, and check out the authors who made the long-list – the winners of the future! – here

All the shortlisted ladies! Orla McAlinden, Andrea Carter, Amy Gaffney, Louise Kennedy, Laura Blaise McDowell and Nicole Flattery!

And here is our winner:

Nicole Flattery winner of the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award for “Parrot”pictured with Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin at the An Post Irish Book Awards on Wednesday, 20th November 2019.

Parrot by Nicole Flattery from ‘The Stinging Fly’,

Issue 39 Volume 2, Winter 2018-19

When she thought about the second woman—and she had distantly when she’d been younger; how her life could potentially be upended by someone she didn’t know—it was always with a sort of black amusement. And when she said things that were improper—lines about her current situation that were just slightly off, the dry delivery of which was the reason why her friends were her friends—she had to admit, if only to herself, that she never imagined she would be the second woman.

That afternoon, still within their first six months in Paris, she went to an art exhibition. Exhibitions were something she was trying, attempting to adjust to: their sophistication, their unique shush. She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum. She was not alone. The boy was with her, suspended from school for the day, a fact to which he was largely indifferent. At only nine years old he had learned to handle disappointment and failure with the sort of grace that, in her early thirties, still escaped her. He set the tone for the afternoon, ignoring her under the pretence of looking at paintings of nondescript benches. In a corner of the exhibition, there was a cage with two stuffed parrots. The woman spent an unnatural amount of time staring at them. They seemed as if they had been there forever, loving and admiring each other. How could they leave? They were behind bars. Nobody knew what happened in the tiny parameters of their cage.

Recently, at a dinner party, with her husband’s new colleagues she had—seized by the closeness of the couple, the sudden tininess of their Parisian apartment—explained that at home, in the Irish countryside, all of the houses were built far apart, with long driveways, so you could easily get away from your family. She did the smooth, fluid motion of a driveway with her hands.

‘They are legally obliged to be that way,’ she said.

Afterwards, she felt stupid, like she had revealed more than she intended. The woman half of the couple, wearing heavy, intimidating jewellery that implied intellectual heft, suggested that perhaps that was only in her family. Perhaps, she agreed. Therapy, she considered, as she flipped through the art books in the gift shop—their pages full of unnerving, confusing beauty—was also something new she could try.

As they walked back through the city streets, the October cold not wholly unpleasant, the boy sloped two steps behind her, but in her eyeline, always in her eyeline. As they strolled, history announcing itself at every corner, she answered a call from her mother. Since they had moved, her mother rang a lot and spoke at her usual steady stream, like she was being held hostage and needed to get all the information out before her throat was slit. The woman understood this way of speaking only after she became a mother herself. She would barely be recovered from one of these conversations when another would happen. Her mother was retired and bored. What was she supposed to do now? What was she supposed to do in that house? Just thinking about it made her want to get another job.

‘Don’t do that,’ the woman said, ‘start going to exhibitions. I’ve just been to one.’

‘I thought you didn’t like art.’

‘I don’t like artists. There’s a difference.’

When she let herself and the boy into the apartment they were renting, all the apartments built discreetly into the architecture of the city as if to obscure the fact that families lived in them at all, there was a notice on the front door. It was a picture, not unlike those in the exhibition, but less celebrated, of two cockroaches, one on the left, one on the right, with X’s running vertically through their bodies. There were some words promising there had been cockroaches and now they were gone, or there was an ongoing effort to get rid of the cockroaches. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t read or speak French. Later, in bed, with her husband, under crisp, ironed sheets, she tried to sleep off the possibility of cockroaches.

‘I love you,’ he whispered.

She blinked anxiously in the dark, as if trying to identify something. ‘Go easy on that stuff,’ she advised him.

 

*

Maybe the problem was that she was tired. She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out had exhausted her. She remembered the final meeting, her prepared speech about why she was leaving, the made-up family reasons; then interrupting herself; then, finally, silence.

‘You should leave if you’re unhappy,’ they said.

‘I’m unhappy because I don’t think I belong here.’

Nobody begged her. It was cute that she had tried in the first place. She put the sculptures she had made in her first year in her parents’ garage and her mother used them to hang up wet clothes.

This was a serious decision but she didn’t know it until a few years later. She stayed in Dublin to work, sharing shabby rooms with a series of men. Through these relationships she wanted to prove something, prove that she was still complicated and interesting without a degree, but there was no time. She was too busy picking up after her boyfriends, making disappointed faces, listening to them complain about the inconsequences of their actions. She felt like a mother forcefully pushed on stage in a farce, with only an apron and a spatula. Why wouldn’t they let her commit the delinquency she knew she was capable of? Why was she always standing next to the delinquents, apologetically shaking her head? All these relationships ended the exact same way, with circuitous conversations and dully rational arguments, as if both participants were politicians lobbying for their own happiness. Denied even heartbreak and animosity, the modern emphasis was on the demonstration of respect, however insincere. In her last relationship, before she met her husband, he respected her so much he let her pay for everything. ‘This is respectful,’ she thought as she paid their rent, as her credit card hit the illuminated screen again and again. When he ended it, she felt like she had been mugged—mugged of money, but also of time.

‘I still respect you,’ he said.

‘I don’t care if you do or you don’t.’

‘But I do,’ he said earnestly, ‘I really do.’

She was so tired.

He moved his stuff out and she continued doing the scrambling necessary to staying alive; working two jobs in the city, her personality dissolving into small talk. The cost of travel, the cost of lunch, the cost of being young.

She met her husband in an office where she was a temp, the irony not lost on her, irony never lost on her. She treated these temp jobs like cocktail parties, draping her sparkling self across surfaces, trying to dazzle in a limited amount of time. He devastated her with the ease that he saw through her. He filed away her exaggerations, her evasions, the playfulness that was beginning to curdle into meanness so he could eventually embarrass her—a child in an adult place. When, one lunchtime, through a mouthful of sandwich, she laughed at a man in the office, because every office must have someone sad to laugh at, he frowned at her.

‘That man is depressed.’

‘How do you know that?” she asked.

‘How do you not?’

She drafted an email where she declared it was up to her what she decided was funny. Instead, she offered to buy him a drink. She hadn’t meant what she said. She explained, in careful email language, that she was beginning to suspect she might be a bad person. She had dropped out of college and there had been a number of other severe and deranged fuck-ups. Several weeks later, nudging, overly-friendly correspondence passing between them daily, he kissed her for the first time, his hands touching the back of her neck. They always went to the same B&B, the same room, fringed lamps and light curtains. It was like an affair made on an assembly line, everyone playing their part, following a strict pattern. No poetry, no sunlight on the bedsheets. The only surprise was when she found, unbelievably, like discovering a hidden room in a house, that she was in love with him. They only had one discussion about his wife, and it barely qualified as a discussion. She was ill and had been for a long time. Her illness would never be over. He had done everything he could. She believed him, not because he was a man who could ever be accused of heartlessness, but because he looked like someone who had begged and cried and tried to reassemble and done everything he could.

 

*

The winter in Paris, two days before Halloween, grew harsh and the woman’s lips cracked what felt like audibly. She was concerned strangers on the metro could hear, as if her mouth was a strip of velcro to be peeled open and closed. She knew she should be worried about presentation, in a city that demanded presentation, but she sloughed the dead skin off, forced her teeth into the supple, comforting grooves. Smiling was the only communication available to her and, overnight, it had turned ugly. Still, she continued smiling, amiably, like a tourist, like a secretary, like a combination of both—a tourist’s secretary.

She was called to the boy’s school, English-speaking, private, already more than they could afford, at least once a week. She went because she wasn’t working and for other, more defiant reasons. The school was a monstrous structure on a street of other dutiful buildings, including a police station, their insides deep and hidden. The boy had behavioural problems, concentration issues, the whole catalogue. She had humorous lines prepared about how they were more alike than they knew, how she might be his mother after all, but the teacher never gave her a single opportunity. Every Monday or Friday, the woman sat in a child’s chair and struggled for a position that lent her some dignity. She could offer nothing concrete—that his behaviour would improve or that she would insist it improve. Her presence there only promised she would be at the next meeting and the meeting after that, all the way to graduation and beyond. And although it made both her and the teacher uneasy in a way they couldn’t articulate, she had to come in to prove her worth, her plans to stay.

He had been caught stealing from another boy’s pockets.

‘Maybe he was just curious about what was in the pockets. Curious,’ she repeated, hopefully.

The teacher gave her a stern look, violently shrinking, and the woman wondered who educated these people, schooled them in disapproval. ‘That wasn’t it,’ the teacher said. She was from London and had a soundless way of communicating disappointment. Their relationship never moved beyond professional; they never hinted at their personal lives, as if any friendliness might cause embarrassment the next time they saw each other, and there would be a next time.

The woman pulled a face that was also learned, perfected from years of bad relationships—let down but doubtful of change.

‘I will speak to him,’ she said, finally.

On the metro, hurtling home through black tunnels, he sat beside her, always content in her company. He kept up a steady chatter about school as if constant talk could distract from his misdemeanour. She was familiar with this trick. If she ever tried to grab his hand, he shook her off. He never allowed her to touch him. When she watched the other mothers exit through the school gates—in their discreet, mother uniforms; this city believed in uniforms—pushing their sons’ hair back from their eyes, casually shepherding them, her mind raced with thoughts of self-improvement. She should try to be gentler, less agitated, learn to make small talk in another language, or even her own language. Become someone a boy might want to touch. It seemed as if her whole life, from the age of thirteen onwards, had been geared towards that rotten desire and now the world had come up with a genius way of punishing her.

She tried to tempt him into a pastry shop, bribe him into confessing with sugar. It was gloomy. It was also possibly criminal.

‘No, thanks,’ he said, massaging his abdomen, his body so tiny that it was hard to believe that it contained the correct amount of organs. ‘Sports.’

‘Sports.’

‘Sports,’ he repeated and raced ahead of her.

She considered, not for the first time, becoming one of those mothers who carries fruit with them everywhere, pulling it out of the insides of their handbags like a magic trick, eternally resourceful. On the front door, beside the cockroaches, although she tried not to look, tried not to be confronted with her own ignorance of the French language too often, was a notice with a photo of a rat, no X running through it, free to do what he pleased. It was a vicious rat, his tiny teeth bared. He looked motivated.

When the boy went to the bathroom, she flicked through his phone, the one concession they allowed him. There was never anything of concern, just a sadness attached to it, a lonely phone gasping for contact. She watched the clips he had recorded from the police station across the road from the school, his newest fascination. Blue-uniformed boys wandered blurrily back and forth, groups of two or three, trying to look busy or brave, or both. They were armed in a traumatised city, their hands resting on their guns as if the gesture alone could reassure what happened before would never happen again. There were only five clips, shaky and accompanied by the raucous playground laughter of boys, but she watched them to the end.

 

*

The first time his wife called the police the woman went to the station with her own mother. They drove in silence. In the reception, they sat side-by-side and her mother advised her to just be herself, as if that—the whole process of being herself—wasn’t exactly why she was here in the first place. They waited in the exact same way, patiently, showing no hint of irritation, both betraying their own telltale signs of anxiety—her mother rummaged constantly in her handbag, the woman ran her fingers over greasy patches of her skin. A policewoman smiled gently at them, before beckoning the woman into a room. The woman remembered how she and her mother used to go to the bogs, weekend rebellions, the two of them running wild, comfortable in the dirt. Once, she slipped into a trench and had only managed to wade through the deep muck with her mother’s careful encouragement. The walk from one side of the station to the other was like that.

In the small, airless room she was told they had received a phone call from his wife. Her car had allegedly been stolen and the woman was the prime suspect, the only suspect. The doubt was in the allegedly. She knew that a policewoman was being used for her sensitivity, and she wondered how many sensitive cases she had to handle a week, and how much sensitivity she had left. The policewoman’s shirt was untucked, her eyes heavily ringed, her shoulders drooped; all those crime-free hours spent at pedestrian crossings, waiting in cars, weighing on her, transforming her waistline. The woman thought she looked ridiculous. When the policewoman placed a hand over hers and declared it a domestic situation, her dislike didn’t alleviate. There was no decency in the movement, only the desire to dominate.

‘We can’t throw you in jail,’ she said, with a tight, mean smile, just for being a silly girl.’

‘Why?’ she asked, ‘Not enough room?’

The policewoman scowled at her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m so tired.’

On the way back, her mother pulled the car into a quiet stretch of motorway so she could cry freely, tears vandalising her face, emotion she didn’t know she had left in her. Her mother let her cry, even allowed her to veer into self-pity, before she asked was she upset because the police didn’t think she could rob a car. They laughed despite themselves, a dark hollow-sized trench hiding inside it, surprised they were still capable of making the sound.

The second time his wife reported a made-up crime, he went alone. He explained that after the birth of their son, his wife had developed postnatal depression, then just depression, the regular kind. So she can be difficult sometimes, the police said. When he came home to the house they were now renting together outside Dublin—in an estate of identical houses so alike that she often arrived at the wrong door—the back of his work shirt was soaked, and he was shaken in his own unshakeable way. In the middle of the night, he woke up, his breath sour, and told her he didn’t like the word difficult, had never liked it. They didn’t smile then, they wouldn’t dare, but there were still whispered jokes between them, in trouble with the law, like two teenagers on the lam.

The third time the police got involved in their lives, they went together. A teacher had discovered bruising on the boy’s body, still and silent purple lakes, signs of abuse. After an investigation that moved slow, then fast, everything being worked out in rooms that didn’t include them, the boy’s mother was declared unfit and he was sent to live with them permanently. ‘By who?’ the woman wanted to ask, ‘declared an unfit mother by who?’ They had a few interactions with the same policewoman from her first encounter, the police seemingly attached to them now. She sometimes looked at the woman like she forgave her. This makes it easier for you. You must be happy now.

They married in an embarrassed ceremony shortly before they went to Paris. It was a year after the funeral; he changed suits. Her friends donned confused formalwear. She was having them on, right? No one could be this in love, no one could make this sacrifice. Certainly not her. They thought the production of her life, always entertaining, was never going to end. She spent a lot of time in the bathroom, avoided the food, searched for her mother’s features in her own when they stood side-by-side in the mirror. Throughout all of this, the boy said almost nothing and she watched him like he was a crucial witness. Everything she knew about him was mediated through others, his teacher, his father, guards. He had to speak sometime though. That was the deal in this life—no matter how much you tried to avoid it, you had to speak sometime.

In the weeks before the ceremony, in bed, still her boyfriend then, fiancée if she felt like being technical, both terms startlingly trite for what they were trying, he held her tightly in his sleep as if she was going to sneak out. A restless one-night stand. His grief had been huge, paralysing, and the guilt was worse; finding lists, in his handwriting, of what he could have done. So they put a ban on sadness, binned newspapers, left the television on cartoons of pink hyperactivity. Grief had a time frame and when they reached that time frame, and he wasn’t recovered and neither was his son, money was the problem. If they had money, they could somehow circumnavigate the time frame. He was in numbers and was constantly trying to beat the morose odds, trying to outrun a train. He wanted to make her happy. It was her turn to be happy. People were the problem for a while, general people and then, more specifically, this country. This country was going to make him exercise, this country was going to make him get up early, this country was going to make him put a brave face on it. Let’s go somewhere, he said, that makes miserable a look, that smiles only when it absolutely has to.

‘Paris,’ she said.

She bought a guidebook and flipped through it before bed. It was just pictures of macarons and rich, oppressive buildings. There was no guidance in it. At night, she curled her body into a promise, in answer to his clawing question, that she wouldn’t leave them.

 

*

There was occasionally something so cheerfully immoral about the city it caught her off-guard, made her feel like her former self. Go and have an absurd love affair, it told her. Go on. You’ve done it before. Do it again. Walk around naked underneath your coat. She considered the possibility that everyone was naked underneath their coats. It wouldn’t surprise her. The city was silent during the day and loud in the evenings, and the sudden transition alarmed her. It could be bossy in that way—be scared, don’t be scared, now be terrified. Once the metro came to a stop, the lights died, total silence, not even a cough. Then it moved as normal. There was the sense of an unspoken resilience. Every Monday or Friday, regardless of where she was, how unpredictable she was feeling, she received a phone call from the school. This was what she talked about when she rang home. In a city of novelties, responsibility was the only real novelty.

It was Halloween when she next stepped into the boy’s school, passing by unremarked except for a few fake skeletons dangling from the ceiling, an unsophisticated holiday. When she stood in the hallway, feeling like a student herself, the place spoke to her of sweat and failure. Already, at under twelve, there were violin, piano, language lessons abandoned, a sluggishness set in. A sea of uniforms swept over her; a tide of blue. The boys all had bad posture and awkward gaits as if ashamed of their childhoods. Why are you so sluggish, she wanted to ask. Perk up. Many of you are going to be rich.

‘What’s the collective name for a group of boys?’ she asked the teacher.

‘In French or in English?’

‘English.’

‘I don’t know in either language.’

‘A school of boys, maybe,’ the woman said, ‘a drooping of boys.’

The teacher always so elegant, yet merciless, in her admissions, told her that morning the boy had hit a classmate—slapped him hard across the face for beating him at a race.

The woman was quiet for a moment. ‘He doesn’t get this from me.’

‘No,’ she said, delicately.

‘I’m the stand-in.’

The teacher gave a curt nod in response.

She leaned forward awkwardly in her chair. ‘You think I’m not trying.’

‘I don’t think that.’

‘I love that boy.’

‘I know you do.’

A silence passed.

‘We don’t want to have to expel him.’

‘I will speak to him,’ she said, ‘I will speak to him.’

‘He’s very good at running,’ the teacher said, a genuine smile on her face. ‘Fast.’

‘He does get that from me,’ she said and closed the door.

In the hallway she waited for him, watched the overhead skeletons, seemingly relaxed without a skin. She spun one in her hand, made it dance. It seemed to resent the movement. A private school, she thought, its skeleton private.

On the way home they stopped at the playground beside an imposing church. The city constantly humbled her, reminding her at every opportunity that people had been there before, waving its hands around in excitement about its incredible history. It was irritating. Out of his schoolbag the boy took out a drawing of a ghost, the eyes far apart, in opposite hemispheres. Squiggles representing horror. She wasn’t sure if he was proud of it.

‘That’s a beautiful picture,’ she said, cautiously.

‘No, it’s not.’

‘No,’ she agreed, laughing, ’it’s not.’

She sat on the wooden bench, her breath rippling out in stubborn, icy waves in front of her. She watched him climbing, tried to spot any trace of athletic talent. Then she watched for what she was told to watch for—any signs of trauma, impulse toward sadness. How could you know now? She never socialised with the other mothers. It was ridiculous, her attitude problem resurfacing. She felt they knew she had been coerced at the last minute, didn’t have the correct paperwork. She had never held him as a baby, never heard him cry, a cooing from another world. She once listened to sounds of babies crying and decided which one he would have sounded most like. It was a high-pitched, argumentative wailing. She went on the websites with the mothers of newborns, introduced herself. There were some genuine points of interest but nothing to help with a nine-year old.

‘Are you a troublemaker?’ she asked when he, out-of-breath, sat down.

‘No.’

‘That’s what troublemakers say.’ She rested her arm behind him. ‘Tell me about running.’

‘It’s stupid.’

‘I like stupid things.’

‘You like stupid things?’

‘Yeah, I like stupid things,’ she said loudly, finding freedom in it, ‘That’s why they kicked me out of college.’

‘You got kicked out?’

‘I kicked myself out. But it was the same thing. Tell me.’

It was fun, he explained, it was good, but to be the best you had to keep practicing and what was the point? It was a version of the argument she had with herself daily. She wanted to encourage him but what was she supposed to do? Tell him, like a dog, to sit down, stand up, kneel? She had no authority. Why was she even here? What did she want from it all—a medal?

On the metro, at the last stop, she asked him outright. ‘Why did you hit that boy?’

‘The medal,’ he said simply.

On the front door she stuck the picture of the ghost and drew a large, deliberate X.

That night, in bed, her husband described his day and she listened. He was in love with the city, wandered around in a loving daze. The distance was good for him and, although his work was difficult, obscure, he was now a medium shade of grey, instead of a deep shade.

‘How did you know it would be right?’ he asked.

‘I know everything.’

She had been to Paris once before with her mother when she was twenty, a few months after she dropped out and it didn’t look like she was going back. She had settled into the rhythms of the joke but her mother knew, instinctively, without having to be told, how disappointed she was. It was a cheap trip; they shared a hotel room. Their room contained a tiny, electric Eiffel Tower. They were women who knew dirt, country roads, had learned to make conversation in corner shops, confronted, finally, by glamour, by seriousness. They did everything wrong. They went to the wrong bars, the wrong restaurants, the wrong streets. She wasn’t sure they saw Paris at all, neither of them exactly clear on what a holiday was. They fought on several street corners, made up, and hid their giddy laughter behind their hands. The city was impatient with them. What is so funny, it asked. What could possibly be so funny? Her mother made her go to every museum and when her feet were sore she waited in the cafes. She remembered seeing her across the crowded room, her soles exposed, sitting patiently, waiting for her daughter, looking like an old woman.

‘You will make a great old woman,’ she told her mother that night.

‘I am an old woman,’ her mother said.

Later, in their twin beds, she asked her mother was she hard to raise.

‘You had an answer for everything. Everything.’

‘I don’t anymore. Not at all.’

Then her mother, a shadow on the wall of the hotel room, told her that she regretted some of her life. The usual. She would have liked to do more, although she didn’t really know what: live in European countries, make mistakes. She never had the time to figure out what it was. She felt her life was small, mechanical. She spoke for a while.

‘I shouldn’t have said all that,’ she decided, after a thoughtful pause.

‘It’s okay,’ the woman said, ‘it’s fine.’

‘I had a nice time.’

‘I had a nice time too.’

They fell asleep, after a while, Paris coming through the slats of the hotel blinds.

 

*

She only saw the boy’s mother once. It was the woman’s fault for recognising her, for being too thorough in her investigations, combing through photographs—looking for what exactly? Evidence that he had adored her, evidence that she had once been someone you could adore. It was in a hardware shop, the woman had gone to buy some paint. She wandered through the shop, marvelling at the anarchic presentation, broken pieces of domesticity everywhere, a sink just sitting in the middle of the floor. It was a joke shop, everything too large or ominous or numerous, hundreds of versions of the same thing, everything gesturing towards a great future. In the lighting section she turned a lamp on and off, imagined it on her bedside table, a matching one opposite, lamps came in pairs. She was decorating the house, no longer able to look at the white walls. It was in the paint aisle, staring businesslike at the selection, that she felt the boy’s mother. It occurred to her that they were both standing in front of a wall of paint and that if they had been two different women, they could have been standing in the glow of a painting, a scene that would at least lend some ceremony. But they weren’t, and they weren’t. The tins of paint stretched far back into the wall. She glanced at the boy’s mother sideways, but didn’t fully look at her, because she knew then she would have to look at her twice, to see if she could tell from her face, from the planes of it, the missed medication and the locked cabinets and the attempts with the kitchen bleach. In exactly a week the boy’s mother would be dead, succeeding at what she had been trying for a lot of her life. The woman didn’t turn her head. She looked fixedly ahead and felt the boy’s mother only as a presence. She wanted to apologise, explain that she hated it all too, fake pleasantness and being alive and fucking paint, that nobody blamed her, but when she looked around, she was gone. It was like a dream and, afterwards, in the car, the paint on her lap, the light came through the windshield blindingly strong, like in a dream.

 

*

When she got a chance she went to cafes and pretended to be a tourist, a woman with a book and a coffee. That afternoon, underneath the coffee, she could smell the boy’s laundry on her—the clothes she had washed and dried earlier. In the long mirror that wrapped around the cafe, she watched herself, not like her idea of a mother, but when she smiled, resolved to smile, the face that looked back was her own mother’s. In the cafe, a parade of faces worked at their food and drink. A man walked around with a baby, clutching him to his chest. Her husband’s colleagues told her after it first happened, you could see people quietly scanning the exits in bars and restaurants. How long would it take to escape? One minute? Two minutes? She waited for the call and, when it came, she went to the school. On the metro she thought about how easy it would be to step off somewhere else, disappear. It occurred to her that, for the whole of her life, she might never stop having that thought.

‘I haven’t seen you in ages,’ she said to the teacher.

‘It was three days ago.’

‘I know.’

‘It was three days ago. I remember, believe me.’ There was the flicker of a bold smile.

‘I admire your relentless professionalism.’

‘Thank you.’

She walked behind the teacher, following the clip-clop of her work heels through the long corridor of identical lockers. They walked up several flights of stairs, until they came to a door marked ‘No Entry.’ They entered. Inside there was nothing, a couple of disused ping-pong tables, some broken furniture. At the front there was a curtain.

‘I thought you might like to watch,’ the teacher said and pushed back the curtain, revealing a pane of glass, opening, miraculously, into light.

The woman came closer to the glass and leaned against it. Below, in the gym, a class was happening. She saw the fierce shape of a coach in the centre. On scattered blue mats rested the bodies of twenty boys, small heads, small bodies, in various states of stretching. She searched for the boy and found him, his body taut, ready to launch, and she held her breath.

(c) Nicole Flattery