Please note: voting is now closed.
After some serious debate, our panel of judges – Madeleine Keane, Literary editor of the Sunday Independent, Literary Agent Simon Trewin and Bob Johnston from the Gutter Bookshop – have settled on the six shortlisted stories for this year’s award. The stories were all read completely blind.
It’s now down to you, the reader, to vote for your favourite and choose the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2020.
Previous winners are Billy O’Callaghan, Donal Ryan, John Boyne, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Orla McAlinden, Roisin O’Donnell and Nicole Flattery.
The lucky author will be announced at the An Post Irish Book Awards on 25th November.
This year’s shortlist (in alphabetical order of author) is:
Supermarket Flowers by Dermot Bolger, from Secrets Never Told (New Island Books, September 2020)
Margaret McNaughton by Kit de Waal, from Supporting Cast (Viking, Penguin Random House, July 2020)
I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn’t by Caoilinn Hughes (LitHub April 20th 2020)
You and Him by Louise Kennedy (The Irish Times 27th August 2020)
The Emperor of Russia by Jaki McCarrick, from New Short Stories 11 (Willesden Herald, 30 Nov 2019)
Wildflowers by Billy O’Callaghan, from The Boatman and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, Jan 2020)
Supermarket Flowers by Dermot Bolger, from Secrets Never Told (New Island Books, September 2020)
The memorial shrine began on the evening after the accident with just a single bouquet of yellow daffodils purchased from a local supermarket. They looked so inadequate and pathetic, as a tribute to the seven-year-old girl who had been knocked down while waiting at the bus stop beside the old stone wall of my front garden, that I was tempted to cut a dozen blossoms from my flower beds to bulk out this floral display. But adding my own flowers to the bouquet sellotaped to the buckled bus stop would have felt wrong and intrusive. That’s the word I’m seeking. On that evening I felt trapped inside my own home, fearful that I might be trespassing on someone else’s grief by even just walking down my driveway to the footpath where the accident had occurred during chaotic lunchtime traffic.
Thankfully at the time of the crash my two young granddaughters – whom I mind for three days every week – were in the conservatory, enjoying the hour of television that I try and ration them to. They didn’t hear the collision that killed the child. Only the beeping of motorists caught in a sudden tailback lured them away from the television. But they couldn’t properly grasp what was happening, because I only let them briefly peer out the front window before they drifted back to watching Peppa Pig. Once certain that my granddaughters were settled at the television I ran out to see what I could do, which in truth was nothing beyond trying to offer any comfort possible. One of the onlookers standing around for no reason except curiosity told me how a French tourist had accelerated too fast, trying to beat the traffic lights when exiting the shopping centre car park opposite my house. She lost control of her hired car while steering with one hand and checking directions on her mobile phone with the other.
The car struck the girl while miraculously leaving her mother unharmed, despite ploughing so hard into my wall that a section of the seventy-year-old brickwork collapsed. The distraught mother was in such shock that she barely seemed aware of my presence or of the voyeuristic bystanders who seemed disinclined to grant her any privacy. I ran back inside to fetch a blanket but it wasn’t my place to cover the face of her dead child, so I placed it on the footpath beside the mother to use if she wished. The police arrived within moments, with the ambulance not far behind. I kept checking my front door to ensure that my granddaughters didn’t innocently wander out to be confronted by the child’s corpse.
The French tourist sat in her car, the driver’s door opened.
Something about her bewildered, exhausted look reminded me of my own daughter, Audrey, who is always running late, agitatedly trying to multitask while playing catch up with her busy life. When the police needed to question the French woman, I offered them the use of my front room. Whatever she had done – and she was not shirking responsibility – she also deserved privacy away from those prying eyes. I would have asked the young mother in, but I knew that she would not be separated from her daughter whom she kept trying to cradle. Eventually the child’s body was stretchered onto the ambulance, but one policeman remained behind – cordoning off my stretch of pavement for forensic examination.
Audrey was curious about my collapsed wall and the police- man when she collected her girls at half-five, but she was so fussed that she had no time to ask, upset because they were already late for the dance class that I considered them far too young to attend. I was relieved that they had little real idea of what had occurred. ‘Granny Minder’ is what Amy, the oldest by three minutes, calls me – unaware that this takes my unpaid role for granted. I doubt if she calls her other grandmother ‘Granny No-Minder’. My son-in-law’s mother has always been too busy or posh or shrewd to have time to mind her grandchildren, spoiling them instead with treats on their brief fortnightly visits to her. I tell my friends that it’s easier for Audrey to drop off the girls at my house rather than cross the city to reach their other gran. The real reason is because so many sparks fly between her and Audrey, who both possess such equally abrasive tempera- ments, that John used to joke about how our son-in-law had in essence married his own mother.
I’m more compliant; or maybe with John gone, Audrey feels I need an activity to keep my grief at bay. If so, nothing is more all-consuming than two pre-school children whose constant need for attention keeps me focused on the present. They exhaust me and I miss my morning ritual of finishing the crossword in under forty minutes while half-listening to the radio. But they add a great sense of purpose to my Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. What I miss most are my long after- noons spent gardening. I think the twins would enjoy digging and planting, but Audrey is obsessive about keeping them clean for the numerous classes they attend, so I never dare to let them help me tend to what John and I jokingly used to call ‘Old Mrs Clarke’s garden’.
This reference was our affectionate homage to the elderly lady who sold us the house forty years ago, much to her auctioneer’s consternation after more affluent couples placed higher bids. But Mrs Clarke was impressed by how, when admiring her garden, I complimented her on her white jasmine, before bend- ing in my mini-shirt to sniff the plant and apologetically correct myself, realising that it was potato vine which looks like jasmine but lacks any fragrance. Convinced that the house was beyond our reach, I had chatted away happily about the glorious heather in her rockery, expressing delight that she was blessed with such rich acidic soil in which heather thrives. The richer couples so annoyed her by ignoring the garden and expressing disappointment at the lack of central heating, that Mrs Clarke stunned everyone by accepting our bid, announcing that she wanted the stewardship of her garden to pass into safe hands.
While our name for the garden was our private joke, it reflected how I felt a certain sense of custodianship – not towards the house which, when money allowed, we slowly gutted and modernised – but towards the front and back gardens that she loved and her front wall against which she had grown an array of flowering shrubs, chosen so that some plant would always be in bloom to reflect her love of contrasting seasonal colours.
I was wise not to cut any flowers on the night after the crash: they would soon have been barely visible on the buckled bus stop the French driver had ploughed into. A predominance of yellow flowers accumulated in the following days, with the footpath outside my house transformed into a site of pilgrimage for grieving strangers. Maybe this sounds far-fetched but they looked like pilgrims when they appeared, often in silent clusters. Each visitor sellotaped more yellow flowers to the bus stop as tokens of loss and remembrance. From my front window, the bus stop resembled those brightly decorated trees that stand beside rural holy wells, to which visitors traditionally attach rags when making a wish.
On the Monday after the accident, my granddaughters knew that a girl had died outside my house; their friends having seen footage on the news over the weekend. They were fascinated by the array of flowers, but oddly detached from the event, not grasping how such a tragedy might occur to them. The police tape was gone and it was a bus stop again, though commuters were quiet and respectful at the sight of the flowers, knowing that they were standing in what, for now, was still the site of a public tragedy. That’s what my footpath had become, though in truth nobody owns a footpath. But I had always felt responsible for the pavement directly outside my house. Until they erected a bus stop there I had always cut the grass verge that bordered the road, just like old Mrs Clarke had done, seeing it as an extension of my lawn. When they built the shopping centre I even placed a row of stones there, planting flowers around them to stop motorists destroying the grass by parking on it. Not that I minded strangers parking outside my house, but I felt protective of the grass verge, as if it was another duty of care passed on by Mrs Clarke. Secretly I was relieved when the verge was tarmacked to make room for the bus stop; it meant that my duty of custodianship had ended.
But in the fortnight after the crash this sense of ownership seemed to pass to the grieving mother, who returned every evening to add more yellow flowers to the withered bouquets still sellotaped to the bus stop. She never stood directly in front of the rubble from my wall, but hovered close by for hours, maintaining a vigil. One night I went out – not that it was my business but I felt sorry for her grieving on her own.
‘Would you like to come in?’ I asked. ‘I can make tea. You really shouldn’t be alone.’
‘I’m not short of friends,’ she replied. ‘They never stop calling, talking nonstop. This is the only place I can be alone with her.’ Then she looked at me accusingly. ‘You took the French woman into your house.’
‘Only to let the police take a statement.’ I sounded defensive, as if caught taking sides. ‘I had brought you out a blanket … just in case …’
‘I remember,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how we’ll get through this. Tea would be nice, but I won’t sit in the same room that French bitch sat in.’
We did sit in the front room. I thought that perhaps she wanted to talk, but she just stared out at the flowers on the bus stop, so self-absorbed in her grief that she barely seemed aware of me. Or maybe she just didn’t know what appropriate words to say, like the people who only attend Mass once a year and say ‘Thanks’ instead of ‘Amen’ when receiving Communion. Maybe she needed to work out her grief for herself and her sole method of expression seemed to be these gaudy bouquets. When she finally rose, she thanked me for the tea but I knew I would never go out to her again. Her pain was private and there was nothing I could do.
By the end of the month the original flowers were so withered that the bus stop was a bizarre spectacle of fresh and faded blooms. When she arrived one night with a scissors and a large plastic sack I felt such a surge of sympathy that – if it had not felt intrusive – I might have gone out again to comfort her as she cut through twists of Sellotape and dumped every flower into her sack, leaving the bus stop bare at last. I felt her distress and empathised, while glad that she found the courage to move on. I also felt a guilty relief that the tawdry display was gone; it meant I would no longer be subjected to Audrey’s thrice weekly harangues about the unfairness of her girls being confronted by reminders of that child’s death.
My relief lasted half an hour before the mother returned with an identical batch of supermarket bouquets to sellotape onto the damaged bus stop. Her fresh start seemed to mean that only fresh flowers were to be displayed from now on. But because grief needs a focus and makes you do irrational things to survive, I tried not to blame her when she returned every second night to replace her bouquets – whether withered or not – with fresh flowers, tending to the bus stop with the same care as I tend to John’s grave on my monthly visits to the cemetery. But a bus stop is a public space and not a grave. I was also perturbed by a new development. She purchased plastic candles that flickered on and off all night and arranged them on the parts of my wall still standing, as if the bus stop was no longer sufficient and she needed to colonise the stonework too.
I resented this sense of my space being violated, while trying not to condemn her. As I say, grief makes you do odd things. My mother would have called it attention seeking, however life had made my mother hard. I felt pity for this young mother, grieving alone. But I was also tired of listening to Audrey’s complaints about why anyone should expect to be allowed to litter a public space with flowers. I was beginning to agree with Audrey because, in the end, a bus stop was not anyone’s private shrine, no matter how deep their grief: it was where commuters gathered to crowd onto buses and schoolgirls gossiped on their way to class. Audrey kept complaining about the twins being perturbed by these constant reminders of tragedy. I knew that if Audrey wasn’t complaining about this, she would complain about something else, because ever since she was a child Audrey had used litanies of complaints as the only way in which she seemed able to express love. But my heart told me that I wanted to take back my wall, my footpath and my privacy.
This was not to diminish the anguish the mother was experiencing. I knew the anatomy of grief. I nursed my husband through cancer until I could do no more for John at home. I held his hand in the hospice when he was not only in pain but petrified of death. I let John’s nails dig into my palm with what last ounce of strength he could summon and, when the pressure of his fingers eased, something also died inside me. I cried in that hospice, with Audrey trying to comfort me while unable to stop crying herself. When I gained enough strength to try and comfort her in turn, I had sensed her clam up, retreating into herself as always in times of stress. My granddaughters were not there, because what good would it do them to witness death? You must prepare them for life but shield them also. Being too starkly aware of death can cloud a child’s consciousness in ways they are not able to articulate, casting a shadow over the edge of their dreams.
That is why the twins never saw me cry two years ago at their grandfather’s funeral, even though I had known they were too young back then to understand or remember what was happening. I made it my business to somehow find the strength to stand in the church and accept condolences from friends and neighbours, from workmates of John’s in the insurance company and from women whom I had not seen in the forty years since I was officially forced to resign from the civil service on the day after I got married. I held my emotions in check for John’s sake and Audrey’s sake and the twins’ sake, no matter how young they were, and when I cried – and, by God, how I cried – nobody was forced to witness it, because I made sure this front door was shut and I was alone with my grief.
My grief was private and yet my grief was everywhere. It spilled out of drawers where John’s socks remained neatly folded. It ambushed me in the closet where his golf clubs were stored beside the hoover. It waited for me on the bend of the stairs where John always lightly brushed my hair whenever we passed on that spot – an unconscious habit left over from our courting days. In the plastic bags of his clothes that I forced myself to donate to charity shops on streets that I still avoid, in case I see anything belonging to him displayed in the window. In love letters that I kept and other love letters that I burnt, knowing that John would never want Audrey to read them. In the most ordinary of items that would seem precious to nobody else because I was the only one who understood their significance. The receipt John kept from a hotel where we spent what was regarded as an illicit weekend because we were not yet married. The bill from a restaurant where we could not afford to eat, but where we went anyway because it marked the first anniversary of the night we met and – even though we starved for days afterwards – that meal was a private declaration of our love. I came to understand the full weight of grief, because I nearly went crazy under that weight, here in the privacy of my house.
Privacy is not a dirty word. John and I lived out our joy and pain in private. Again I don’t diminish that young mother’s grief. But it was no greater than my mother’s unspoken anguish after losing a six-year-old son to TB. Or the grief of my aunt who frantically ran to a frozen local quarry when she heard that her son was playing there with other boys, and arrived too late to do anything except watch his body being brought to the surface after the ice cracked. To lose a child is to watch the future die. Maybe this trumps my grief after John’s death. But her grief was no greater than that endured by my mother and my aunt and neither turned their grief into an attention-seeking pantomime of public flowers. This sounds harsh and I wasn’t trying to be cruel, but you can only sympathise with anyone for so long, because in the end you must move on with your own life.
This is what I was doing when I asked old Mr Andrews to repair my wall. He had retired as a handyman but still did jobs for his old neighbours who feel more like friends. I could have called out assessors from my insurance company and claimed for the cost of the repairs on my household policy. But I had never made a claim in forty years and I just wanted the job done. The wall was there when old Mrs Clarke moved in as a newly-wed and it was no one else’s business when I decided that the time was right to restore it back to its original state. Mr Andrews had started work when the young mother called to my door one evening, with a panic-stricken look.
‘You’re fixing the wall,’ she said. ‘It needs to be done.’
‘But can you wait another fortnight, please?’
‘Two months have passed, love, though it probably only feels like yesterday to you,’ I said kindly.
‘But I need a fortnight,’ she pleaded. ‘You see it’s been hard to raise the money.’
‘I’m not asking you or anyone to pay for my wall,’ I said. ‘Please, put your mind at ease. If I was seeking money it would be from that motorist who skedaddled back to France, though she’ll have to come back for any trial. I intend to restore the wall to its original condition.’
‘But you can’t fix it yet,’ she said. ‘It takes six weeks to get those oval memorial photographs done and I only sent Kim’s photo away last month.’
‘Do you mean you’ve ordered a photo for her grave?’ I asked, confused, and she shook her head.
‘I had Kim cremated. I couldn’t bear to think of her lying in the ground. I scattered her ashes on her favourite playground.’
‘Then where do you hope to put the memorial photo?’
‘On the wall. When we are fixing it up. I don’t want anything fancy: just a marble plaque with her name and photo and the date she was born and the date she was murdered.’ She saw the shock on my face and lightly touched my arm. ‘Don’t think that I ever expected you to pay a penny of the cost. I’ve been waiting to save up enough money before talking to you. I’ll pay to repair the entire wall with the plaque on a new stone in the middle. I’ve a friend, Jerry, who’s good with stone. He does gardens, you see.’
‘I’ve been using Mr Andrews for forty years,’ I said. ‘But Jerry is good and we want the wall done right.’ ‘It will be done right. By Mr Andrews.’
‘Can you trust him to insert Kim’s plaque properly?’
I kept my voice calm.‘I’ve no plans for a plaque on my wall.’ ‘But I’ll pay,’ she said. ‘Enough for a whole new wall. We don’t need to use those old stones: it could be something classier.
Jerry has contacts in the trade.’
‘I don’t want a new wall.’ I tried to be reasonable. ‘That wall is as old as the house. It was another woman’s wall before me and after I die it will become someone else’s wall to do whatever they want with. But it isn’t your wall.’
She looked away and I thought she was going to cry. If she had, I might possibly have even relented and let her erect her plaque, though I knew that Audrey would have paroxysms of outrage. But when she looked back her eyes were dry and perplexed.
‘Then where exactly do you expect me to put Kim’s memorial photo?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘If you weren’t going to have a grave, perhaps you shouldn’t have got one made.’
‘Are you telling me how I’m meant to mourn my daughter?’ she asked, infuriated.
‘I’m telling you nothing of the kind,’ I said. ‘How could I when it’s not my business? But can’t you see? None of this is really my business. It must be unimaginable to lose your daughter, but it only happened here by chance. I never asked for a bus stop outside my house. Your daughter could have died at any bus stop anywhere, the way that French woman was driving. It’s not your fault that you happened to be standing here and you shouldn’t blame yourself. But it has nothing to do with me. I don’t want a plaque on my wall and if I’m brutally honest I don’t want more flowers on that bus stop because my granddaughters hate being constantly reminded. Lucy has nightmares and Amy has started to wet the bed. I know you’re in grief but I need to think of my grandchildren. Maybe’s its time you expressed your grief somewhere private. Have you discussed this with your own mother?’
‘I don’t talk to my mother. We fell out.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘And I’m sorry for Lucy and Amy.’
‘They’re young,’ I explained. ‘Reminders of death upset them, though I know that wasn’t your intention.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘I mean that I’m sorry they have to grow up with an unfeeling cow for a grandmother.’
She stalked away and I didn’t reply: she was hurting and it was better for her to lash out at me than at someone close to her. I hoped that she had people to protect and comfort her. But what I really hoped was that I had brought this whole business to an end. Not that I expected her to remove her flowers, there and then with me watching. But I hoped that maybe, when she had time to reflect, she might return to clear them away or just let the ones presently there wither over the following days so that they would slowly fall asunder in the wind and rain.
The next morning proved me wrong. She must have spent hours driving to all-night garages to buy flowers: the entire bus stop was bedecked in them. My granddaughters arrived and where they had once marvelled at the colourful array, they looked genuinely scared by this wild abundance. Audrey raised her eyes to heaven, flustered and running late as ever.
‘For the love of God, Mummy, can’t you just go out with a scissors and cut the damn things down before I have to do it myself?’
I said nothing to her about my conversation the previous evening. I said nothing until, after she left, Amy anxiously touched my fingers. I bent down to hear her nervously whisper, ‘Granny Minder, why does the dead girl’s ghost keep coming back with more flowers?’ That made me phone the bus company, complaining that two months had passed without the buckled bus stop being replaced, with passengers finding it impossible to read the timetables on it as they were obscured by flowers. Two days later their maintenance men erected a new pole and, as promised, added a sign stating that it was their property, not to be interfered with.
It made no difference. The following morning I found fresh bouquets of daffodils sellotaped to the new bus stop. There were also flowers on the windscreen of my car. But these came from no supermarket. They had been pulled up, roots and all, from my garden – her way of showing that she knew who I had contacted. I kept my temper. I lodged another complaint with the bus company who sent their maintenance men to remove the flowers. This had become a war of attrition. I thought I knew what to expect next morning, but when Amy clambered from Audrey’s car she took one look at the bus stop and climbed back in, in tears. My daughter strode towards to the bus stop, her anger so fierce that commuters backed away. She tore at the Sellotape until every small bouquet lay scattered on the roadway.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted from my doorway.
She stopped and held aloft two floral arrangements that had been left at the base of the pole. The sort of flowers you see in hearses: arranged in the shape of letters that spelt out the names, AMY and LUCY.
‘Why must I take care of everything myself?’ Audrey shouted. ‘I only started bringing the twins here to keep you occupied, instead of moping for hours on your knees in that god-awful back garden that was always too big. But I’ll take them away if you can’t keep them safe.’
She strapped the girls into their booster seats and drove off. Later that morning she sent a long apologetic text, urging me not to mind her when she flew off the handle because of the stress she was under running her business as a life coach, saying that she appreciated everything I did for the girls. However I wasn’t angry with Audrey, although I knew that something in our relationship was irrevocably altered. I was angry with this stranger who insisted on publicly parading her grief and inflict- ing it on my family.
I sat up awake all that night in the straight-backed chair at the unlit window of my front room, a sharp scissors in my hands. But the young mother did not come back. Next day I slept fitfully in an armchair, waking to survey my front garden, my half-finished wall, my bus stop. Audrey sent two texts, alarmed that I hadn’t replied to her and worried that she might not be able to dump her girls here again. Ordinarily after our rows she arrived with flowers, but she would know that flowers were the last thing I wanted to see. I ignored her texts because I had a rendezvous to keep and business to sort out once and for all before I let her twins back under my roof.
I sat up again on the second night, this time at my bedroom window, with a sharp kitchen knife that would cut through however many layers of Sellotape she tried to use, because I knew the young mother would be unable to stay away. Her grief needed a target and that target was me. But I refused to be a target or a compliant doormat anymore, shaping my life around anyone’s needs – be they my daughter or this stranger. I was beyond emotional blackmail and beyond tiredness, waiting for headlights that were bound to come. It was 3am before she parked at the bus stop, staying in her car for several minutes as if making sure that no lights appeared in my house. But I didn’t need to turn on lights. I knew every creak on every stair in that home I had made with John. I felt that John was there as I descended the stairs or at least his absence was there – the grief of his loss brought back by this turmoil. I felt as raw as the night he died in the hospice.
She was attaching flowers to the bus stop when I opened my front door. This time there were only two small bouquets as if she was already losing heart in the battle. She surely sensed me coming but continued to work so that I was behind her by the time she had the second bunch sellotaped on. I raised the knife with such fury that for a moment I think we both half feared I would stab her. Instead I cut through every layer of Sellotape in one go.
‘Take your blasted flowers and get the hell away,’ I said as daffodils scattered everywhere.
‘I’m mourning my daughter,’ she said, near tears.
‘Mourn her somewhere else because I’ve had enough of your grief. I’ve known grief too but I never inflicted it on strangers. Get off my footpath and go home to your bed.’
‘To do what?’ she asked. ‘Lie awake, staring at the ceiling or swallow the horse tranquillisers the doctor prescribed to knock me out? Don’t they realise that, when I do black out into sleep, I still dream about her and torture myself with the same questions? Why did I dawdle in that charity shop and make us miss the previous bus by seconds? Why was I deliberately cross with her at this bus stop, imagining the fun we’d have becoming the best of friends again the minute we got home and I produced the secret treat I had for her in my bag? Kim could be a little bitch at times and so can I, but we loved each other to bits. Now she’s gone and all I have left is this spot where we last stood together and you’re trying to rob me of that.’
‘I’m robbing you of nothing,’ I said.‘I’m protecting my family. How dare you spell out my granddaughters’ names in funeral flowers?’
‘That was wrong and I felt really sorry after, but like I said, I can be a bitch at times. I wasn’t thinking right, I was trying to make you understand what it feels like to lose someone.’
‘Do you think I don’t know? I lost a brother to TB when I was small. I lost my husband. I lost two children to miscarriages that I’ve never even told my daughter about, because what right have I to burden her with my sorrows?’
‘Well I never lost anyone before, because I’ve never loved anyone like I loved Kim. Oh, I thought I did for a time – the young fellow who was her so-called father – but only when Kim was born did I understand true love and now you’re trying to take her from me.’
‘I didn’t crash that car,’ I said. ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ ‘The police know that woman’s address in France but won’t give it to me. When it goes to court it will be the State against her, like I’m simply a bystander.You took her into your house.
You were serving her tea before Kim’s body was even cold. I hate her, but she’s not here to hate. You are.’
She grabbed the knife, leaving me too startled to move as she raised it. I knew what she was going to do and I couldn’t feel angry with her. I was the one crazy enough to come out in the moonlight to a deranged woman. It was my own fault if she stabbed me. But she didn’t. Instead she swept the knife in one swift movement across her wrist. The pain must have been excruciating but for several seconds she remained as motionless as I was.
Then she fell forward and I caught her before she could hit the footpath. I cradled her as best I could, aware of her blood soaking into her clothes. She looked up at me as if unable to believe what she had done, like a lost child desperate for me to tell her that everything that happened over the past two months had been a bad dream. I couldn’t tell her this. I don’t know what I said. I just kissed her forehead and spoke in the soft tone I used to use when Audrey was small and cried in bed because the girls at school didn’t like her; the tone I used with John when his morphine intake was so high that I wasn’t sure if he knew I was still there. A passing taxi driver stopped and dialled 999. I couldn’t say how long it took the ambulance to arrive. When the paramedics prised her from my arms and put her onto a stretcher she was weak and disorientated from loss of blood.
‘Are you a relation?’ they asked. ‘We can only let a relation ride with her in the ambulance.’
‘I’m her mother,’ I lied. ‘Now are you going to stand there all night talking or are you going to get my daughter the help she needs?’
She was conscious and could easily have denied it. But she didn’t and while the paramedics worked to stem the blood spurting from her wrist, she gripped my hand with her other hand, so tight that her nails dug into my palm. We kept up this silent pretence all the way to the hospital. As they wheeled her inside I took her phone from her pocket. Among her contacts was a number listed as ‘Mum’. I dialled it. A voice answered, cross from being woken from sleep. When I said hello she asked who the hell I was and what was I doing with her daughter’s phone.
I offered no explanations but just named the hospital where her daughter was. I waited in the corridor until a taxi arrived and a worried looking woman rushed in.Then I discreetly put down the admissions form I was meant to be filling in and walked out into the dawn light. A line of taxis waited outside the ugly modern building but I wanted to walk, despite my exhaustion. When had I last walked home at dawn? I needed to go back to the night I lost my virginity in John’s small flat, although I didn’t lose it; I gave it willingly to him. It was five months before our marriage, and I walked home, flooded with such exhilaration that I had felt I was striding forward to embrace everything to come, good and bad, in our shared future.
Now I felt no exhilaration: just a sense that while the future I once dreamt of with John was over, my life wasn’t over because John would never have wanted that. I knew my own mind and what I had to do. When I reached home, I turned off my phone and slept deeper than I had slept since his death. It was six in the evening when I woke. There were four missed calls from Audrey on my phone, but I hadn’t time to listen to her messages. The DIY store opened until eight and I knew that Mr Andrews wouldn’t mind accompanying me. I liked how he asked no questions about why I wanted to buy such decorative tiles. There was nothing suitable in the garden section but we found what I wanted among those feature tiles that should be used sparingly to break the pattern of a tiled kitchen wall.
I asked him if he could cement two of them into my front wall when he finished rebuilding it and he nodded. He made the whole job so neat and flush that while those two tiles might seem incongruous there, you need to look very close before you even spot them. I doubt if old Mrs Clarke would approve, but this is not Mrs Clarke’s wall: it’s mine to do what I like with. Audrey didn’t even notice them when she dropped off the twins, more respectful now, fearful I might cut down the two days I have agreed to take them to just one. But Amy noticed immediately and Amy loved them.
‘There’s one for me and one for Lucy,’ she said and when I nodded she asked if the top one could belong to her. She now pats it goodbye every evening when running out to her mother’s car, after I have tidied up the twins who love getting mucky from helping me in the garden.
No flowers have been placed on that bus stop since then. But I know enough about grief to know that one day the young woman will eventually be drawn back here to face her demons. She will never knock on my door, but I know that she will see these tiles and understand why they are there: our secret never to be told to anyone else. Two tiles, each with the motif of a yellow flower, built into the wall in remembrance of a young girl who loved daffodils, a girl with no thought of death before death so cruelly thought of her.
Vote for Supermarket Flowers by Dermot Bolger here.
Margaret McNaughton by Kit de Waal, from Supporting Cast (Viking, Penguin Random House, July 2020)
Clarinbridge, Galway, 1953
In 1952, the drinking curse appeared from nowhere and took hold in Quilty John MacNaughton like cancer. For generations the family had shunned spirits, wine and beer, and instead, to toast special occasions, they took water with a tip of blackcurrant syrup for colour.
Even at fifteen years old, Quilty MacNaughton and Little Joe Kelly were hospitalized on a bottle of stolen John Jameson Twelve-Year-Old Single Malt and whilst Little Joe was discharged three days later having learnt his lesson, Quilty acquired, along with a taste for hard liquor, a less and less discerning palate, so that by twenty years old, potcheen had stripped the skin from his lips. His alcoholism could not be beaten from him by his father nor exorcised by the priest.
And Quilty was beautiful. He had thick hair the colour of new milk and eyes of the brightest blue, like someone held a lantern behind each one. Lying on his back on a bale of hay, as lean and strong as good timber, with his farm-boy tan, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was an angel resting on his wings, temporarily lost or taking a breather from the execution of God’s work on a Sunday afternoon.
But his sisters knew better. Always and in every way they gave Quilty a wide berth. Drunk or sober, there was an ugly meanness about him. He’d come home after a day in the fields, spitting and raging, cursing the stroke that had twisted his father’s limbs, bemoaning the premature burden that made Quilty man of the house, farmhand and harvester all in one. He would wash at the pump and drip dirty water through the kitchen, spear the meat on his plate as though it had wronged him and gobble the potatoes down in three bites. As soon as he’d finished, as there was never a drink in the house, he would set off, hands in pockets, kicking an unfortunate stone the whole two miles to Hurran’s Tavern, and afterwards crawl home to sleep it off in the barn. The girls had learnt long ago to bolt the door against him.
The MacNaughton household had resigned themselves to this life, the father to shuffling around the yard doing women’s work, the two sisters to Quilty’s bullying ingratitude, when again out of nowhere, Quilty fell in love with Hurran’s daughter, Evelyn.
Almost overnight, where he had been sour and angry, Quilty became optimistic and easygoing, pretty-mouthed and calm. Evelyn hated the smell of the drink that saturated the stone walls of the pub and rose by osmosis up to the little flat above the bar. She despised the drunken fools that roared with laughter night after night beneath her bedroom, spending the rent, the housekeeping, the price of their children’s shoes, while the till sang her a one-note lullaby. Quilty promised her sobriety and she promised him everlasting love.
After the wedding, Evelyn moved to the farm and helped around the house. She made jam and meat pies, she fed the chickens, washed the linen and walked out in the late afternoon to meet her husband halfway. In his absence, she talked about him to his sisters.
‘Do you know what he said to me, Margaret? He said he has his eye on the cottage by the south field, the one that overlooks the bay. With my money and what he’ll save, he said that we’ll have it one day, when the children come. We will.’
Or while she was making soda bread with Teresa, she’d use a bit of the dough and shape it into a heart, mark it with a ‘Q’ and say, ‘That’ll make him smile.’
The sisters in turn embroidered her tablecloths and aprons, they braided her auburn hair and took their father on day trips to the seaside or to Galway town each Saturday to give the lovers some privacy. On Sundays, strangest of all, Quilty and his father would sing old songs together in harmony, ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘Four Green Fields’, ‘The Ferryman’, with Evelyn balancing a little accordion on her lap and tapping her delicate shoe to keep time. The house and the hens grew fat under the extra love and care.
When Evelyn became pregnant, with Quilty working long hours to save for their cottage, the sisters sewed in earnest, bibs and shawls and smocks for mother and child. They gathered all the extra crockery in the house and began stockpiling preserves. They estimated window sizes and stitched heavy curtains against the damp sea air and listened in silence while the parents discussed baby names. Both grandfathers were christened Thomas, which was too old-fashioned, and there was nothing else good enough in either bloodline. This child would be special.
When Evelyn went into labour, Margaret sent Teresa running for Mrs Lewis. Quilty’s father took his place by the range, trying as best he could to keep two pots and a kettle on the boil in readiness. Quilty was at the market in Clarinbridge. The special boy was born at three o’clock in the afternoon.
The house was quiet when Quilty opened the kitchen door. ‘Hello?’ he called. He saw Mrs Lewis first and looked from her to his family all standing in a huddle around the crib. Why had it been brought down into the kitchen? And where was his wife?
Mrs Lewis lifted something out of the crib and walked towards Quilty, who had packages in his arms and couldn’t take whatever she was offering. He had a cut of coconut ice for Evelyn and, from a second-hand stall, a little plastic singing kitten, a toy, a joke. She would laugh when she saw it. It was hilarious.
Teresa was crying into the hem of her cardigan and Mrs Lewis was saying, ‘Now, Quilty, boy. You have a son. God bless him.’
It was Margaret who took Quilty by the hand and led him up the stairs and into their bedroom. Evelyn’s hair was wet and her face was white. Her hands were folded across her chest and bound with her rosary. The window was open and outside Quilty could hear birdsong and Teresa saying goodbye to the midwife.
‘I’ll come back tomorrow,’ said Mrs Lewis. ‘It’s a terrible thing, that poor girl,’ and then Quilty understood.
He sat carefully on the edge of the bed to not disturb the blankets. And as he told Evelyn about his day at the market and how much money he had earned and what their total was, not enough for the cottage, not quite yet, Quilty was overcome by a thirst so terrible he thought he might also die, there and then, before he had finished all the things he wanted to say.
He looked at Margaret, who was standing at the door, weeping in absolute silence. ‘I have to go out,’ he said.
Margaret stood aside to let him pass. He held on to the banister all the way down to the hall and stumbled past his father, past sobbing Teresa, past the crib that held his special sleeping child, and two miles down the lane.
Five days later, Margaret opened the door of Hurran’s and stepped inside. Conversation withered and everyone looked at Quilty MacNaughton and his father-in-law slumped together in a corner of the bar. Margaret spoke to two men standing at the counter.
‘You and you. Pick up my brother and put him in the back of your truck.’
They were sober enough to recognize that they had not been asked a question and did as they were told. As the two men left, dragging Quilty between them, Margaret turned and addressed the tavern.
‘The funeral will be on Tuesday week. Evelyn Hurran was one of us. The wake will be at the MacNaughton farm. Tell her father when he wakes.’ She was almost through the door when she took a step back and added, ‘It will be dry.’ She was gone before she heard the collective gasp.
In the end, with no stomach to work the land, the farm had to be sold. Quilty insisted that they bought Evelyn’s cottage in the south field that overlooked the bay and no one was to argue. The girls, their father and the child lived inside the house and Quilty made his bed at the back of the garage where he fixed the cars and trucks of local men, sometimes for cash, more often for drink. Teresa took a job in the hotel kitchen and Margaret organized family life, doing accounts for her neighbours, walking miles and miles along the shore with the special boy, collecting shells and driftwood, bringing him home to share his treasures with his grandfather and fall asleep on his lap in front of the fire. The child was kept from the worst of Quilty’s rages, from the broken crockery and glass, from the drunken laments and bitterness that he aimed like an arrow at the boy’s heart.
One day, when Bernard Holmes, the carpenter, knocked the door to collect his books, Margaret asked him inside.
‘You’ll have a cup of tea, Bernard,’ she said, turning to the stove to hide her blush.
‘I will and thank you, Margaret,’ he said and sat with the child at the kitchen table. The boy was as neat as a button, his hair parted on the side, playing with a red tin bus.
‘And how are you today, William? You’ll be going to school soon, won’t you? Are you looking forward to playing with the other boys?’
‘And what do you want to be when you grow up?’ said Bernard, picking up the toy. ‘A bus driver? A fireman? All boys want to be a soldier these days, don’t they, and wear a nice uniform? Is that for you, William?’
William shook his head.
‘He likes making things, don’t you, William?’ said Margaret, putting cups on the table. ‘He’s good with his hands.’
‘Ah, now,’ said Bernard, ‘I can help you there.’
That summer Margaret and William sat for hours in the carpenter’s workshop watching him repair the leg of a table, the door of a dresser, the cross-beam of a plough, while motes of dust swirled and danced in the sunlight. William was given his own chisel and a lump of wood to practise on; Margaret served sandwiches and tea from a metal flask.
‘I could get used to this,’ said the carpenter, and when he put his hand over hers, Margaret knew she felt the same. She began to rethink her future. At twenty-seven she was nearly an old maid, nearly given up on, nearly invisible, but Bernard Holmes had seen her and he was a good man. She confessed her love to Teresa.
‘I’m not sleeping for thinking about him, Teresa. I’m like a schoolgirl.’
Teresa hugged her and promised that she would make their wedding cake the best in the county, iced in pink and white, edged with velvet ribbon. Quilty was listening at the door. He stepped inside, stinking of beer, grease and sweat, and leant against the warm oven.
‘He’ll rue the day he married a MacNaughton,’ he said. ‘Nobody can stay the course.’
The sisters, long schooled in distraction, busied themselves with making the dinner and tidying up, but Quilty hadn’t finished.
‘Our mother was a whore who ran off to sleep her way around Dublin. Evelyn couldn’t even wait for me to come back from the market to be out of it. Your man will do the same. He won’t come true, mark my words.’
Margaret edged him out of the way. ‘Get washed if you want to eat.’
Quilty watched her, his arms folded over his chest. ‘Schoolgirl, is it?’ he said. ‘And wedding cakes? Ha!’
‘You’re in the way, Quilty,’ said Margaret. ‘William will need feeding.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Bernard will be bringing him home. I left him there for a little play.’
‘Take care, sister,’ said Quilty, so quiet and soft that both women stood still with fright. ‘William is my son.’
Margaret put her hands in her apron pocket so he wouldn’t see them shake. She faced him squarely and raised her chin.
‘You’ve just remembered, have you, Quilty?’
In two strides he was across the floor and Margaret was in his grip. ‘The boy stays here. He will have this life. Here in this house. He will have my life and his mother’s life. Here with me.’ He pushed her away. ‘You will never speak to him again.’
She turned to shout at him, saw his bottom lip contract, saw the narrowing lantern eyes and the promise in them.
She knocked his shoulder as she barged past, said nothing to Teresa cowering by the door, nothing to her father limping around the front garden with his secateurs and nothing to her neighbours as she strode along the high road to the carpenter’s house.
Bernard Holmes took her into the parlour when he saw her face. ‘Is everything all right, Margaret?’ William stood between them.
‘I came early,’ she said. ‘And I came too often.’
‘Not for me,’ he answered and made a step towards her, but Margaret took William’s hand and backed away.
‘There are people at home who depend on me, Bernard. The boy and my sister. And my father too. People to keep safe.’
He stopped then and nodded. ‘I see.’
At the front door she held out her hand. ‘Thank you for your friendship and understanding.’
‘They both remain,’ he said and looked down at the boy. ‘Now you, young man, you can still come by on Saturdays and after school. There’s work here and a trade if you’re willing.’
Margaret and William took the long walk home, around the wide sweep of the bay with the tide rolling in almost over their shoes.
‘Why are you crying?’ William asked.
‘I was splashed by the waves.’
‘Why are we walking so fast?’
‘You’re hungry, aren’t you?’
‘And why aren’t you holding my hand?’
She folded down on to the sand and covered her face. ‘I – I . . .’ she began and said no more. After a few moments, she felt the boy’s little hands stroking her hair, stroking her hair, stroking her hair.
‘I’ll look after you,’ he said. ‘I’ll depend on you if you like.’
‘Ah, William,’ she said, getting up and brushing the sand from her knees. ‘I know you will.’
She hugged him and they stood together looking out at the horizon that stretched to the edge of the world.
Vote for Margaret McNaughton by Kit de Waal here.
I Ate It All And I Really Thought I Wouldn’t by Caoilinn Hughes (LitHub April 20th 2020)
It’s the soggy kind of wind that undoes all the hair-dos on the west coast of Ireland; that makes broken tents of nice new outfits, and shouting matches of good wishes:
I’ll love you and leave you. What love? Love me and leave me. I’ll let you go. Have a good life! Indeed it is. Fine a day as any for blowing off cobwebs. A northerly with wet spells. Where has the day gone? We lost track of ourselves.
It’ll be quiet in the shop today. What harm. Marjorie finds the work involved in customers to be quite annoying. She prefers to watch them come in and twirl around. If they slip their wallets from their back pockets, better’s the view. But framing their wedding shots and family portraits and homeopathic diplomas smacks too much of taxidermy. And the business, she can gladly do without.
This Dominic Street property—sandwiched between cafés—was part of last year’s divorce settlement, along with the three-bedroom house, its contents, two and a half empty beds, their cars, their pug-terrier Michael Flatley, and her ex-husband’s golf club set. Balls and all. The shop has no website and if it has word-of-mouth, the words are French. It wouldn’t behove Marjorie to sell it anyway, as the country is unkinkily spank-bang in the middle of a recession. It was Brendan’s architecture start-up premises back in the 90s when Marjorie’s inheritance became his seed fund (well, one of them); back when he was still astonished that his wife built his desk for him, and his closet. The closet, alas, didn’t stay shut. After a twelve-year largely platonic marriage, he asked for a divorce on the same weepy breath as coming out to her. ‘Who are you crying for?’ she’d said, flaunting the dry whites of her eyes at him like hankies. All the same, it felt as though they were tilting down the farside of a twelve-metre wave—one that would deposit them oceans apart, differently wounded. She dragged her suitcase from beneath the bed for the passage. ‘Leave it,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll go. You stay. Keep everything.’ Marjorie’s face glazed suddenly, as if an eggy brush had been wiped across it. ‘Everything?’ Brendan’s teeth chattered. He shivered in his spectral flag. Horrible, yes, to stand before a loved one, in shreds … for them not to hold their arms out to collect you. She glanced from the mole on his nose to the one disappearing into his crimped chin to the scar on his hairline; she could inch her way around him blindfolded. But he her? Not a hope. How she’d never connected the dots … Brendan had clutched his moisturized elbows then and, as a witness claiming guilt, said: ‘You’re my best friend. I never didn’t love you. It’s my fault. I’m … I wanted to give you everything.’ It was the new millennium before Marjorie understood her deeper grief: that the closet she’d built for herself had been locked from outside and in. She’d wanted everything.
She should be in the back room now, cutting glass and mounts to size, but she’s not in the mood. Her Topman Hawaiian shirt is blanched in dust from the workshop this morning, where she’d been making a custom frame—the only such order this month. ‘Do you think a recliner chair would suit the place?’ she asks her new colleague, who hums, as if sounding out the faxed information: that the boss plans to make napping at work more comfortable.
Bróna is cleaning the windows, having insisted that windows are the frames by which their expertise is assessed. Up and along the rivered glass she swans, with her lemony-white cremnitz skin, her bachelor’s degree in Art History, her Picasso sketch eyeliner and, cubistically, Marjorie’s eyes all over her. On the crescent scar that lends a smile line to her pussy face, on the shadowy ulnar bones of her wrists, her angular palette knife arms, the slant fact of her waist, the firm hold she has of herself, of that shammy. From the register, Marjorie clears her throat, which has the satisfying effect of making Bróna twist around. With her in profile, the composition is particularly consoling.
Possibly because of the recession or possibly because of the general drain-ward motion of society, Bróna has taken it upon herself to be concerned about the business’s viability. ‘Let’s hope that wet wind makes it looks cozy in here. Hygge!’ she says, keeping her ear close to the glass as if listening for the squeaking counterfactual: the fine crack in the reality of this permanent, salaried job, with sick days and—for the love of god—retirement contributions.
‘Hooga. Is how the Danes say it.’ Marjorie DJs the scalp behind her ear rhythmically. ‘But you know … I think your higgy sounds cozier.’
The tone had been set at the interview stage a month back and, since no complaint was made, Marjorie took it as understood that one mustn’t resent what libido is left in a forty-five-year-old woman. Lechery is nicer to be around than bitterness. And their taste in music has a sizeable overlap—Talking Heads, Oscar Peterson, the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Bróna had said as much. ‘The noise that would be on in Supervalu!’ (where one of her college friends has wound up). ‘The factory din of Medtronic!’ (one of the only employers taking people on in the county). ‘The TV operatics that would be on at home!’ (that is, in Bróna’s parents’ house) to overpower the vibrato of their negative equity: the passive-aggressive Say Yes to The Dress, the colonialism-nostalgic Antiques Roadshow, the tongue-clicking misconstruing of this new generation. Bróna doesn’t quite know what to make of her own generation. She hadn’t remortgaged a home willy-nilly when it had magically doubled in value, as her parents had. And if she had ever driven a brand-new 2007 Audi A4 Quattroout of a dealership, it would have been to test drive it to Lidl for discount korma. But then, she had come into shops like this, as people under thirty-five tended to do, to fawn over the merchandise, photograph the desired product furtively, and to abscond and buy it online from China, via the neighbour’s wireless on mam’s MasterCard. She’d admitted all this to Marjorie, demonstrating the ‘candid and open nature’ her C.V. had listed as a Key Skill. Reading through her contract, she’d been shocked to see no mention of commissions. And how does that even work thermodynamically—that business can cool off and its employees are retained all the while? She voiced an interest in part-time diplomas in business to wrap her head around it, which Marjorie immediately offered to fund if Bróna would only keep her profitability aspirations to herself.
Bróna sidles up to the Staff Wanted sign still up on the window and, with the tweezer precision of an art conversationist, frees a fly from its Sellotape frame. Scrupulously, she cleans the glass all around it, to no avail. Marjorie doesn’t tell her to take it down. When no more wishes can be genie’d from the glass, Bróna moves on to dusting. Right into the bevels of the display frames. The little bell above the door. Lest she arrive at the cash register altogether, Marjorie sends her into the back office to boil the kettle. Meanwhile, a couple arrive in making a fuss of an umbrella that was protecting the woman’s painting. The man is clad in cycling Lycras and high-toe shoes—the opposite of high heels, but with the same clenched arse result. Marjorie had described to Bróna this classic customer type: the middle-class couple with a pramful of—lo and behold—hobbies. ‘You’d want a lilo to get around in that,’ the woman declares, eyeing up her husband’s wet t-shirt rigout.
‘A submarine, more like,’ Marjorie says. ‘But it doesn’t bother himself on the bike?’
‘Ah no,’ the man does his own answering. ‘The wind dries you off as you go, sure.’
Marjorie glances from his treaded-tire face to his knuckular groin. ‘The more you cycle, the worse you swim. Is that true, or is it only a myth?’
‘What’s that?’ the man angles his helmet-strapped ear toward her.
Embarrassed now that she can see some of the expert drawings leaning against the walls awaiting pick-up, the woman cradles her painting to her chest and glances around as if lost—TK-Maxx would do her, surely. Idly, she goes to the wall to rifle through the frames that are in a poster-like flickthrough display. The metal ones tick. The wood ones tock. The man gets her to lay her painting on the huge table so they can see what they’re working with. He thinks of it as an equivalent to opening a fitness metre app post-ride to see one’s form laid bare: one’s personal best. When she sets it down—a muddy Connemara pony in a Kenyany sunset—the man awaits commentary from the vendor. Surely this is how they earn their margin, his Elvis lip cues. But Marjorie’s eyes are trained away from the painting as from Medusa. Bróna arrives with a cup of tea for her boss and beams at the customers. A dozen recommendations sputter at her lips, so desperately yearning The Close.
‘I haven’t a clue,’ the woman replies when asked what she’s after. ‘I mean … I don’t know. Do you normally have glass on top of an oil painting?’ The woman shifts her weight from one Croc to the other.
‘Not typically,’ Marjorie says, ‘but, you know, we can do whatever we like.’
The woman looks to her husband—his wedding band is hidden by cycling gloves, despite the nude fingers. She doesn’t want to do what she likes: she wants to do what’s right to do. Without causing hassle: hassle is for the rest of life; not for hobbies. The way she’s breathing, it’s clear the let-down will be sore: she mightn’t paint again; that’s how fragile her generosity is towards herself.
Squaring up with Marjorie, the man removes his windshield glasses. What kind of a doctor’s appointment is this, where self-diagnosis is both frowned upon and required? ‘How would this be professionally framed, if you yourself were to do the choosing. Would it have a mount around it? Or what about those hover frames with the gap around the sides? I’ve seen them with canvases. What’s the perfect custom frame solution for this, no matter the price?’
‘Oh god, Raymond, stop, I’m … it matters, the price. It’s not worth some fancy frame, not—’
‘Claire.’ Raymond grips his wife by her fatty upper arms, imprinting bike oil on her shawl-like cardigan. ‘Your painting deserves a good frame, and no two words about it.’
The woman tucks her chin to her chest and smiles like the bashful seventh dwarf, who could have been the sixth dwarf if it weren’t for shame. The man stamps a kiss onto her forehead before clicking from his cleated advantage over to the wall, arrowed in display frames—their cut-off corners V-ing to the ceiling like poorly-painted geese. Marjorie responds to their questions evenly, even though there’s an enormous price difference between the frames they’re considering and the off-the-shelf ones that can be easily bought online. Bróna gushes almost pornily when the couple handle an art-deco silver gilt-inlaid frame, even though it would render the painting ridiculous. Finally, the woman decides upon something humble and asks what time the shop is open until—they might come back later. ‘Grand,’ Marjorie says, blowing on her tea.
Bróna stands with her arms suspended several inches from her sides, making a peace sign of her body. ‘You could leave your painting here, till then … if you like?’ The pitch of her voice might shatter the windows, after all her shining work. ‘We could frame it for you, and have it ready to collect? And if you don’t love it, we can just change it.’
The woman shimmies now—her hormones dancing a jig they’re not at all fit for. And in Crocs! Knowing well this perimenopausal urinary urgency, Marjorie helps her out: ‘They’re a labour charge for framing it.’ Conspiratorially, she adds: ‘You could equally take it home and do it yerselves.’
‘Ah sure look,’ Raymond says, holding the door. ‘I could whack it in no bother.’
‘You surely could.’ Marjorie nods. ‘And if in doubt, there’s instructive videos online.’
At that, the couple takes off, pretending to have forgotten to leave the painting there for safekeeping. In the rush, they’ve left their umbrella instead. Bróna’s eyes go to it. A baton? The drizzle has eased, so they may not bother returning for it. A dripping profit margin. While Bróna is immobilized by thought, Marjorie has advanced to prying staples from a linen-covered frame, and the playlist has advanced to that iconic cello fifth that would bring the shop to a standstill weren’t it stoodstill already. ‘The good thing about the Schindler record,’ Marjorie addresses her plyers, ‘is that it lends perspective to the minor tragedies.’ Bróna takes the umbrella hostage to the back room, in case they return for it. The phone goes and Bróna actually runs to pick it up. ‘Eh … yes. Hegarty? Yes. It’s been ready now for two months … Of course, Miss Hegarty. … Till six. Okay—oh sorry, just, just one sec, Miss Hegarty. Just one moment, please.’ Marjorie had been gesturing to Bróna and, now that the phone is pressed against her chest, Marjorie stares at the phone and tells Bróna to inform Miss Hegarty that their insurance doesn’t cover paintings stored beyond a fortnight—certainly not ones bought at auction. They are not a storage facility. ‘Looting is on the up now, tell her. On account of the recession, and a very good batch of methamphetamines in from Longford.’ A laugh bursts from Bróna’s lips and she lowers her eyelids at Marjorie. She puts the phone back to her ear and tells Miss Hegarty that it would be much-appreciated if she could pick it up because they’re very short on space in the shop. Profuse thanks. With the trace of a smile, Bróna takes up the iPod shuffle. ‘Can I put on something else?
‘Oh do. Slip on something more comfortable.’
Bróna clears her throat and says: ‘It’s a friend’s band. It’s kind of … trad electronica. They were on at the Roisín last week. They’re really good.’
‘We’ll find out, so we will,’ Marjorie says. But she doesn’t get to find out because two people enter the shop simultaneously. One carries the cardboard-cylinder evidence of an ill-advised Monetprint.com purchase for which there is no frame suitably cheap; the other is a Colin Farrell-looking thirty-something interviewee Marjorie was expecting four minutes ago. His shirt and jeans give a 3D-printed impression; he has a raincoat bunched in one fist, and a backpack held like a briefcase in the other. Le Coq Sportif. In dismay, Bróna watches Marjorie place her hand on the interviewee’s lower back to lead him to the office. ‘You’ll hold the fort?’ Marjorie asks rhetorically, then glances back at the unfurled ‘Water Lilies’ print and tells its owner: ‘Fair play to you! Gorgeous colour palette on that.’ The office door shuts and it stays shut until their bellies begin to grumble.
During this time, Marjorie has managed to extort such information from the lad as he didn’t know he had in him. Which way he voted in the Twenty-eighth Amendment Treaty of Lisbon referendum. Whether he prefers savoury food for breakfast or sweet or neutral—for example porridge. What he made of Inglourious Basterds altogether if not a pile of American self-flattery, with some good lines in it, albeit. ‘The eye-talian scene in particular. 3 Idiots I thought was superb. And Mr. Nobody. Did you see that?’ The interviewee doesn’t bother with humming sounds at this stage. He twitches his face in the negative. ‘And, you know … Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen … it got an awful hard time but I quite enjoyed it. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, sure, they’re worth six stars before they open their divine gobs.’
One of the interviewee’s caterpillar eyebrows tries to climb over the other one. There’s a knock on the door and Bróna sticks her head in. ‘Sorry to interrupt, but … will I go on my lunch-break now, or—?
‘Do that,’ Marjorie says, ‘and leave the door wide there so I know if there’s a customer but it’s unlikely.’
‘Sure. Sorry …’ Bróna says with throat-frayed deference, tilting her head at the interviewee. ‘Were we in NUIG together? Art History?’
The interviewee cocks up his chin. ‘I went to Trinity.’
A brushtip’s worth of red marbles the white of Bróna’s face. ‘Sorry, I thought I recognized you. But …’ She backs out, then stalls and surges forward. ‘What did you do, at Trinity?’
Good on her, Marjorie thinks. Promoting herself to co-interviewer! That’s how it’s done. Marjorie thumps the five-page C.V. on the desk before her. ‘He has a 2:2 in Film Studies and History, which would compliment your art expertise and my carpentry beautifully, not to mention his impressive experience in furniture removal, as well as retail, but … alas …’ Marjorie taps her fingers twice on the C.V., ‘the challenge is in the job-seekers pool being so full, and us being further along in the interview process with two others. Women.’ Marjorie takes a lavish pause here, and Bróna eventually drops her shoulders sympathetically.
‘O…kay?’ The guy stretches the two syllables like udders. ‘Why d’you call me in then? Why didn’t you cancel the interview?’
‘Oh believe you me,’ Marjorie warns, ‘my mind’s not made up. I want to be fair and equitable. I take great pleasure out of equally considering all options on the table.’ Marjorie stands to reveal her embodied impartiality—her very shape, unresolved. She extends an even hand, stating: ‘You’re hot mail.’
When he responds with the word what, it is packed with enough vehemence to blow out a set of birthday candles.
‘Pee underscore nethaway at hot-mail dot com?’
Copping on to the implication, he demotes his briefcase now to its backpack state.
‘Grand. We have that memorized, so we do.’ Marjorie smiles so completely that the metal crescents of her crown bondings are on display as a full set of filthy nails. She offers him his C.V. back because she’s into sustainability. It’s the only thing that’s ever come into fashion that’s actually suited her, besides a knee-high boot. ‘Do you know the way? You go around in it, and you feel a million dollars. Or a quarter of a million euros. It makes you look and feel good. Recycling and a knee-high boot.’ Her pleasantries carry on at his retreating back like surplus credits. ‘There we have it. Grand. Now. Alright. Thanking you.’ Though he’s letting himself out, she follows him through the shop so as to show him the way all the same. ‘Ah look: she’s dried up for you! Just in time.’ He utters no parting thanks, only side-eyes the Staff Wanted sign as he sulks off down Dominic Street, shoulders umbrella’d to the wind.
Marjorie spins around on the heel of her wide-fit trainers and tells Bróna: ‘I never lost it really … but I’ve bloody well found my appetite. Would I be a mean tease of a boss to take my lunch-break before you?’ Bróna crosses her arms, which Marjorie didn’t know she was able to do—that the planed carved limbs could be bendy.
Here is the window that needs cleaning: a small window to pose the qualifying questions. ‘Sure,’ Bróna says. ‘But … Marjorie?’
Will she come out with them, finally? Her questions: It isn’t a twist on the sexual harassment cocktail, is it? Or—hardly—a generational vendetta? If the shop doesn’t need to be profitable, surely there’s something else it could accomplish? There are plenty of other values it could have.
‘Marj, please. You say Marjorie as if you want to spread me on toast.’
‘I’d like to experiment with the set-up while you’re gone,’ Bróna says, firm as cold butter. ‘I have some ideas.’
Marjorie collects her coat and wicker bag from the back of the chair behind the counter. ‘So you do. Whereas himself had only notions. And resting bitchy face.’ Marjorie grins at Bróna and holds it. Then says: ‘I must admit, Bróna, I admire your initiative. As well as a lot of other things about you. Be sure to enjoy yourself. And regale me with all you get up to afterwards.’
Nothing less than a picnic on the riverside grass by the Spanish arch would do Marjorie. For lunch, she ordered a large fish-and-chip supper at McDonagh’s. She had lived so many years eating appropriate meals at appropriate hours.
She lays her windbreaker coat on the damp grass and plonks herself down with a jolt to the sit-bone. No one is around to hear her yelp but one fisherman on the far bank, gulls describing the wind with Renaissance overkill, passersby on the road aways behind her, and patient fuckers at a bus-stop. A yellow box containing a life-ring interrupts the view of the River Corrib, gushing rightward. It is a castratingly cold Jacuzzi, the colour of manky denim with white spray all along it like used shaving foam. Beyond it: the vibrant green algal slime of the stone riverbank; a row of mixum-gatherum townhouses of yellows, burgundies, blues; a grey convent-looking erection; and, an inch above that, cloud—like the surface of the ocean seen from underwater. Marjoriesmacks her throat to feel for gills.
Her neck had begun to thicken in her late thirties, without any children to impugn. ‘I’m getting more and more grotesque,’ she’d told Brendan on her fortieth birthday, to which he’d responded with a wicked smile: ‘You’re getting more and more like Marlon Brando!’ They’d gone out for a walk in Barna Woods before a four-course meal back in town so neither of them would have to be designated driver. Marjorie stopped walking and stood there, quizzing her husband’s face, which had gone funny. His gaze darted from her one eye to the other and his lips were pursed, as though he were the one awaiting a defence or apology. After a long moment, Marjorie said: ‘In On the Waterfront … or Apocalypse Now?’ Brendan coughed out a laugh, as if he’d been holding his breath. He looked off behind her and said that forty was when things got interesting; that forty couldn’t give two fucks about pretty, slender necks. ‘No, that’s right,’ Marjorie said. ‘I give one fuck now. By forty-five, I’ll be down to no fucks.’ Brendan grabbed her by the hand then and marched her off the track between shivering trees and clicks of his tongue. Who he was scolding, she didn’t know. She found his outdoor sex kink to be far too effortful, but it was an effort she made, if only to dig a well in their dust-dry acreage. He was the full five inches shorter than her, so—given it was her birthday—he let himself be pressed against a tree; the bark making of his vanilla arse a twin-cone with chocolate sprinkles. The sky had darkened and, under the canopy, the particularities of their bodies were homogenizable. Still, she could make out Brendan’s closed eyes. The wince of his cheeks, like the torn page of a journal that’s been scrunched up in self-disgust, then ironed out with the warm heel of a palm. He cut out anagram-wheels from newspapers to bring home to her; she consulted on his hiring of employees based on their ample laurels; he primed and varnished her headboards on sunny weekends; they droopily enacted scenes from films with malty, late-night breath. All that time, she thought she had everything.
‘On the Waterfront,’ Marjorie tells herself now, unbagging the polystyrene container and salivating at the gluggy tartar sauce vomited over three fillets of battered cod and five spuds’ worth of chips. She prongs a mess of cod onto the plastic fork and shovels it into her: salty, temporary fullness. Hygge. Gulls trapeze through the air, screaming. They, too, can be grotesque, but they do not repulse their feathered husbands. They go wild on one another—out in the open, wings spread—and, afterwards, they slope around the town for munchies. Their eyes are open and red-rimmed all the time, and no one pities them.
Her mastication pronounces blue veins travelling from her throat up onto her cheeks so that she resembles a dark clown who hasn’t properly cleaned off her paint, post-show. It’s his fault this habit formed: of seeing herself from the outside. To try to reason the unengorgement, and to locate the pitied feeling. Whose feeling was whose? Enough now. Enough flagellation. Moping. Look forward. Ah yes, the fisherman on the far riverbank. Or is it only a wanker? The two hands are held before his crotch and there is no equipment at all. No rod, no wire, no coolly-box for the catch. The scrawny man is barely clad: he has on a long-sleeved striped t-shirt, a cap, and … gloves. It’s a mime artist, she realizes. Performing for no one. For no fish supper. Marjorie’s phone buzzes in her pocket and she jumps exaggeratedly, so that it counts as exercise. She sets the supper down beside her and roots out the device. It’s a text from Bróna.
‘Trinity just posted a bunch of vitriol about you and the shop online. 1 star reviews all over the place.’
It takes Marjorie a moment to realize that Bróna means the interviewee. ‘Ha!’ she proclaims, and looks around for acknowledgement. Deep in concentration, the mime artist is either fitting imaginary bait onto a fly lure or inspecting his foreskin for a hook—real or imaginary. Another text ignites the phone:
‘I took down the staff wanted sign. Hope you don’t mind. If I’m a bad hire Marjorie, please let me know and I’ll try harder or quit. But for now at least I need to know it’s not a scam. And that I actually got the job! Thank you so much for understanding.’
Then, after a few seconds, a postscript:
‘I’ll boo all his reviews.’
Marjorie is concocting a witty riposte when she sees the ellipsis still pulsing on her screen. The girl’s lovely thrumming fingers. The new hire has more ideas to impart, so she does. Marjorie waits awhile, blinking at the dots, catching herself ensnared like the youngsters by four puny inches when there is so much content around the pixels: so many people, unintroduced; such landscapes, light on history. And there: a mime artist, casting out expertly; turning on his sit-bone as the current tugs the unseen line downriver. There is no one in the vicinity to throw him a euro or a plastic fish. Marjorie will duck in that way heading back to the shop soon enough. Tuck a tenner under his beret, or give him the coat off her back. Well, from beneath her arse, but sure it’ll be nice and warm for him. She has heat in her yet, to transfer.
The phone buzzes again and she really fucking jumps this time. Thirty calories at least in the lep, and she’s out of breath at all the action, and the college graduate essay showing up on her screen.
‘I really love this job btw. I’m grateful for it and I badly want to keep it. It’s impossible to find a job at all, much less one that doesn’t involve signing away your conscience. There’s just one problem I should flag. Sometimes there’s a mildly inappropriate tone sometimes that makes me uncomfortable. I really don’t want any awkwardness to develop in terms of sexual misconduct or anything like that and of course there’s been Nothing of the sort so far. And I understand it’s just your cracking sense of humour which I love. But I can’t tell you how much I want to keep this job, so it’s more I’m just thinking about long term sustainability and establishing really good frank relations between us. Can I draw the line on 5 innuendos a day Marjorie?!!! I hope this is all okay to lay out. I’ve just found that I get less anxiety if I air greivances or concerns early on before they become something I should never have let them become. It’s preventative. Because the job’s worth protecting. I can see myself here in 5 years, if I’m lucky. I’ve locked up for lunch because it’s half two and I’m starving!! (I guess you’re napping in a recliner chair shop, testing merch!) Thanks for hearing me out.’
A fine drizzle congests the wind and Marjorie squints at the air before her, as if she’s about to sneeze. She presses the phone uncomfortably into her pocket. ‘Well,’ she says, neither question nor statement. Searching for the punchline that had been the line too far, she can only call to mind scenes of herself preparing quotes and timescales, packing and completing orders, feeling up the furniture with a damp cloth, closing out the till. She cannot even see herself in her workshop, or visualize anyone alongside her, or hear any words close to the truth that had been uttered—let alone too close. Then again, going through the motions is hardly blameless. Was his heart ever in it—even once—pumping to the point of arrhythmia; flushing the skin beneath his chest-hair like parched soil in a sudden downpour? Marjorie wipes the mist gruffly from her face, and still the blue veins don’t wash off. ‘You came out in the wrong season!’ she shouts at the mime artist, empty-handed. The artist’s gaze is devoted to the line, which he is reeling in, dutiful to himself; reverent to the motions. The river is boisterous between them in its unflagging, forthright, littery youth: the wet fucking youth of it! ‘But you!’ she calls out ineffectually. ‘You’d have gone back for the umbrella. Wouldn’t you?’ She didn’t mean the physical thing, but the gesture of it. And in a similar gesture of collection, a colossal white gull swoops down for Marjorie’s mushy cod remains. The gesture comes first—a batting motion of smacking the dust from a hung rug—then a scream wrangles from her throat. Sitting, she is useless against the gull. The motion of pushing herself up to her feet suffices as a fitness regimen, so many muscles does it use. There is more to the routine, too: Marjorie tears fistfuls of grass from the ground and flings them skyward. ‘Fuck off! Fuck off!’ She remembers the catapult she had once carved, for something to do with her hands the evenings she and Brendan sat on the couch. He didn’t like fingers in his hair. When he asked what she was making, she said a rape alarm. They’d had to pause the film, Brendan laughed so uncontrollably. To him, it was the multi-layered joke only his amazing wife was capable of.
She’s ripped out so many bits of earth, her picnic area looks like the Celtic Tiger’s cleaned its claws there. No one comes running to the gulls’ rescue, because they will be fine and dandy. There is ample detritus strewn about the city. Besides, they are unpitiable. The mime artist has stressfully packed up his things, and clears off. The bus-stop is deserted. Buses must arrive these days, now that all the leased Audis have had to be returned! There is a new petrol bellyful to the sky, but Marjorie doesn’t pay it any heed. She collects the cold tissuey dregs of her supper and gobbles every spec. It tastes of mime, she thinks … of salty mime. But it hadn’t done before—there had been flesh involved—she had seen it, from the outside. Pacing the patch of grass, she wonders if she’ll be sick. But then, there is Bróna, who isn’t yet trained to close out the till. What possession that young, fuckable woman has of herself: how easy and urgent she found it to state her truth, in writing—to formalise the complaint. But Marjorie needn’t channel such discipline. The nausea has already passed. ‘T’was only a wobble.’ She is sweating, but it is a hot flush. Her cool will come back to her momentarily. She inspects the polystyrene container with satisfaction: so well polished it could be recycled. She moves a finger against its slippery skin, pushing the rain around.
Soon, there is enough rain that it moves around her. Even the gulls have absconded to some eave to dry off. Hump their feathers light again. Marjorie collects her handbag and tucks the strap up onto her neck-shoulder amalgam. She marches riverward, smacks the polystyrene container flat and frisbees it into the water. A floaty … lest anyone jump in, and then change their mind. What use is the life-ring for a U-turn, and it boxed up on dry ground? Well … dryish. Marjorie snorts to herself. So sapped a nation is it that even the metaphors don’t work! Now that she’s standing on the bank, she can see that the mime artist hadn’t left; he’d only taken shelter in the convent. In its portico—across the body of water—he is on his mobile phone … calling some authority, maybe, to come and fine her?
‘You think that’s litter?’ Marjorie yells across to him, dripping; her eyes wide to the elements. ‘That’s nothing! Wait’ll you see! That’s only to keep the youth employed.’
Vote for I Ate It All And I Really Thought by Caoilinn Hughes here.
You and Him by Louise Kennedy (The Irish Times 27th August 2020)
Ned draws a shoulder to his ear to hold the phone in place, making a claw of his left hand and scribbling at it with his right, like he does when he’s asking for the bill in a restaurant. You pass him a pen and paper and watch him write. You can’t make out the words, just the curls and slants of the lettering. Before he hangs up he hesitates. Then he says: Are you sure there was nothing sinister about it?
Ned’s brother Bobby went to London twenty-four years ago. The last time they spoke Bobby said Google was about to buy his app and he would be home soon, filthy rich and lugging a suitcase full of white powder. Then nothing. From time to time you asked Ned if he had heard from him. No news is good news, he’d say. No news meant that Bobby no longer pestered him for cash or asked him to plead with the police on his behalf. No news meant he could tell himself that Bobby was alright.
You open the fridge to get him a beer, close it again. Whiskey has gravitas, so you pour a couple of fingers of Black Bush into a tumbler and put it in front of him. Your limbs are heavy and you wonder can he see it in you. The loss.
What happened? you say.
He looks at his phone, dabs at it, turns it face down. Massive heart attack. Advanced liver disease. Early stages of prostate cancer.
It must be three years since we last spoke to him.
Actually, it’s eight years since you spoke to him.
He looks up slowly. What does that mean? he says. Were you talking to him since?
You look at the backs of your hands, your shrivelled ring finger. Once. When I wasn’t well.
When you were depressed, he says. Ned doesn’t think depression is a form of illness. He thinks it’s a lifestyle choice.
You used to leave the children at school and drive home planning extreme housework. Bleaching the tiles behind the toilet where the grouting was sallow with piss. Scrubbing out the mouldering cupboard of seldom-used kitchen artillery: dented madeline tins, electric waffle-maker, pressure cooker. Sucking moustaches of dust from the louvred wardrobe doors. But you’d go into the house and lie on the bed – just for an hour, you told yourself – to watch daytime television. Entire mornings passed like minutes. You watched driving instructors from Leicester refitting former council properties with beige carpets and Shaker kitchens: eighties soap stars trawling their roof spaces for auctionable treasures and emerging with photos of themselves with Peter Stringfellow. There was a show about companies that track down beneficiaries to the estates of dead people. The searches revealed lives of unfathomable loneliness and the heirs, once found, were mortified. Their dead uncle/aunt/brother/sister had ‘fallen through the cracks’ or ‘gone off the radar’ or ‘had always been a bit of a loner’. You thought of Bobby and squirmed with them.
Between sips of whiskey, Ned pulls in his bottom lip, as if he’s trying to stop himself from speaking. He wants to ask why you phoned Bobby, what was said, but he doesn’t.
It was good of that man to find you. Who was he? you say.
A Polish fella who works for the housing trust. His mother used to take Bobby in when he was drinking too hard to look after himself.
He was dead a week, he says. Before they found him.
Ned takes the next day off work. He spends it at the kitchen table, talking on the phone and adding to the notes he made last night. He is asking about the options: cremation, embalming, flying the body back. By dinner time the page is covered in phone numbers, names, prices. You ask if there’s a plan:, a superfluous question because Ned always has a plan. The death notice will be in the Irish News and the Irish Times. Bobby’s body will arrive at Belfast International Airport tomorrow evening at four and a hearse will bring him to a funeral home on Donegal Street. The following day he will be cremated at Roselawn where there will be a priest but not a mass. There will be refreshments in a hotel for anyone who turns up, although he’s not expecting a crowd. He’s booked you both a room for the night.
You’re so organised, you say. It sounds like criticism.
He drives north in silence. At Carrickarnon a soft electronic voice says: ‘You have crossed the border’. It’s the first time the car has ever spoken and you both laugh. Encouraged, you say it is hilarious that the car is a woman with an English accent. That the fields look greener than when they were dulled by khaki and camouflage. That it’s nice to be going back, even for a funeral. You glance at Ned. His eyes are narrowed, as if he’s driving in the dark. He doesn’t reply.
There are two hearses parked outside the crematorium. One is bunged to the roof with floral tributes: GRANDA, DADDY, and RIP spelled in white chrysanthemums, a domed spray of lilies on the coffin lid. Four generations of a family are filing into the building, a wistful merriment about them; Granda must have lived a long and happy life. Bobby is in the other hearse, flowerless.
A taxi pulls up. The passenger in the back is leaning between the gap in the seats. Eventually a woman climbs out, dressed in a cheap black blazer and pencil skirt. She drops a cabin bag on the ground and drags it across the tarmac to Bobby’s hearse, a severe ponytail swinging behind her.
You follow Ned. Are you here for Bobby? he asks her.
Well, you’re his brother anyway, she says. She is exceptionally pretty, with strawberry blonde hair and fine features, but has the dry skin and juicy eyes of a drinker. She says her name is Jill. Ned holds his hand out but she ignores it and falls on him. She turns to you and does the same. She smells of eighties power perfume and empty stomach.
You could have bought a wreath, mate, she says, waving a hand at the coffin. It looks like you’re burying Ian Brady.
Ned tells her he made a donation to a drop-in centre for alcoholics in lieu of flowers. She laughs and lights a cigarette.
The undertakers are struggling to pull the coffin out of the hearse. As they wrest it onto the trolley one of the castors spins as if might snap off, but it holds. Ned said they had to line the box with lead because of the time lapse between death and discovery. Jill finishes the cigarette in three drags and flicks the butt into a herbaceous border.
Hot beverages are being served from plastic air-pots in a corner of the waiting area. Jill drinks three cups of coffee as if it is water and looks offended when she is offered a biscuit. Some of Ned’s cousins and aunts have come, a couple of men he and Bobby knew in school. Elderly women you don’t recognise grip your hands and tell you they were at your wedding. They ask about your kids. Away now, you say.
The happy family stream out and you take your slot. Jill sits in the front pew between you and Ned. The priest is a celebrity tenor. Ned told him not to bother with hymns, so he sings the prayers to spite him. Jill looks at her phone for most of the proceedings but makes a show of saying the Our Father, finishing with a resounding ‘For Thine is the kingdom…’ The priest waits patiently for her to finish. She looks at you in mock consternation. You tell her Catholics leave out that part. Oops! she says.
A jizz of incense, a prayer crooned by a show-bizz priest. The plain coffin juddering a few feet along a belt, heavy red curtains closing mechanically.
It’s like ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, says Jill.
Bobby would have roared laughing.
Jill slides into the back seat of the car. She chatters all the way down the road to town, gasping as the cranes in the shipyard come into view, marvelling that you have M&S here too.
What was she to Bobby? you whisper to Ned.
I’m afraid to ask.
The hotel he booked is behind the university. As he slows outside it, Jill flings her door open and jumps out, saying she’s going to check in and freshen up.
Dear God, says Ned. We have her for the night.
There are twenty-three of you in the vast function room, loading tiny plates with chicken goujons and curling sandwiches.
It went alright, says Ned, popping a cocktail sausage in his mouth.
It was grand, you say. It sounds grudging and you feel bad. It did go alright.
Jill comes downstairs, her hair rescraped, perfume so thick you can nearly see it. Who in under God is she? someone asks.
She orders a gin from a passing waitress. You weren’t going to drink, but you hear Ned telling the priest that Bobby introduced you two and order one as well. Make them doubles, Jill calls after her, and sentences trail off around the room.
You don’t recognise the boy you knew from the stories they’re telling. Jill orders you both another drink and says she has a few stories herself. She tells about the time Bobby phoned Heathrow airport pretending to be a policeman and asked them to delay a flight to Tenerife she was late for because they’d been drinking all night. And about the time they had a row and he went to see Leaving Las Vegas alone in the throes of a bender. He left the cinema and held up a luxury goods store in Haymarket with a toy gun because he wanted to give her a present. Ned is looking at his feet. It had cost him several grand and a week’s holidays to sort the mess out. Too pissed to make a getaway, Bobby had sat on the kerb outside the shop to smoke a cigarette, the stolen handbag over his shoulder, while the anti-terror squad sealed off the area in search of an armed man with a Belfast accent.
A cousin holds up his pint. To Bobby, he says, and you all raise your glasses and drink to a man who drank himself to death.
Jill asks where the Ladies is, linking your arm and hauling you with her. One of her eyebrows has begun to wear off and she draws it back on. He told me about you and him, she says.
There was no me and him, you tell her. Not like that.
That’s not what he said. He reckoned you dumped him for his boring brother.
The fresh eyebrow is more boomerang than arch and makes her look as if she doesn’t believe you.
When you go back to the function room, everyone has left except Ned. He says he is going to the car to get your stuff and that you need to go to the desk to check in. Jill leaves you in the foyer, saying she’ll see you in the bar in an hour. The lift door closes on her as Ned comes back with your things. He tells the receptionist he’ll settle up now for the finger food and accommodation. Jill has told them to put her room on his bill. You watch, astonished, as he hands over his card. If she runs up any room charges she can cover them herself, he says.
Upstairs, you ask him why he paid.
Because this is the end of it. And I don’t know what he’s done to her, or what he owes her.
He sits at a desk at the window to check his work email. You realise in a rush how hard it must have been for careful, honourable Ned with his accountant’s sense of balance, to have a brother like Bobby, who blundered through life, keeping no tally of what he took.
Jill is sitting on a bar stool. She’s changed into a sparkly top and is talking into the ear of the barman, who is scarcely thirty, with a sculpted beard and biceps that are busting out of his polo shirt. Their cheeks are almost touching and he’s nodding slowly, a bloom of desire on his face. He moves away reluctantly when you take the stool beside her.
If you speak quietly they have to come close, she says.
I must remember that.
At a table in the corner a man is saying one two, one two into a microphone. The barman puts a bottle of white wine and two glasses on the counter, along with two pens and a sheaf of paper.
There’s a quiz on. Youse should make a team, he says.
Why not, she says.
What will you call yourselves? he says.
Chalk and Cheese, says Jill, and scrawls it in bubble-writing across the top of the page.
She gets ten out of ten in the celebrity photograph round. You know most of the literature and art answers. You are both rubbish at geography, science and nature.
Were you Bobby’s girlfriend? you say.
Yeah. And the mother of his child.
You have a child.
She takes her phone out and shows you a photograph of a girl of twelve or thirteen. She has her mother’s nose and mouth and Bobby’s thick hair and green eyes. He didn’t tell you, did he?
Bastard. The only money he ever gave me was fifty quid, and it took the Child Support Agency and a week in prison to get it out of him.
What’s her name?
Bronagh. His idea.
The sports round starts and the barman rinses a cloth at the sink and wipes his way slowly towards Jill. If you’re stuck, just ask, he says, pulling himself up to his full height. She pretends to be baffled by a rugby question and he whispers the answer out of the side of his face. Jill looks at him in wonder, as if he’s the oracle.
You come second. Jill collects the prize, a bottle of blush zinfandel, pretending to shake it and spray it round the room as if she’s James Hunt.
The barman gives her two fresh glasses. Enjoy, he says languidly.
In the foyer, she waggles the bottle at you. Drinkie?
I’m cramping your style.
He’s just a boy, she says, but she’s juking over your shoulder in the direction of the bar. See you at breakfast. I wonder what Ned will say when I tell him he’s an uncle.
You wonder what Ned will say when he hears Bobby named his daughter after you.
You go outside and look up and down the street. Burrito bars and falafel joints have replaced some of the old shops, but it hasn’t changed much. You start walking, taking a roundabout way through the Holylands, which hasn’t changed at all. You and Bobby, loping up Palestine Street with a carry-out. You and him in his room with the wet walls that sprouted mushrooms in the Autumn, a stippling of rain against the skylight. You with your back to him, pulling a t-shirt over your bra, wondering was he watching. Him pulling the sleeping bag from the top of the wardrobe, making a pillow of his clothes on the floor. Slap of headboard against wall in the next room and you leaning out of his bed to make a joke of it. Him with his arm bent behind his head, looking up at you as you draw the covers back. You and him, hips and chins knocking, finding a fit.
Vote for You and Him by Louise Kennedy here.
The Emperor of Russia by Jaki McCarrick, from New Short Stories 11 (Willesden Herald, 30 Nov 2019)
I could hear my father singing in the lower field. In between the lines of the poorly-sung Joe Dolan number he would call for me, each time more demanding, though he did not bother to draw near to where I actually was, which was at the back of the house, pegging his newly-washed clothes to the line. I knew I’d give in eventually to his calls, but I wanted him to hurt his voice as much as possible with the screeching. ‘Rose! Come down to the big tree,’ he said, finally, his song ended. When I finished the laundry, I sauntered towards him. Course it was me who let out the loudest screech of all when I got to the lower field, where he stood by the eucalyptus tree in his brown pinstripe suit with its shiny stains and frayed cuffs, leaning on his pellet gun. Hanging from a high branch of the tree was a crow, plump and stiff, and I knew straight away by the white in its feathers that it was Hermione, my brother’s pet, and that my bastard father had killed her. I fell to my knees and cried out, worse than any time when he’d left us first and gone to England.
‘Crows are a dime a dozen, wee one, and you better stop with that whining,’ my father said. There wasn’t an ounce of remorse in his voice.
‘You’d no business doing that,’ I said.
‘I told you what we’d be doing to stop the crop getting took off us from under our noses, didn’t I? A certain measure your mother would have none of. But she’s not here now is she?’ He was right, of course: he had told me what he planned to do to a crow, and yes, my mother wasn’t around to protest. She’d died in the years he was away, and here he was now, as he’d been this past while, acting as if he knew everything about how to run our farm, when truth was he knew next to nothing about farming. He was just as he was before; all he was good for was guns and shooting and everyone knew it.
Hanging a dead crow from a tree is a practice they used do in the country, in the border areas especially, to ward off other crows from the new barley, wheat, spuds. The belief was that crows, being sensitive, intelligent birds, would spend a week ‘waking’ their fellow (dead) crow, and in that time the crop would be harvested. I’d seen it once before, years ago, a pair of crows hanging from blue rope off the gate to a backwoods field in Omeath.
‘Julian’s been rearing her since she was a chick fell out of her nest,’ I said. ‘The one white wing, the crack in the beak. How could you do a thing like that?’ I went to the ladder lying in the grass by my father’s feet, picked it up and brought it to the tree.
‘What you doing, Rose?’ he said, as I rested the ladder against the eucalyptus.
‘Going burying this bird that’s what. I’ll not have it swinging around for you to poke and swing, and for to call me down from the house to goad at.’ On the third step of the ladder I winced at the grip of his sizeable fingers.
‘You’ll not be burying this bird today,’ he said. I couldn’t help myself then and looked him straight in the eye and said:
‘Well, aren’t you the bastard Ma married.’ He went to slap my face, as he’d done a few times before, though he stopped due to the stern look I gave him. It is hilarious to consider how much respect my father demands from me and Julian. It’s like he thinks that by virtue of the fact of having conceived us he’s the right to the utmost loyalty and respect. Though from where I stood on the ladder, eye-to-eye with him, I could see I had crossed a line, and what’s more it felt bad to cross it, as I too held some weird store in his having conceived me, if even he had done that.
‘You kill a crow, it keeps the rest of them off your field, and you know why?’ he said.
‘Because the others will wake him.’
‘The bird was a her,’ I said.
‘Because the others will wake her. They’ll screech and croak and they’ll not eat, just go back to the trees and cry for a day. That’s when we harvest. And we’ll not be robbed blind by them then. You see? That’s how it was done in the old days. It’s the crows or us.’
I got off the ladder and paced about on the grass. What was I going to tell Julian? I had so much hope in his recent sense of happiness with Hermione. I was planning to leave home the following May, you see; I’d a job lined up and everything – in a summer camp in New Jersey – so how could I leave Julian here now with our father, who insisted upon running the farm according to rumour and myth rather than sound agricultural knowledge?
‘Haven’t the crows as much right to the crop?’ I said.
‘What you know about anything?’
‘I know I can’t leave our fella here with you the way you are, going round killing innocent animals.’
‘I don’t care what you do,’ my father said, and looked up at the sky, at the slowly circling crows, who must have been appalled at the sight of one their own tied to a eucalyptus tree like some kind of offering or ‘strange fruit’. My father was certainly the lynching kind after all, except that this was the Irish border and not Alabama, though bar the weather and accents the two places are twins on many levels.
‘They’ll start up now with their waking, and in the morning we’ll reap this harvest and we’ll have what we reap all to our bloody selves,’ he said. I watched him walk off towards the house. When he was out of sight I could hear the front door open, then shut, though I was sure he would watch me from the window in case I’d climb up the tree and cut down the bird: I thought better of doing that.
The following day, a team of men arrived from Bush to help with the harvest. I’d seen some of them before, in town, or in church; Poles and Lithuanians who’d been hired by neighbouring farms for the potato picking. In the yard, where they’d parked their cars, I met them with my father and shook the burly pickers’ hands as he’d instructed me to do. I gave them a few lines about seeing some of them in town and how I’d love to travel to their beautiful countries, which they must be missing in this hole of a place, etc etc. My father quickly took over then and told them about Hermione. As he stood chattering amongst them, I slipped away and went to the house. I’d not had a chance to talk to Julian about her – not alone at least (my Da had watched me like a hawk the night before) and I was waiting for my opportunity.
I threw stones at Julian’s window, which was open a little. The thick lace curtains inside moved gently in the breeze. Julian didn’t answer, and I didn’t want to go inside for fear of my father catching me talking to him and squealing about the bird. He never likes me talking to Julian. He especially doesn’t like squealing; has some weird ‘code’ about it. So I decided that with my father holding court with the pickers, like a big bear or some clownish figure from a Shakespearian play, that I’d talk to my brother from the safety of the front garden.
‘Julian, did you see we’re to have a big harvest, even with the terrible summer and the rain and all?’ I said, but there was no reply.
‘Can you see that the field is almost white entirely with the potato flowers? He’s a whole team over from Bush today to gather them this year. Listen, about Hermione. I think she’s gone, Julian. That’s what crows do, Love,’ I said. I wanted to tell him about my plan, but thought better of shouting it out in case I’d be heard by the pickers or my father. Julian would have understood though, because he knows the whole history of our farm, which is in the district of Grange, in the Cooley Hills, County Louth. This land is old, with dozens of brown information signs to do with the legends of the Táin, the oldest legend in Europe, about Cú Chulainn and Queen Maebh, dotted about the place. There are wells and souterrains all over, too, old traps and holes like the ones that’d be in Alice in Wonderland. Only they’re not Wonderland. They’re dark and cold inside, sometimes lined with stone but more often than not it’s just the bog down there, which is much worse, as it’s darker and weirder than stone when all around you. And if you were ever to get stuck down one of those traps or holes you’d never again get out, especially if someone were to block the entrance. The bad thing about our beautiful fields, of course, is that they are so lovely, full of clover and all manner of flowers, the harebells in May, the foxgloves in June, so that you’d never know they are also full of such dangers, such holes. And a person, a man for instance, who’d been away, who’d fecked off, left his wife and children fending for themselves in these hinterland fields with all their hidden dangers, might not be so used to them holes and wells and tunnels and traps, and one day when he’s … But I digress. I did not discuss my plan with Julian, nor had I the heart to tell him the truth about Hermione. Julian was housebound, and unless he stuck his head out his window he’d never see the crow hanging from the eucalyptus tree, so I hoped he would believe me that Hermione had flown away. My father called out. ‘What you want now?’ I said.
‘We’re starting. Lads are ready. Not a living crow in sight neither. All cleared off into the hazel wood. Stop slacking now, Rose.’ I felt the usual rage at him rise up in me. I wondered why it was he bothered me so much. He should not have had such a hold over me (I hardly knew him after all), but he had. I returned to the window:
‘Julian? I’m serious. I need you to get well and strong and not leave me to that stranger we’ve let back in the house. Treats me like his slave. Like Ma.’ And as I said those words I thought I could hear Julian crying and I began to feel ashamed.
‘Ah sure, I know you loved him. Wasn’t he a funny old Da when we were tiny? Swinging us round the place. But he’s not the same. He’s not. And I need you to get strong, Julian, so we can take steps. Because that’s what we need to do.’
He doesn’t know this, my father, whose name is Dan, but I keep a photo of him when he was in his teens, maybe my age now. I keep it under my pillow. He would be very surprised to find it there, that’s for sure. It’s black and white and as old as Methuselah. In the photo he’s holding a greyhound puppy, and there’s a smile across his face as wide as a sea. One that exudes gushing unadulterated joy. His eyes water with it. His love for the puppy is all over that photograph, like a good sort of stain. Yet whenever I asked him about having a pup or dog as a boy, he would shrug and say he’d never any time for animals when he was young, that he’d never any pets. So, I believe something happened him after he joined the Republican ‘war’, as he calls it, which he joined when he was fifteen. He not only put away childish things, as they say, but he put away the child, and any memory of him. There is something about the photo that helps me exist in the same house as my father, that makes me think he is not a monster. Even though there are others in the vicinity of the border who think differently.
‘You’re taking long enough with that grub, Rose,’ my father said, like the greatest nag that ever lived. I’d made the sandwiches earlier that morning. And I’d been very careful and precise about making them, measured you might say, though I lied to buy time at the window with my brother.
‘I’ve to make it yet,’ I said.
‘Well hurry up about it. Come on.’
‘Coming Da. Coming.’
When I got back to him with the grub, I invited my father to eat with me, away from the pickers, who were gathered now round a long table we’d set out in the yard-cum-car-park. He liked seeing I’d taken care with his lunch and that I’d packed it in a picnic basket along with a check tablecloth. He always likes to be treated nicely, my father, delicately even, like bone bloody china, such is the man’s vanity. I guided him to sit at the edge of the field, where the land is flat. I laid out the cloth and placed the sandwiches and flask and teacups on it. He tucked in immediately. ‘That’s a fine lunch you packed us, Rose. You not having any?’ he said.
‘You’ll make some fella a fine wife one day,’ he said. Did he not see I was far from being interested in men, having had him as a father and therefore a good reason to hate the entire male species?
‘La-la-la-la-la …’ I said.
‘What you la-laing at?’ he said, and stuffed a hunk of bread into his mouth.
‘Making me sick with that kind of talk, Da,’ I said, and sipped on my Diet Coke, watching out of one eye in case any of the pickers came upon us.
‘Only I suppose he’d have to cut your tongue out in order to get through a day in peace,’ he said, and threw back his head and laughed. My father’s jokes are always laced with cruelty, but, annoyingly, they are also told well, and with expert timing.
‘Lovely thing to say to me, Da,’ I said, and sat back on the grass, my feet on the cloth. I looked at him directly and nearly blurted out there and then exactly what I’d put in the sandwiches.
‘Well, it’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve repelled every fella came gathering spuds and barley here this past two years.’
‘Me and fellas is not your concern,’ I said. There was a period of silence between us then and I felt myself dying to tell him what I’d done but stopped myself in time. ‘So, you like my sandwiches do you?’ I said. He grunted something and nodded. Seeing as he couldn’t speak with the relish leaking out of his gob, I decided to make it even more difficult for him. ‘Which one do you like most?’
‘Most, I like the beef,’ he said, and licked his lips.
‘Ah, the beef,’ I said. ‘Well the beef I knew you’d go for. The beef I knew you’d like. So they’re the ones I paid most attention to.’ I watched him as he sucked carefully each of his fat fingers, probably thinking the only reason I was put on this earth was to serve him, like he was some sort of king or emperor. He’d been the same way with my mother.
‘Well, you’re a good cook anyways. That’s something,’ he said. He swallowed the food, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and made an almighty burp. Then he began to snigger. ‘I suppose if the fella was deaf you’d be all right,’ he said. ‘Deaf, and fucken half-blind maybe.’ And he rolled about laughing, slapping the tablecloth rapidly as if he’d said the funniest thing.
‘Ah that’s it, you go right ahead. Entertain yourself with your own jokes,’ I said. ‘I’d say you’re very good at that now, entertaining yourself. Seeing as you were gone out of this house almost twelve years roaming the streets of places, sure you must be a grandmaster of entertaining yourself by now.’ He knew where I was going with this, where I always went: berating him for leaving us, all those years before. He lit up a cigarette without offering one to me.
‘I came home not to see you reared without a mother. Because I care. Because I’m your father. And what went on between her and me is not your concern neither,’ he said, sniffily. He stood and looked towards the pickers, who were already back at their work in the fields. We could hear their voices coming close, their fractured laughter floating on the air. ‘You ask them lads to go from the drills that side?’ he said, perplexed.
‘I did,’ I replied. ‘That’s how we’ve done it all these years. Left to right.’
‘Good to split the work up I suppose,’ he said.
‘I thought we’d start this end now you’re finished eating,’ I said, and showed him the sacks I’d brought for the spuds we were yet to pick.
‘Just this is the rough side, rolls down to ditches and all, and I would have thought you’d have preferred, you know, an easier go of it,’ he said. I shook my head.
‘If you start left we’ll meet the lads coming halfway, you see? I’ll go right,’ I said. We stood and put the picnic things away. We folded up the tablecloth, corner to corner, and I was surprised he remembered how to do it. As we met with the folding of the cloth, I felt a pang of guilt in my heart and tried to shake it off. He saw it of course, the confused flicker of love in my eyes.
‘I thought of you all the time wee one. When I was away. You and Julian. You been talking to him?’ I nodded and felt the burn of his eyes on me.
‘What does he say now?’
‘Not much. He wants to forget about it. The accident. Who wouldn’t want to forget a thing like that, nearly took your life, made you a ghost of your former self,’ I said. My father nodded and looked out at the land. Before us was Carlingford Lough, blue and flat. I would miss the sight of the Lough in America. The day was bright, the heather on the hills turning a soft aubergine colour. My father seemed fixed on the road towards Carlingford.
‘Down there,’ he said, ‘the road North. I remember it well. Men in uniform. “Papers, Paddy” – and me not yards from my own farm.’
‘I’ve no memory of those days and I don’t want to have either,’ I said.
‘Well I do,’ he said, and I felt a little ashamed for offering him no understanding on this subject.
‘Why d’you go to England then if you hate it so much?’ I said.
‘We all run back to the colonizer, to the one that hurts us – eventually. Do you not know that, Rose? Didn’t your mother teach you how that game worked? They take something from you, a part of your heritage, your identity, that you need so as to know yourself, and you go always looking for that thing.’ I knew there was something in what my father said. To do with our history here, perhaps. About how the border area, all three hundred twisty-turny miles of it, had been ravaged by the Troubles. How it had formerly been plagued by checkpoints and police and soldiers. My father knew things. And if I could have removed the bitterness I felt towards him from my heart I might have learned some of them. There was a moment then between us; in fact it was the culmination of many moments, when I felt he was the grand figure, the giant I’d made him into when I was a child. He felt awkward then, I could see it in him, though he quickly lapsed, purposefully it seemed to me, into the crow-killing coward I’d become more used to, as if this were a mask, one behind which he felt safe: ‘Well, the spuds won’t be lifted by themselves,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘And we better get into it before the crows stop caring.’
As he picked along his drill, I slipped away from him and went back to the house. The window was again open in Julian’s room at the front and I threw stones against the pane for my brother to show himself, but as was his way he did not come. I directed my voice to the window: ‘Julian. You remember when he was gun-running? Hiding guns all over Ma’s land? Putting us all in danger? Well, he was a bad egg then and he’s bad egg now. So you better hang in there, and stop moaning, sounding so lost and sad.’ I said. ‘Hermione’s a fucken stupid name for a crow anyways. As if I didn’t know where you got it. Look, buck up. Because we’re to be free soon, the two of us, of the stranger we let back in this house when we shouldn’t have.’ I sensed Julian would know what I meant and what I was planning now to do.
When I got back to the meadow I saw my father retching over the white potato flowers. I’d brought another sack with me, flung over my shoulder. I went to him and asked him to lean on me so I could bring him back to the house. ‘Into the meadow here, by the crocus. That’s it, Da,’ I said. I took a few paces with him and stopped. ‘Rest here on this big stone a while. Sit, and I’ll see if I can find you some wild mint that’ll settle your stomach and then we’ll go home,’ I said. As he sat on the stone, clinging to his stomach, I rummaged around in the grass, not for mint at all, as you can imagine. Eventually, I found what I was looking for. My father whined with pain and I did my best not to pay any heed.
‘Oh Rose, I’ve something to tell you, love,’ he said, as he wiped down his sweaty brow.
‘Too late for talk like that, Da,’ I said. ‘I’d save it for Julian. He’s the young one now.’
‘Isn’t it about Julian,’ my father said. He looked about him, his wide eyes darting from rock to bush. ‘This bit of your mother’s land. Ah, we would walk here many’s a time. Looks very familiar. During my “political career” perhaps. Aye, I’m sure this is a place I’ve been to and hidden certain things in.’
‘Much good your politics did you. Much good it did any of us. Had to go to England in the end, left us half-starved most of the time.’ I stood him up and walked him towards where I’d rummaged. He sort of half-hummed, half-sang as he walked: ‘Oh me oh my, oh me oh my, you’re such a good-looking woman.’ I pressed on his shoulder and urged him to stop.
‘Now where’s that mint?’ He said. And with that I pushed him into the hole that had been hidden all these years in the grass. He let out a roar as he fell. I knew all about the holes and souterrains on this land, as I’d farmed it for years without my father’s help. As he cried, I pulled Hermione from the sack I’d brought with me, and threw her down on top of him.
‘There,’ I said to the mouth of the hole, ‘the crows can mourn the two of yez now. Because I won’t, nor will Julian. “Crow’s wake!” This is modern Ireland and we don’t string up crows no more! And if anyone comes looking for you, Da, I’ll say he fecked off to England as he was wont to do. And I’ll be believed. I’m a young woman with prospects, off to America for a job that’s lined up already, a brother, half-dead from a joyriding accident, and a feckless father who has nothing to do now there’s peace in Ireland only to tell me how to work my own farm. No one will come looking for you here, Da, because no one will fucken miss you.’
‘Rose, Rose!’ my father screamed. I went to the stone and began to roll it towards the mouth of the hole. It was tough going as over and over I rolled it.
‘I’ll be rolling the stone over now, Da, so you’ll have to shut up,’ I said.
‘Rose, Rose!’ he continued. What did he want to say? That he was sorry for the life he’d made us all lead? The hard work and the poverty, that had undoubtedly caused my mother’s early death? It was too late for apologies.
‘What is it, Da? I can’t let you out. You go stringing things up that people love; you go slapping me and me eighteen years old. You’re no good. And no good for Julian, who is my only friend here at all.’ And then he said the words that deep down I knew were true:
‘Rose, Julian’s dead this two years.’
‘What are you talking about, you mad bastard?’
‘After the accident, sure you went demented. What with your mother and all.’
‘You started talking to him six months later. And I always thought that somewhere in your mind you must have known Julian wasn’t in that room.’ I cried out then. My hands shook and I retched into the grass though I’d eaten nothing.
‘What about Hermione?’
‘The crow! The crow down there on top of you. Who reared it from a chick if it wasn’t Julian?’
‘He did. But that was long ago. If this is that bird, it’s come back after a long time away, just like myself. Julian’s dead, daughter, and you better believe it. So, you go rolling that stone over this hole you’ll have no one at all. No Ma, no brother, no Herm…’
‘And no Da! You’ll be an orphan entirely.’ I knew then he was right. Wasn’t he always? Though I wished he’d said something about Julian before. I was embarrassed to think he knew all along I’d been talking to a ghost.
‘Oh Da,’ I cried, ‘why’d you have to kill that crow?’
‘I’m sorry about it. Oh me stomach.’
‘That’ll be the strychnine,’ I said.
‘I poisoned the beef.’
‘Oh Rose. Why d’you have to do a thing like that?’
‘You shouldn’t have gone away, Da. That’s when, when it all started.’
‘What Rose, what?’
‘Oh, didn’t I miss you, Da?’ I said, and felt something inside me begin to shatter. What had I done? Bad enough I’d poisoned my own father, but now he was at the bottom of a cold deep pit. I thought about screaming out to the pickers for help. I heard him laughing. I drew closer to the edge. There was the sound of a chest or trunk of some kind being opened, of creaking, rusty hinges, and of the clatter of metal within.
‘What is it, Da, what’s down there?’ I said. I could hear him talking away to himself.
‘They don’t make them like this anymore. Look at the spin on that.’
He shouted my name up at me, his voice full of sorrow and sincerity, like the old Da, the one I’d idolised before he left:
‘The bird, Rose. I’m awfully sorry about him,’ he said.
‘Her Da, her.’
‘Where’d our fella get that name anyways?’
‘He was studying Shakespeare at school. And I was helping him. A Winter’s Tale he took that name from,’ I said, as tears streamed down my face, the memories of our once vaguely happy family flooding my mind.
‘Right,’ my father said.
‘“The Emperor of Russia was my father.”’
‘What’s that, Love?’ he said.
‘You mustn’t call me that, Da.’ I said. ‘You’re a stranger to me now.’ His voice got quiet then, like a whisper, thin as a goose feather, and I concentrated intently as if it was the last time I might ever hear the tenderness in my father’s voice, which had always been there, I realised, had I bothered to listen for it.
‘Come here to me, Rose. Come to the edge and I’ll see your face just one more time before you roll over that stone, and say again to me the sweet-sounding thing I just heard you say.’ So I did. Who could resist the way my charming father could ask a thing? I went close to the hole, my face hanging over its dark mouth, and whispered:
‘“The Emperor of Russia was my father.”’ It was a line from A Winter’s Tale that I’d always loved. And I meant every soft-sounding syllable.
‘I know, Rose. I know,’ he said, and swiftly he lifted up the long contraption in his hand, and pointed the dark metal end straight at me. His hands shook. Our eyes, which were similar, round and slate-grey, locked for a second, his betrayal of me and mine of him suspended momentarily outside our eye contact, allowing for this rare exchange of pure familial love, before he fired with his trademark expertise.
Vote for The Emperor of Russia by Jaki McCarrick here.
Wildflowers by Billy O’Callaghan, from The Boatman and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, Jan 2020)
He came up the road a little after six, a big man with a soft, lumbering gait, worn out from a day that had begun with the dawn milking. A brief but violent late-morning downpour had caught him in the fields and soaked him through, and even after several hours spent behind the tractor’s wheel his shirt and jeans remained damp to the touch, and warm-smelling with the mineral tang of sweat. But because the sun had come out, hot enough for a while to scald, and settled the whole island with the burnished glow of a perfect August evening, his humour, having given way to torpor, was light and easy. Dragging at the air through a smile, he followed the road up between the head-high briar ditches bright on both sides with blooming fuchsia and honeysuckle and alive to the bother of wasps, bees and the occasional flitting greenfinch or babbler. He made the same traipse at roughly this time every day, even though his own home lay in entirely the opposite direction.
At home, if she’d already finished her day’s chores, his wife would be sitting at the table beside the open window, her broad head bent over the crossword puzzles that she never seemed to finish. She’d fill in the short words with fat capital letters, then spend several minutes glaring at the rest of the clues, tapping the butt of the pen against her upper front teeth. When it eventually became clear to her that she’d reached an impasse, her way was to seek a six-letter space, preferably Down, because that for some reason appealed to her, though Across would suffice at a pinch, and with her usual slow care she’d spell out her own name, M-A-R-T-H-A. Were he to enter at such a moment, he’d invariably meet a look that seemed equal parts wonder and confusion, as if his appearance, even after thirty-one years of marriage, still held for her a stranger’s surprise. She’d stare, eyes big behind the thick round lenses of her bifocals, then return her attention to the page, to set about colouring in the remaining blank squares so that, from a distance, if you happened to be colour-blind, you might assume the puzzle had been completed.
The evening had turned languid and the dead smut of earlier rain cloud lingered now only as a memory in the east. Weather for sitting out, he thought, pausing once just where the ditch on his right side broke for a four-rung gate, its iron rusted down to the maroon marrow of old blood. Weather for sipping a glass of cold beer and savouring the end part of another day well spent. He leaned on the gate’s top rung, stopping not because he was out of breath, though he was, but so that he could savour the spill of the land, the misshapen fields empty except for patches of the same measly yellow grass that grew everywhere on the island at this time of year, and the dappled blue-glass stretch of the ocean. As a young man he’d thought often about the things that must lie on the other side of the horizon line, but having fished that water almost from the time he could stand up in a boat without needing to be held, the lesson time and tide had taught him was that the sea went on without end, with neither bottom nor sides. Beyond the horizon, there could only ever be more of the same. That saddened him, especially when he saw others go, friends, neighbours, neighbours’ children, because their leaving caused him to remember again how he’d had his own heart taken that one time and drowned, and because he’d come to understand that there was nothing to be said, no words of warning that they’d heed. The whispering promises of the surf and the gold and silver that flecked the water’s surface were a lure, tempting the curious-hearted away from solid footing, but those who took the bait would have to learn for themselves, the hard way, the way everybody did.
He continued to smile, forcing it now, until the sadness receded and the day was again sweet. On impulse, in turning away from the gate, he stooped and plucked some strands of goldenrod and red campion and, as an afterthought,a few wild roses, their white petals blushing a touch pink in places. Then, flowers in fist, he continued up the road, whistling the first airy strains of a tune he knew as ‘The Minstrel Boy’, to the little cottage set so neatly into a hard sweep of ground that it lay entirely hidden from view until you came within barely five paces of its front door.
‘Hello?’ he called, pushing his way inside without bothering to knock. The door, as always in hot weather, was ajar. After the sunshine of the hill road, the hallway, which led in from the side of the house and divided the tiny building fairly neatly in half, had a gloom that encouraged sighs. To his left, just inside the door, was an immaculately white late-edition bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower, that had been converted only in the early 1980s from a small box bedroom; and further along, another slightly larger bedroom, a shadowy room that across the span of some five generations had known seventeen births and probably a dozen final breaths.
‘Hello?’ he called again, raising his voice a little and feeling its heft out of place in the hallway. ‘Are you here, at all?’
‘I’m here,’ an old woman’s voice answered, after a couple of heartbeats, from ahead and to his right. Pitching without effort, though tinged with impatience. ‘I’m still here.’
She was sitting in the armchair beside the living room’s empty fireplace, and he knew at a glance that he’d woken her from sleep. He lingered within the frame of the room’s doorway and felt his eyes drawn to the two small windows opposite. The light in here was soft and dull, diffused and made shadowy by the thin fleece of net curtain. ‘There’s a nice bit of sun out now,’ he said. ‘That drop of rain from earlier is after making the evening grand and clean. You should bring a chair outside for an hour. It’d do you a power of good.’
‘Was it weeding, you were?’
‘What? Oh, these.’ He smiled at the posy of flowers still in his fist. ‘I saw them on the way up and thought they’d brighten the place a bit for you. The ditches are full of colour.’ A chipped brown vase sat in the centre of the old mahogany folding table, full still with the last bunch of flowers he’d picked, some ten days or so ago. Late crocuses, violet and butter yellow, sprigs of bluebell, cerise and lilywhite foxglove. The bluebells were beginning to wilt, but the bouquet as a whole had yet to lose its vibrancy, and instead of replacing or thinning the older blooms he simply added the new cuts to the mix.
‘Lazy man’s load,’ she mumbled, watching him from the fireplace.
He looked at her, then considered the new display. ‘I don’t know. I think they look good. The way they were born to look. You haven’t a drop of beer going, I suppose?’
She flapped a dismissive hand. ‘If you didn’t finish what you brought up last week then there ought to be. You’d know better than I would.’
He continued to stand there, awkward with his size, in the middle of the floor, shoulders still slumped, the knuckles of one hand set in a frozen knocking gesture against the table’s polished top. His expression looked stuck between thoughts.
‘Is it waiting for me to pour it, you are? Go on. It’ll be in the pantry if it’s anywhere. And sure I’ll take a drop too, so, if you’re having it. Half a glass. Just for the taste. I’ve had the flavour of copper in my mouth all day. It’s like I’ve been sucking pennies.’
He went through into the pantry, opened a cupboard in the corner and took out two of the small brown bottles from among the five that he’d tucked away the previous Sunday. He twisted off the caps, poured half of one bottle slowly into a tilted glass, then stood watching creamy froth rise from the cloudy golden-red liquid. While the ale settled, he drained the remainder of the bottle in a couple of deep, thirsty swallows, then picked up the glass and the second uncapped bottle and returned to the living room.
The old woman had closed her eyes again. He stood a moment, then settled across from her in the other armchair. The only sound in the room was the thin stutter of the mantel clock shucking seconds, and because something about the thick, cool seep of the light let him consider her without needing to break down the defence of her own returning stare, he saw her more clearly than he had in the longest time.
‘I’m not asleep,’ she whispered, after a minute or two, in a voice almost too soft to catch.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I have my beer.’
The faintest hint of a smile tipped the corners of her mouth. ‘I wasn’t worried in the least about that.’
Her face this past couple of years had begun caving in around the prod of bone, so that everything was becoming juts and hollows, her cheeks beneath their pointed ridges, her mouth between her chin and the long slender ridge of her nose. As long as he’d known her, she’d been thin. Hawkish, he supposed, in the eyes of those who didn’t know her softness. But now it seemed as if her bones were shrinking, leaving her skin, baked to hide and cobwebbed with creases, to sag in a mournful way.
‘Don’t stay long. Martha will be wondering where you are.’
‘Sure, she knows that if I’m not home I’m either in the fields or up here. She’ll not worry.’
The old woman watched him pull a mouthful of ale from his bottle. Except for the life in her eyes, the focus, she was little more than husk. The glass of beer, still to be tasted, rested on one knee, gripped in her left hand, its colour deepened by the shadows, apart from a skin of white foam across its surface, the burnt, glassy brown of amber or old wood.
‘How is she?’
‘Ah, she’s grand. The same, you know. It hurts her a bit to swallow, and some nights she keeps me awake with her whistling. It’s the goitre, she says. Her grandmother had it.’
‘Plenty of milk, then. And periwinkles, if she’ll eat them. Tell her don’t look further than the old cures.’
He and Martha were easy with one another. Love wasn’t a word that generally entered their equation, though only because there’d been someone else, a long time ago, and he found it hard to give away again what had already been given once and broken. But then he hadn’t been Martha’s first choice either, and in time they’d both come to understand that love wasn’t everything. During the first few years, when so much still seemed possible, they made the best of their situation. Having no illusions simplified matters. They were partners, sharing the workload, surviving together. And it was good to have someone. Over the years, they’d learned one another’s ways, and had each grown comfortable with how the other filled space and effected the silence. Now, more than half a lifetime on, they rarely argued any more, and routine gave them not only balance but an identity. Sometimes, much more so during the early years of their marriage but occasionally even still, lying awake in the small hours, each of them listening to the hushed draw of the other’s breathing, it was easy to give in to the thoughts that kept them lit, and lovely in such moments to take her into his arms and to let himself be guided in a way that met both their needs. The heart wants what it wants, but will often learn to settle for what it can get.
He hit the bottom of his bottle unexpectedly, and his thirst remained unquenched. There was beer left in the pantry but the room’s reverie was such that it didn’t feel quite right to move, and so he remained in his armchair, gripping the bottle and trying to enjoy the coolness of its glass against his calloused palm. Across from him, the old woman’s eyes were slipping relentlessly shut. Every few minutes she struggled to revive herself only to be soon or quickly dragged back down under another wave of drowsiness.
‘I’m sorry.’ She cleared her throat, and stirred a little. ‘It’s this weather. It has me beat. I can’t seem to keep awake.’
‘You’re lucky,’ he said. ‘I haven’t slept properly in weeks. There’s too much light out. And with Martha gasping for air alongside me I can only lie there, watching the window for the dawn. And I get to thinking. You know. About all kinds of things. That’s the worst of it. I tell you, it makes the short nights feel very long.’
A fresh wave of sleep broke, and this time threatened to drown her. She went under and remained there, down at the bottom. In the armchair, she looked very small. Her feet, he noticed, tucked into square-toed shoes the leather colour of bog turf and with steel buckles that had years’ since lost their sheen, barely reached the linoleum. Nothing moved, and he found himself leaning forward in search of some hint, however slight, that would signal the continuance of life. The way he and Martha had, taking turns, with the infant, Michael, all those years earlier. Not that it had made any difference in the end, because nights always kept a part of themselves hidden, and even if you succeeded in remaining awake there were still oceans’ worth of things that got missed. He stared at the old woman, and for a while there was nothing to see but skin like tree bark and long, silky wisps of hair whitened to translucence by the spill of light from the nearest window. But then her mouth clenched and her tongue flashed across her thin lower lip.
‘I dreamed of your father,’ she said. ‘All night long. I closed my eyes and there he was, the way he always was of a morning after getting the fire lit: in his shirtsleeves and braces, his cheeks and chin dirty with a night’s stubble. He turned on the wireless and we danced around the room, just like when we were first married. Slowly, hardly moving, I feeling small and safe in his arms, his body strong as a reef inside his clothes. I knew the whole time that it wasn’t real but it was so vivid I could smell the oil of his skin, and I didn’t want it to ever end. When I finally woke, I wept, because my mind had carried his voice in whispers back through into the morning with me.’
‘It’s just a dream. We all have them. Even ones like that.’
‘I suppose. But they can leave such a mark. Honestly, I haven’t been right all day.’ She shook her head and, noticing the glass of beer, lifted it to her mouth and sipped. Froth clung to her lip and the tip of her nose. ‘Can’t you go, boy? Martha will have a crust on your dinner trying to keep it warm.’
He sighed. ‘All right. I suppose I better. But sure, I’ll be up along tomorrow. And Martha will give a call in the morning. Is there anything you need, at all?’
‘Nothing for you to be fretting about.’
He hesitated, then stood, stepped close to her and kissed her cheek. Her skin was cool and rough, not as he remembered. ‘Bye, Mam,’ he whispered, against her ear.
She closed her eyes again and the smile deepened on her mouth. ‘Bye, love. And don’t forget to tell Martha what I said about the periwinkles. Tell her I said my boy is lucky to have the likes of her. Even if he doesn’t always know it.’
Outside the evening seemed brighter than before, golden and lazily alive, clotted with birdsong. The sky now was clear of cloud from edge to edge, and the warm, mottled turquoise of a blackbird’s eggs. He started back down the road. The slope made walking easy at first, but the gradual accumulation of gravity soon began to feel like a hand against his back, and wherever the stretch turned particularly steep he had to fight to keep from quickening into a run.
To his right, wherever the ditches broke or dropped below eye level, he caught sight of the sea glittering in Hannah. She’d lived on the other side of the island, the land side, and at fifteen, and for the couple of years that followed before taking the boat to the mainland, then to England and from there to who knew where, she’d never missed an opportunity to hold his hand. He remembered her hair jagged as whin, and her heavy-lidded eyes the Spanish colour of a burnt dirt that clenched shut in laughter, and for the better part of their teenage years they’d walked together, danced in fields, kissed whenever they thought no one was looking, traded hopes and secrets and made the best and most of any hidden places they could find.
She left, the way so many did, and once all hope of a return was lost, gone became the same as dead. But the ghosts lingered. The sight of the sea on a good day always made him recall her with a mixture of wonder and the old sadness, and if the bad days tended to heavily outweigh the good then there was still usually an hour, or five minutes, or a single heartbeat, during which the sun would seep into view and keep memories alive, and there was the constancy of the water, the waves pulling towards the land, to smash against the rocks and shore.
Without thinking, he dropped to his haunches and began to pluck more wildflowers. Bees scurried among the foxgloves, so he gathered whatever came to hand, harebell, columbine, cowslip, spools of honeysuckle, sweet violet. At home there’d be a dinner waiting on a plate, potatoes, cabbage, maybe a bit of mutton, and a bottle of something sweet to drink cooling in a water bucket in the shade. And Martha. On days like this, he had no appetite, though it would be nice to sit outside and wait for the light to fade. She’d wonder about the flowers, but wouldn’t remark on them, except to smile, and if he kissed her she’d kiss him back, probably laughing as they came together. In another month, he’d turn fifty, and when he closed his eyes it was as if the years had meant nothing in their passing. He could tell himself, and believe, that he was who he’d always been, in one breath an old man, in the next still very much a boy, and he kept his losses close because time’s barriers were soft.
Vote for Wildflowers by Billy O’Callaghan here.