The Same Old Song of Plenty
- By Matt Hutchinson
‘I’ll tell you who’s to blame,’ the old man said, banging his dessert spoon on the check tablecloth, ‘that bitch who lives on Liberty Island.’
The woman sighed but didn’t let go of his free hand, which lay palm down in hers, his knuckles thick like knots in old rope.
‘You’re drunk, Paolo,’ she said. The restaurant was empty apart from a young man alone at a corner table. He looked up briefly when Paolo banged the spoon but quickly returned to his dinner.
‘She stands there and sings out across the ocean,’ Paolo continued, ‘same old song of plenty. What does she give when you get here? Nothing.’
‘We have this.‘ The woman spread her hands. ‘Food, wine, each other.’
‘Pfff,’ said Paolo, ‘we had that already.’
‘We have a home, we have a family.’
‘And she gave us those did she? No.’
The waiter – a young man, thirty at most – took a glass from the rack above the bar. He held it up to the light, polished it carefully on his apron and put it back. The woman finished the last of her dessert.
‘Delicious,’ she said, placing her spoon down. ‘Typical man, blame a woman for your own disappointment.’ She smiled and rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb.
‘Fifty-seven years,’ said Paolo. ‘Fifty-seven years in this country and still we’re living hand to mouth.’
‘Maybe so but the hand has a well-stocked cupboard to choose from these days.’ The woman wiped the corner of her mouth with a napkin. ‘You were never like this when we were young.’
‘When we were young I didn’t think this was how we’d end up,’ he said.
‘This?’ the woman replied, pushing her plate away.
‘Another birthday dinner in a cheap neighbourhood restaurant.’
‘Would you rather eat in the fancy restaurants uptown?’ she said. ‘Where they charge twelve dollars for polenta and call it rustic?’
Paolo looked at the tablecloth.
‘When were you last hungry?’ the woman continued. ‘When did we not have wine? Are our children not healthy?’
Paolo spoke more softly. ‘What about the dream? What about our life?’
‘We have a life, mio caro, we have a life.’
‘Not the one we came for.’
‘Maybe not the one you came for.’ The woman held his gaze.
‘We had a life before we came – we have a life now,’ he said. ‘No difference.’
‘We had hope, not a life. We brought that seed with us and planted it here in America. It would never have grown into anything more at home, you know that. Those hills are too old, too tired.’
‘It’s me who is too tired now,’ Paolo said.
A siren passed outside. The couple sat in silence till it faded.
‘More wine?’ the waiter asked, leaning in to clear their plates. Paolo shook his head.
‘Why mourn a dream,’ the woman said, ‘when we have a reality. Be happy with who you are now.’
Paolo waved a hand in dismissal. The waiter, misreading the gesture, returned with the bill. Paolo sighed, took out his wallet and counted out a small stack of bills.
‘The truth is,’ he said, tucking his wallet back into the inner pocket of his coat, ‘I’m to blame. I’m the one who brought us here, who believed her promise – wanted to believe it. What kind of fool does that make me, Francesca?’
‘Come now,’ the woman said, taking his hand again. ‘You’re no fool. It will feel different soon, it always does, you know that. Every year-’ she paused. ‘It passes.’
‘You can mourn for now but let tomorrow be the end of it.’ He held her coat so she could slide first one arm and then the other into the sleeves. As she smoothed the lapel of his jacket he kissed the back of her hand and they left the restaurant arm in arm.
The waiter pushed their chairs back under the table and held the door for the young man who left, turning his collar up against the wind. The waiter turned the sign from Open to Closed and locked the door. He took down a glass, poured an inch of amaretto into it and added an ice cube. He held the glass up in salute to the old couple as they disappeared into the dark beyond the streetlights.
The morning was clear but Paolo’s head was a little foggy from too much wine the night before. He would go and see her; she always made him feel better. Anyway, he needed to apologise. He made it through the security checks and onto the boat quickly; the terminal wasn’t busy yet, not as busy as it would be in a couple of hours. As the ferry moved off he stood at the railing and watched Battery Park recede. He was still watching the city skyline when a young man tapped him on the elbow.
‘Time to get off, sir. We’re here.’ Paolo nodded and set his wind-blown hat straight. He kept his eyes low as he stepped off the boat and didn’t look up until he was close enough that his shadow blended with hers.
‘I’m sorry about last night,’ he said. The woman gazed out over the docks towards the Atlantic. ‘About what I said – what I called you.’ He wasn’t here just to apologise – he had to put an end to it. Paolo watched a line form to enter her pedestal. Since the attacks you had to book in advance to go all the way to the crown. Used to be you could just show up but they were clamping down now for security reasons. Who knew how many times Paolo had made that climb and stared out towards his past.
Back in Genoa it had been the hills. Whenever he needed some time to himself, time to think, he’d head out of town and climb, look out over the old harbour towards the New World and whisper his secrets to the wind. When he came to New York he found no hills, only tall buildings with security desks and over-inquisitive doormen. This town didn’t want his secrets. Then he’d discovered the Liberty Island ferry. As often as he could Paulo would make an excuse and slip away to climb up and whisper his secrets to the statue. She would keep them safe, tell them to no-one. For a while Francesca had been convinced he was seeing another woman and, in a way, he was. Eventually though she accepted Paolo’s walks as she had in Genoa; sometimes, it was understood, he just needed to be alone. Anyway, now he was an old man it was good for him to walk.
How many secrets did his other woman hold in safekeeping for him now? In those first years it had been mostly the one he held closest and told to no-one, not even Francesca – I want to go home. After that had come others: I was fired from my job; I slept with Cecilia the night before we left Genoa; I don’t remember who I am anymore. She kept them all.
For two years in the Eighties the statue had been closed for repairs in readiness for her centennial. Her right arm, it turned out, had never been properly attached and her head had been fitted two feet off centre. Paolo had kept his secrets then, written them down. He didn’t like to think of workmen up in Liberty’s crown, poking around in the quiet detail of his unhappiness, but what choice did he have? Again, after the towers fell, he’d been forced to keep his secrets close. When the statue finally re-opened in 2009 access to the crown was restricted to 240 people a day and Paolo had to find other ways to get his secrets to her. He could book in advance and go to the top and, once, he had, whispering secret after secret as he walked amongst strangers. Other times he only came as far as the island, secrets scribbled on tiny balls of folded up paper, which he would slip into the pocket of unsuspecting tourists as they circled the pedestal, hoping they were one of the lucky ones. To be on the safe side he would slip the same one into several pockets. He couldn’t often afford the ferry though so most days he sat on a bench in Battery Park and whispered to himself as he watched Liberty from over the water, waiting for the day he could be with her.
Today was different; Paolo had booked several months ago as a birthday present to himself. He was going to the top. As he joined the nine others in the first group of the day he fingered the worn piece of paper in his coat pocket, softened by time and by touch so it more closely resembled cloth. He’d touched it so many times over the years he was sure some of his DNA – the spiral ladder that climbed to the very heart of who he was – was embedded in its grain. The statue swallowed the queue one by one; hungry, like her country, for the people of the world. To be a national in some countries you needed family dating back generations – to become an American you just had to come here. Yet Paolo had never felt like one. He was still an outsider, after all this time. It was no secret; he told Francesca that. You never felt like you belonged in Genoa, she had patiently reminded him. It’s different here, Paolo had said, although he wasn’t sure it was. When he’d booked the ticket for Liberty’s crown he hadn’t know what he’d do when the day came. He knew now. As he passed from sunlight into the pedestal, he had more than a secret – he had a plan.
Paolo headed straight for the stairs; he knew the climb by heart. Up he went, each step taking him nearer his end. He had to pause several times to get his breath back – that had never happened when he was a young man. Finally, slightly dizzy, he spiralled out into the light. Up in the crown the usual shuffle and scuffle to get the best view was taking place. It still amazed Paolo that, in the statue’s 129-year history, only one man had managed to kill himself by hurling himself from the top, glancing off the copper as he fell like a tiny human tear. He reached up and touched a fingertip to the ripples on the ceiling – the underside of Liberty’s wavy hair. A young Japanese couple moved from their spot and Paolo slid into the gap they left.
He looked out at the ocean as though he could see all the way to Genoa – to the lighthouse and, beyond it on the Apennine foothills, to a younger version of himself. But the curve of the earth hides many secrets and all he saw was water. Paolo couldn’t recall now what had so dissatisfied him with his old life – just that he’d been hungry to leave, had needed to leave. He pulled the folded paper from his pocket and stroked its soft nap a final time. The greying surface was covered in looping handwriting; years of secrets in shades from vivid blue to faded purples and greys. Paolo opened a window and took a deep breath. He took a step closer. Slowly he began to tear off bits of paper and stuff them through the open gap. One by one his secrets fluttered out into the air. There went I’m scared of becoming a father, followed closely by I don’t belong anywhere and What if she leaves me?
‘What you got there?’ A woman in her early fifties was watching with interest.
‘A ticket,’ Paolo replied.
‘Ticket for what? Don’t you need it no more?’
He dropped the final piece and watched until he couldn’t see it through his tears. He dried his eyes and descended, one slow step at a time, towards the exit, the ferry, the walk back uptown and the two flights to his front door where Francesca waited patiently (as she had for years) in their new life. On the ground he looked up and fancied he saw a secret or two floating off to settle on the waters of Upper Bay or beyond, but it was probably just old eyes playing tricks on him. As the ferry pulled away from the quay Paolo took one last look. He tipped his hat, settled it back on his head and turned to face the city, rising up to greet him like a familiar friend. As the boat drew nearer the skyline filled his vision until it was all he could see.
Matt Hutchinson was born and grew up in Lancashire. From an early age he was convinced he was going to be a rock star and learned to play a series of instruments in readiness. However, despite a degree in pop music (seriously) and a wide variety of gigs, ranging from the Salzburg Festival to Cambridge Folk Festival, and including two equally terrifying performances at the Albert Hall and Wakefield Prison, stardom forgot to knock.
In the meantime Matt kept himself busy with a variety of jobs in record shops, bookshops, music publishing, websites and – for an all too brief two weeks – as a volunteer monkey keeper.
Matt began writing in 2009 and, in 2011, attended a Faber Academy course given by MJ Hyland and Trevor Byrne. He has completed a novel and is currently working on a second as well as a collection of short stories. He lives in south-east London with his wife and a secret desire to still be a rock star.
Follow Matt on Twitter @matthwrites
- By EM Reapy
Grandad said to Ma that I was an odd, sensitive lad because I wouldn’t even go down to the slaughterhouse. The sound of the cattle bawling at night was bad enough.
I was sitting the other side of the table from him. He never spoke to me.
Grandad said to Ma, ‘The boy’ll be a weakling. He needs protein.’
But I still couldn’t eat the meat. Not even poke it with my fork. I didn’t mind just spuds and beans for dinner. At least I wouldn’t have cows Irish dancing in my stomach and the guilt of their orphan calves on my mind after.
Grandad had ‘talks’ in Westport every Friday.
I asked Ma, ‘With who?’
‘Farmers, butchers and codgers.’
A rough fella, Donny, would go with him. Donny had black front teeth and always smelt of cowshite. I never knew what he was saying. He laughed at the end of his sentences. He’d hose down his green wellies but Ma still made him take them off before coming inside.
Ma said Donny was pure handy at slitting throats. Giving the cows a quick death. This was supposed to be a good thing. I thought of the blood spurting from the Friesians. Their big black eyes sad. Their big pink tongues dangling out their mouths. Deflating to death. Ma said it wasn’t like that at all.
Donny had an awful turn and his left side went lame. Grandad said I’d be going to the ‘talks’ with him from then on. My pulse pumped and my head went roasting hot when I thought about it.
We get the train. It sounds like a heart beating on the rails. I can only see Grandad’s hands holding the Irish Times as he sits across from me. Trimmed nails with white half moons at the bottom. His pipe fills the carriage with Sweet Afton smoke.
In Castlebar, he crunches the paper down to chat with the ticket inspector. Would Mayo bring Sam back this year?
‘Would they hell,’ says the ticket man.
My job in the ‘talks’ is to stand behind Grandad, ready to take notes, do messages or run into someone’s shop or pub or house and see who’s there and if they are trading.
I like watching Grandad with them. They are all happy to see him.
After, Grandad buys us cones with flakes. He’s his eaten before I even get to the wafer of mine. We walk to the station. The sun is crawling down.
My eyelids sink on the train. Grandad puts his suitjacket over my lap. I wake to the whistle, recognise the bridge at Claremorris station.
Ma is on the platform, waving.
‘How did ye get on?’ She kisses me wet on the forehead.
Grandad says, ‘A great little worker, so you are,’ to me.
EM Reapy is from Mayo, Ireland and has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. She co-founded and edits wordlegs.com. She is the 2012 Tyrone Guthrie Exchange Irish Writer in Varuna Writers’ House, Australia.
Her work has been published in Ireland, the UK, Australia, France and the United States. Her short film ‘Lunching’ is in production with Barley Films Animation Studio and she has been longlisted for the 2012 RTE/Filmbase Short Film Award. Her podcast ‘Getting Better’ went to No. 1 globally in iTunes’ Literature charts, May 2012.
She was featured at NYWF in Australia, the Dromineer Literary Festival and is the Director of Shore Writers’ Festival which took place in Enniscrone at the start of November.