My husband is deaf. Once, he asked me if snow made a sound when it fell, and I lied. We have been married 11 years today, and I am leaving him.
He is in the bakery on the corner where it is warm and they know him well. He will return within the hour to our apartment with a box full of little cakes which he ordered especially for this day. He will walk through the door and toss his keys into the little ceramic bowl on the hall table. I am the only one who ever hears the sound of the keys as they fall into the bowl. He will place the cakes on the second shelf of the fridge and seek me out, but I will be gone.
There is a violent rip in the couch. A giant piece of leather hangs off the armrest like a tongue. It has ruined the couch, but we never bothered to get it repaired. Just like us. One violent rip has divided us forever. We love each each other differently now; we just remind each other of what is missing. Each time we look at each other, an inexorable ache rises up from deep inside both of us. It is tangible. It pollutes the air between and around us. We have almost completely stopped looking at each other. Instead, we look through each other, or behind each other, or around each other. The ashtray is empty and now only decorative in function, and it tempts me to smoke again. My lungs are hollow and empty and long for the weighty, constricted feeling of being a smoker; just to feel something, anything. Just to feel a feeling that isn’t interminable, unresolved sorrow.
He plays the piano every day, and I am taking it with me. It was made in 1783 in Prague. It sits quietly in the corner now, poised for exile. We’ve moved home three times in eleven years, and each time, the piano goes out of tune when it enters a new environment, as if it were afraid of change. My husband once told me that in the darkness of its body, deep in its belly, there is a piece of him which is living secretly, breathing, pulsating, fed by scherzo and allegro. I am taking the piano for exactly this reason. Inside, quiet as dust, a part of my husband anticipates resurrection, while I have given up completely. I do not want him to have the benefit of resurrection when I know I will never experience such merciful relief.
He is watching the fat baker squeeze the icing in the shape of tiny red hearts onto the little cakes that we are supposed to share with our friends tonight, in celebration of our anniversary. He once told me that he loved me because I was the only thing he could hear. He can feel the vibrations of the piano strings through the soundboard, but I am inside him, he said. I am a song soaked into each bone of his secret body where the world has never been able to wander.
The fat baker is packaging the cakes. He places them delicately into a pink box, tying it up in white ribbon with a flourish. I want to leave before my husband returns, otherwise I will be swayed by the sadness in his eyes and have to wait yet another year. I am running out of years. I have to be on my way to the airport; the piano movers should have been here half an hour ago. I do not want my husband to find them struggling on the stairs with a part of his soul. I want no scenes.
I have already burned all the photographs; they made a crackling sound and set off the smoke detector, which I promptly smashed. He won’t need it because he is deaf and it gives off only a minute vibration, too mild for him to notice. I have written down all the reasons why I am leaving, and I am overcome with a sad longing for the world, to be a part of it again, because I have not spoken to anyone for weeks. I must go now, I can’t wait for any more tomorrows. My feet barely touch the ground as I take a final sweeping look around the apartment. My heart is in my mouth. I can feel it throbbing and taste the pulse.
For some unknown and annoying reason, the moment we met fills my mind. He was giving a recital. I was with friends, eager to see and hear this deaf pianist, like a sort of modern-day Beethoven. I felt like a voyeur, not really caring about the music, but fascinated by the idea of this man. He played several pieces, but the only one I recognised was Chopin’s Nocturne op.9 No.2, with its beautiful, discordant notes. And I was mesmerized by the way he played. It was as if he was listening to every single note, his head bent towards the keys, his eyes half-closed. His fingers dancing like little ballerinas, so delicate and long and elegant. After the show, I went up and introduced myself. I couldn’t resist. I wanted to hear if he could speak at all. It was crass and nosy of me, but he could speak; with palpable strain and effort, he forced out a melody of muffled sounds in an awkward staccato rhythm. I complimented him on his Chopin rendition, and he told me it was his favourite, that he played it every single day. He invited me for a glass of wine. We went to a wine bar, one of those little places that plays quiet but lively jazz in the background, dimly lit by candles on each table. It was there that he asked me the question whether or not snow made a sound when it fell. He wrote it on a napkin, and underneath his question, I wrote, “Yes. It sounds like angels falling”. But of course, he would never hear an angel fall. It was an in impossible answer to an impossible question. But he took my hand immediately, and tears filled his eyes. And he said “Thank you”, with his stunted, strangled voice. A trickle of red wine stained the napkin as we continued our evening. I kept that napkin for years. But today, I burned it with the photographs.
Albert Camus suggested that we would not love if there was no lack within us, but we are offended by a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we only find the duplicate of our own problem. And, as a result, we become disgusted, disappointed, and try to flee from the other in an attempt to flee from ourselves also. Inside my husband, outside him, all around him, is the duplicate of my problem. I can never be free, I know that, and I know I can never flee from myself; but I can at least flee from his hopefulness, from his will to force life to go on, which only serves to exacerbate my own emptiness.
The piano movers arrive. They are brusque and professional and ready to get on with the job. They manoeuvre the antique piano down the winding staircase of our apartment building with cautious, studied movements. As they make their descent, the door to an apartment on the second floor opens, and a frail Russian woman called Ida who has lived in the building for over thirty years puts her hand on my arm and looks concerned. She sees my eyes, she sees the panic and the longing. She wants to know has there been any news. She always wants to know has there been any news. There is never, and there will never be, any news. I am also escaping from her. I am escaping from the constant questions, the pitying looks, the awkward silences, the stilted conversations on the stairs or outside her apartment door. I tell her, babbling, making no sense at all, that my husband is in the bakery buying little cakes iced with tin red hearts, and I have to be in the taxi on my way to the airport before he returns. I tell her it is our eleven year anniversary and I am leaving him. This makes her gasp; her eyes water, and she lets me go, offering some support or strength or affirmation with a slight squeeze to my shoulder.
I shut the front door of the building behind me. I have no bags, except for a small handbag which contains my passport, my aeroplane ticket, some money, and the address of my new home written on a scrap of paper. I don’t want to take anything with me. Just the piano.
He was playing it the moment the phone rang, eight years ago. A little girl had been found, lying on the wrong side of the footpath, face-down on the road, blood seeping through her little blue coat. Our phone number was in her bag, in her little notebook with the birds and the rainbows on the cover. She had wandered from school. Whoever hit her, whoever killed her, just drove off and left her there. The driver was never found. Her ponytail was sticky with dirt and blood. A tiny bird, broken and forgotten. She was there one minute, perfect and small and dressed so smartly in her little blue coat, and gone the next. He was playing the Chopin Nocturne when I hung up the phone and went to find him. With shaking hands I spoke to him, my fingers trembling as I made the shapes of the letters because I could not speak. My mouth would not work, my tongue dry and lifeless in my mouth. He never played Chopin again.
I can see his face now, as he enters the apartment, and sees the space where the piano once stood. I can imagine the emptiness that will follow him around. I can imagine him sitting him at the edge of our bed, her photo, the only photo I didn’t burn, in his hands, as he too remembers the night that he asked me if snow made a sound when it fell. He makes his way to where the piano used to be, and, sitting on the stool which I left behind, he holds his hands out in front of him, poised over the no-longer-there keyboard. Closing his eyes, he mimes Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 No. 2.
The pink box of little cakes iced with tiny red hearts sits forgotten on the bed, her photograph beside it.
Originally from Omagh, Co. Tyrone and presently living in Cork City, Sorcha Fogarty completed a PhD on “The Affirmative Nature of Impossibility in Jacques Derrida’s Work of Mourning” in 2010, and spent several years teaching Undergraduate English in University College Cork. She has previously had academic articles, based on Jacques Derrida, published on The Literary Encyclopedia, an online journal. She has spent the past six years teaching Creative Writing in various libraries around Cork City, and presently works as an Assistant Librarian, while continuing to teach Creative Writing.
David Martín is a Spanish photographer and dreamer living in Dublin, capable of eating a whole chicken in less than 8 minutes. Sadly, non of those hobbies or skills are paying the bills that why he is working in Sales for Getty Images. You can see more of his work on his Flickr.
– By Helen Victoria Murray
He had worn black that day. Normally a pale blue man, the black shirt burned a hole in his wardrobe. Like a cigarette burn marking out a misdemeanour, it was making him uncomfortable – as if he owed it something. It wasn’t really geared towards self-flattery. It did not match his eyes, it did not match his hair; it matched his mood.
And she’d worn green. A pale green jersey, which cynics would have said turned her sallow. And she was fair, yes. She was perfectly fair. But surely never sallow. The face, well it was symmetrical, you could say that for it, at least. But its expressions? Nondescript, half faded, as if toned to blend into the pattern on the wallpaper. Her intellect was watery. Addicted to thoughts about thinking, she was a dilute woman. He watched her from across the room, observed her trying to press her musings on the world, and was reminded of temporary tattoos. Childlike. The same transparent falsity.
But the hipbone…
The corner of his eye caught the hem of the jersey as it raised, a very slight amount. Her skin was exposed to the light. He saw the jutting angle of the bone, the smoothness of the skin. He saw her fingers extend, and graze it with badly broken fingernails. It was all it took.
In the unflattering overhead lighting, two screens flickered before him. On one, he watched his own extending hands. Something was wrong, something in the colours. The whites were too glaring, the darks too deep, the contrast too sharp on the eyes. He saw himself seize the hipbone, whirling it around and towards him, using it to mash it in amongst himself. The screen portrayed the frantic gnashing of him – animalistic and abhorrent, he watched the hipbone smash as she blacked his eyes and spat in his face. It made his skin creep inwards on itself in horror. And yes, the animal – himself – was withering now. He saw the hands, their sinewy knots grow soft and veined with blue, the nails blackening. Gradually, the grit set in and he watched himself become dust, all blown to pieces by her justified fury.
But the hipbone…
The action on the second screen moved slower, showing a steady, practised dance in which the hipbone featured. It was choreographed to perfection, every movement refined. Effective. The colours were warm and organic, something hazy blurred the motion. There was something captivating, almost mesmeric about the dance of biology: the hipbone melted, grew tactile, became like mercury in his hands.
Oh, that hipbone…
Everyone knows you can’t watch two screens at once. You get a migraine.
He stared at the floating screens until his eyes hurt, and when they flickered out, he was returned, slack-mouthed to the moment. That instant of dark clarity, whatever it had meant – was gone.
The remaining day was fuddled. Small sounds or light touches made him start. Night brought a welcome chance to clear his head. He lay, with the black shirt haphazard on the floor, and tried to recreate the vision of the hipbone, comprehend its meaning. All night he wrestled with the two scenes, trying to commit his mind to one or other. All night they played in tandem, flickering with the blink of his eyes.
Come morning, he was wearing blue again.
Helen Victoria Murray is a writer and poet from Glasgow, attempting to balance her literature degree with her literary aspirations. Find her on twitter @HelenVMurray.
– By Mary Róisín McGill
Des lay in the dark, wondering if he should chance it. Beside the bed, a sliver of light from his laptop slowly blinked like a lighthouse beam in the night. Across his chest lay Daisy, breathing softly, her slight arms wrapped around him as if he might be torn from her.
Des envied Daisy’s ability to completely surrender to rest in a matter of moments. He only ever managed a few agitated hours, during which the day replayed on an endless Technicolor loop, punctuated by faces hacked from magazine pages and online profiles, charging at him like a strange body-less army of vacant eyes and flat, grainy smiles.
His phone was on the kitchen table. If he were to get up, Daisy might wake – what would he say then?
He watched the fragile white light wink in the darkness, before finally reaching out to the screen, pushing it open just enough to see he had one new message from Pandora453.
With tiny movements he tucked the duvet around Daisy’s bare shoulders, manoeuvring her onto her back. Then he crept from their warm bed into the bathroom, its tiles icy beneath his bare feet, the laptop balanced on his palms like an offering.
Des met Daisy on the last bus very early one Sunday morning. She was only other person left apart from him. In a fit of boozy bravado he sat beside her, without ever thinking he might be imposing, that his sudden appearance might frighten her.
‘I’m Des,’ he said, taking her limp, unoffered hand in his.
Daisy pulled back, her red mouth curling downward.
‘Can’t you just leave me alone?’ she said, folding her arms over the bulk of her jacket, her thigh pressed against her ratty backpack.
After a moment he said, ‘look, I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. If you want to be left alone, I’ll leave you alone. If that’s what you want, that’s no problem… Is that what you want?’
Des meant to sound funny. Daisy studied him with wide-set, somnolent eyes before shrugging as if to say, ‘suit yourself’. In Des’s mind this was not the same thing as a ‘no’ and so he stayed.
Daisy had long butter-yellow hair, brittle to the touch with a blunt fringe she cut herself in front of the bathroom mirror, biting deeper into her lip with every snip. She smeared red gloss over her mouth and carried herself in a slightly round-shouldered stoop, as if the world was a weight she alone must bear.
When they started dating, Daisy liked to chat about her PhD research. Des, keen to impress her, filled her wine glass without taking his eyes off her face as if to say, ‘I’m present. I’m paying attention.’
‘You’re a really good listener,’ she said, picking up a pizza slice, tipping it toward her face. ‘Not everyone cares for the finer points of communication theory.’
‘What you do is really interesting to me,’ Des said, passing her a napkin, enjoying how serious his voice sounded. ‘The Internet is the biggest thing in the world right now.’
Daisy took a bite, thinking for a moment. ‘I’m not so sure it’s a good thing, the whole digital revolution. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s given me the opportunity to write my thesis but I wonder sometimes, about what it all means for us.’
Des locked eyes with Daisy, letting the moment stretch between them before leaning across the coffee table he’d rescued from the side of the street, kissing her for the first time with greasy lips that aimed for her mouth but got her nose.
Three weeks later she moved into to his place, a dive apartment above an Indian in Rialto where even the wallpaper stank of spice.
In the dark of the night Des thought, ‘I’m not a bad man, just a clichéd one.’
The man who he was with those women he met online, women whose real names he had no interest in ever knowing until Pandora453, was not the man who went home to Daisy, who brushed the hair off her forehead so he could kiss it, prepared dinner with her, side-by-side in their tiny kitchen or held her as she slept.
The other Des was all in his head, even as he plunged himself into another strange woman who was no longer just an avatar and yet, still was in a way. Though he felt himself grow harder inside her, it was never fully real to him and so, it was never enough.
But something about Pandora453 was different. They had a true connection, chatting for hours when Des was at work stacking whatever piece-of-shit bestseller made him rue not writing his own piece-of-shit bestseller this week.
He ducked in and out of the stockroom to message her with giddy fingers, the idea of her sending bolts of pleasure to his groin. Sometimes, Des felt a sting of actual pain when anything threatened to come between them.
The more time he spent with Pandora453, the more Daisy’s presence began to irritate him. He could hear her in the bedroom, typing furiously, not bothering to get dressed or even shower, leaving a trial of mouldy coffee cups in her wake.
‘You’re like a woman possessed,’ he said, when she gave him a sour look for daring to enter the feral den she’d turned the bedroom into.
‘It’s my PhD,’ she replied in a gobsmacked voice, as if no justification was necessary, as if by needing it explained to him Des was spectacularly, mind-bendingly thick.
When she said she’d be going out that evening to have dinner with her supervisor, he could’ve punched the ceiling with delight but instead, he reached for his phone.
‘What’s your plan?’ Daisy called, as she painted her lips in front of the bathroom mirror. ‘You can join us you know. You’d be very welcome.’
On the couch Des stretched, saying in a lethargic voice, ‘Arah no thanks babe. I’ve the match and a few cans to keep me company.’
Daisy made a face muttering, ‘well how can I compete with that.’
When she finally left, he bolted into the shower then doused himself in aftershave, pulling on the new shirt he’d hidden at the back of the wardrobe. He was standing in the hall texting Pandora453 when he heard lock tweak.
With reflexes he never knew he had, Des scrambled into the bathroom. He could hear her in the kitchen calling his name, explaining that her supervisor was sick.
‘I’m just having a shower!’ he cried, pulling the shirt off.
‘But sure the match is still on,’ Daisy said. He heard the pop and hiss of her opening one of his cans.
‘It wasn’t much a game,’ Des shouted, turning on the shower full blast, his heart beating like a jackhammer.
The opportunity, when it finally came, was not something Des forced. Rather the opposite: it was presented to him not quite on his dinner plate but alongside it.
‘I have to stay over on campus this weekend,’ Daisy said, glancing at him over her shoulder while draining a white hill of pasta, her cheeks ruddy from the steam, her buttery hair twisted into a loose bun. Des knew better than to be indifferent, so he slouched like a petulant little boy.
Daisy put the plate down in front of him and took a seat saying, ‘I know things haven’t been great between us but I promise I’ll make it up to you. I just need to get this part of my final report nailed. It’s the most important part. And I’m sorry for always going on about work but I’m nearly there now. I’ll shut up soon, I promise.’
She gave him a hug, squeezing him tight within her thin arms. He felt like an idiot then, like a royal jerk.
‘Can’t keep doing this Des,’ he thought, watching Daisy push her food around her plate, her brow creased with worries he couldn’t bring himself to ask about.
While Daisy filled the dishwasher, he tucked his phone into the pocket of his jeans and went into the bathroom.
Des sat in the booth, his eyes picking over the crowded diner aching for his first glimpse of her. Every time the door opened, the bells reminded him of Christmas.
Daisy would be getting the letter around now, pulling it out from where he’d left it, tucked into the edge of the pillow as she slept. He could imagine her pale face scrunching up, the kohl she never washed off her eyes seeping down her cheeks, her hands trembling as his words hit her heart. In frenzy, she’d probably stuff her things into some bin bags and lug them over to campus, never to return.
The bell jangled. When he spotted Pandora453, adrenalin flooded his veins like water from burst pipes. She was tall, slender, slightly stooped like Daisy but her shoulders and back descended into a graceful ‘v’ at her waist, accentuated by an old style mac neatly belted and speckled with rain.
As she slowly walked towards him, wearing the red bobbed wig and big black sunglasses they’d joked about, Des had the sense that they knew each other somehow, that this, despite the wrongness of it, was somehow made right by the sheer will of destiny.
She eased herself into the booth with a sigh, pulling the shades from her face and setting them down on the table along with her phone. Staring at her, Des felt winded. He had seen pictures in the trashy magazines Daisy liked to read in the bath but never in real life. Never like this.
The old woman’s face – for she was, despite everything, much older than Des had anticipated – was taunt, so plastic-like it glowed like an orb beneath the diner’s fluorescent light. Her eyebrows sat high and arched on her forehead as if she were perpetually surprised. Her eyes, red-tinged and wide, blankly regarded him. Her lips, two bulbous pillows, were too swollen to close fully so her breath made a faint, dry whistling sound as it passed through them.
When she pulled her face into a macabre grin, saying with sickening playfulness, ‘not what you expected, am I sweetheart?’ Des thought of Daisy. For the first time, in a very long time, he felt like he could cry.
Mary Róisín McGill is a web editor, talking head and writer who splits her time between Galway and Dublin. She regularly reviews books for RTÉ’s Arena and is the co-founder and co-editor of Irish feminist website Fanny.ie. Follow Mary on Twitter @missmarymcgill
James O’Sullivan is a PhD candidate at University College Cork, where he studies cultural theory and transmission under Graham Allen and Órla Murphy. In addition to a variety of pieces as a journalist, he has had works of short fiction, poetry, photography and cultural criticism published. James is the founder of New Binary Press.
Josie was happy to look after Christopher’s child. But not on her own.
He’d said, “Back soon, Josie girl. Two hours, tops.” But that was years ago, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
She’d had no children of her own and this one was only a freckle past a newborn when he presented him to her, wrapped in a dirty blue bunny rug. Josie knew nothing about babies, her life had been hollow of them and so many other things until she met Christopher.
The baby was called Cabbage. She laughed at the time Christopher told her, but didn’t ask if this was his real name, and the baby had no words to tell her otherwise.
Cabbage has grown like his namesake but that is where any connection ends, everything else is as normal, as much as she would know. Except he stopped talking at the same time that Christopher left, and she is too far from help to ask for it.
He’s not well, Josie thinks. She wishes Christopher was here, for what does she know about childhood illnesses?
Cabby, as she calls him, is not outside chasing the chickens or playing with his dog, Sherpie, the little white terrier he loves so much. She sees him sitting on the armchair, the one with the flock coat that’s balding in places like an old man’s head.
Josie warms some milk on the stove, taking care that it doesn’t heat so much as to spill over the pan. She pours it into Cabby’s favourite mug, cradles it in her hands, feels the warmth ease the stiffness in her fingers. “Here you are lovely boy, milk to make you feel better.”
But Cabby is no longer in the chair. Placing the mug on the table, she shouts from the back door: “Cab, Cabby.’ She smiles, it seems like she’s calling an errant taxi. She brings her hands to her face then snatches them forward to focus. They look like her grandmother’s. She touches one hand with the other, traces the wrinkles, frowns. She was only twenty-five when Christopher brought Cabby to her.
Josie walks out into the farmyard. Everything looks the same but the trees have grown tall and the ducks and chickens have gone. Stolen, she thinks. Or taken by dingos. She squints towards the horizon, sees that the night is coming, wonders if she should set some traps. Her gaze draws around the fence-line, stopping at the old magnolia tree which, in contrast to everything else, is blooming. Soft apricot flowers like coupling butterflies are tip-massing on branches otherwise as barren as the earth. A breeze tickles her hair, sending it to cover her eyes, but she pushes back its greyness with fingers thinner than her memory.
Who was she calling? She feels the residue of something not right, something to which she cannot put a thought. Her stomach feels tight and her hands are shaking. Josie calls again, but this time not a name.
“Come on, come on now.”
A black cat with a white smudge on its nose stretches out from under a rusting car-body wreck, its claws driving the sand before them. It yawns, and walks a crooked path to her. She knows this cat, but she cannot remember what to call it. It follows her into the house and begins to scratch the old armchair in a rhythmic pawing. Josie takes the cup of milk and pours it into a bowl near the front door. She sits down, wraps herself in her arms and watches the cat drinking. Tiny flicks of milk spatter the floor like dandruff.
The pictures are clearer if she shuts her eyes, but then there is always the threat of sleep from which she fears she will never wake.
She rises and takes the cup to the sink, sees a note stuck on the fridge with a purple magnet. The cat’s name is Bobby, the note says, in a scrawl that is only decipherable by its size.
“Bob-by.’ She tries the name; her voice sounds empty, the syllables robotic, like a child learning to read. The cat looks up from the plate, there is milk on its whiskers and its eyes are staring. Josie turns away, reaches into the sink and sluices water through the mug, watching it swirl down the plug hole. She sees the greasy kitchen curtain, the edge of its faltering hem stuttering in the draught. The window behind is dirty and someone has written something in the grime. She lifts the curtain and reads: Turn off the stove. She stretches a bony finger and writes her name next to it: Josie. She leans back and stares. The writing is the same.
Then she writes: Christopher.
She closes her eyes and sees an image clearer than life.
“Josie girl, you have a photogenic memory,” he once told her. She recalls laughing. “Don’t you mean a photographic memory?” “No,” he said. “Photogenic, you remember the past more beautiful than it really is. Even the dark you turn grey.”
When she met Christopher she was attracted to him in a way she found hard to set to words. He was freedom and promise wrapped in a package. But she’d stopped trying to peel back the layers when she found nothing holding the structure.
Josie wipes tears from her eyes with the back of her arm and notices she is wearing her nightdress and dressing-gown. She wonders if it is morning and she has just got up. She rummages in the drawer until she finds what she is looking for. She pulls at the material on her sleeve. She wants to write: Go and get dressed but the fabric slips and the pen only writes the first word: Go.
Christopher was the man at the corner store. She saw him every time she went there with eggs to sell or cheques to cash. She has no eggs now and a woman brings meals to her house and puts them in her freezer. She reminds Josie of her chickens. She makes funny noises in the back of her throat. The last time she came, she kept shaking her head as well.
Then people came in two cars. Josie saw them coming. She hid in the bush- scrub surrounding her farm and waited, crouched like a dingo, swirling her fingers in the red dust, making circles that spiralled to nothing.
It was dark by the time she got home, and they had gone
Where was Sherpie? Cabby loved that little dog, he was always taking it for walks, she remembers. Maybe he’s gone for a walk with it now.
But no, Sherpie is dead. She closes her eyes and sees a picture of the terrier, its white turned red with blood.
Then she sees Cabby standing over the body. She quickly opens her eyes and sees him again in the chair. He is not well. That is why she made him the milk. Milk to make you feel better, my lovely boy.
It’s been so good since Cabby came, Josie thinks. The wonder of childhood is hers now.
He reminds her of Christopher. He looks like him, with his blue-green eyes and pale skin. His hair is as fair as Christopher’s was, with the same under-streaks like tiger’s stripes.
But now Cabby is gone again.
“Come out, my lovely boy. It’s too late to play.” She hears an old voice, wonders how it’s hers.
He was always a good boy, always happy, never making a fuss. But he’s been too quiet since his father left.
Christopher told her he’d adopted Cabby. It was a year after their wedding, not long after she’d been told she couldn’t bear children. She loved children, she said, when the doctor told her she couldn’t bear them. Doctor Willits had opened his eyes wide and gone silent, but Christopher had smiled at her. He knew her ways. He was the only one who ever had. And when he brought Cabby home she hadn’t questioned why she didn’t have to sign any papers. Why it had been so easy.
And when Cabby had grown more like Christopher every day, she’d laughed and said that’s what she’d heard, that adopted children often grew to look like the people who adopted them.
She recalls one day, when Cabby was just beginning to walk, an elegant lady came knocking on the door. Her breath smelled of alcohol and her fingers shook. She also had no manners, for she barged past Josie and demanded to see Christopher.
“Christopher’s at work,” Josie said.
“Not that one,” the elegant lady said. “The baby, Christopher.”
“My baby’s name’s Cabbage, but I call him Cabby.” Josie recalls saying.
The lady had collapsed onto the old chair; her shoulders were shaking and her face was red. Her hand was clutching her mouth and when she brought it away there was lipstick smudging her knuckles like blood.
“Christopher did say you were a bit simple. He told you the nickname I’d given the baby because he was growing like one. A cabbage that is. He couldn’t tell you the baby’s real name, I suppose.”
Josie was still trying to fathom why the lady thought she was simple. Simple meant easy. Her mother had told her ‘easy’ women were ladies of the night, but she hated the dark.
The lady continued. “I need to see my baby. I made a mistake saying I didn’t want him. Where did Christopher tell you the boy came from? The cabbage patch?” Once more the lady fell back into the chair. But this time her laughter took her to coughing until Josie went to her and banged her on her back. Then the lady looked at her strangely. “Perhaps..,” she said, “Perhaps…” Then she nodded to herself as if she was affirming an unspoken question.
Josie can’t remember how it ended that day. Maybe she’d got her gun, the one she uses for the dingos, and threatened the lady with it if she didn’t leave. Perhaps they had hugged and she’d let the lady see the baby.
Cabby had slept through it all. That much Josie does remember.
Josie lowers herself into the old chair. She strokes the soft fabric of the armrest, watches as the pile flattens this way and that. Her eyes close and the pictures come once again but she hears the words first.
Cabby’s words. Is he speaking to her again? But these words she’s heard before. They are not from today. How could she have forgotten them? They were the start of crying words, for Cabby and for Christopher.
“Mammy, Sherpie has blood on him, and he’s not moving.”
Josie had gone outside and found the little dog lying still, by the old magnolia tree. There was blood on him. Cabby was standing near him holding an axe.
“What have you done?” That was her voice.
“There was a dingo, mammy. I tried to get him. He ran over there.” She saw Cabby pointing, followed the line of his finger. Saw a tawny shape in the distance. There were two others matching it, and feathers scattered like snow, leading a trail back to the hen-runs. Then she saw the axe was clean.
Josie opens her eyes, pulls her dressing-gown around her and rises stiffly from the chair. There is something she wants to see. Outside, the moon is bright and the stars light a path that is strewn with potholes but Josie finds her way to the old magnolia tree. There, beneath its branches, blending with the fence, is a little cross. She remembers Christopher made that cross from a loose paling, and marked Sherpie on it with a burning twig. Now it’s as faded as her eyesight.
Cabby is crying. His sobs punctuate her mind in stabs. Then she hears Christopher’s voice. Josie closes her eyes to see his face. “Poor little bugger,” he says. “He really loved that dog.”
She tries to stop her answer but it comes like a flood. “Chris, why don’t you take him for a drive in the car? I’ll give him a drink of warm milk before you go. It’ll make him feel better.”
Now she hears the car doors slam. “Back soon, Josie girl, two hours, tops.”
She drops to the ground and once more the pictures come, but these have no words. Josie sees the police car with its flashing blue light, sees the policemen walking towards her. Sees herself, a young self, climbing into the car.
Then in a room full of whiteness, a man and a child lying together in death.
When Josie enters the house she walks on slow feet to the kitchen. There’s the note on the fridge. Her voice comes softly:“The cat’s name is Bobby,” she says. Then she glances at the kitchen window, the curtain is still drawn back: “Turn off the stove,” she says to her scribble, her words. Then she looks at her sleeve. Go, she reads. Go where, she wonders.
Josie finds her bedroom, sees the sheets pulled back, sees an impression of a body in the mattress. She climbs into it, being careful to match its form with hers. Then she pulls up the blanket and stares at the wall. She closes her eyes, lets the dreams come but shapes them to her memory with its photogenic lens. Even if she sleeps forever, she thinks, better asleep than this awake.And in the morning the sun will scrawl its shine, write its pictures of brighter days across her mind, lift the darkness to a paler shade of grey.
Myra King, an Australian writer, has written a number of prize winning short stories and poems. Her stories and poetry have been published in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Amongst other publications she has work in print and online, in Short Story America, The Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, The Valley Review, Red River Review, Illya’s Honey Journal, San Pedro River Review, The Pages, and The Foundling Review.
She has a short story collection, City Paddock, published by Ginninderra Press. Her novel, Cyber Rules, was published by Certys UK in 2012. Royalties from her books have gone to help support The Creswick Light Horse Troop and Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders. Follow Myra on twitter.
– By Michael Phoenix
I walked into the library most days then. It was a horrid grey building of stones that had had the life sucked out. They were ugly and without sun from days drying in the desert. They didn’t reflect or withhold. They were undead, past decaying. It was worst in winter – Heavy and coated.
Inside was better. There were books. They smelt (the stones didn’t smell). And there were people. Beautiful girls. They wore denim jeans and red tops with their shoulders cutting out into that warm library air. Those bones. Like the sun through shards of glass. They walked up the stairs softly, and hung about in groups near the entrance, talking, and the words were in the distance of all their blue and green and black eyes.
I was studying Law. We were supposed to read all the books. No one did. I took one look at the names of their spines and turned away. I never looked back to that section. It was in a far corner of the place. A dead arm. The books were thick. The biggest and heaviest stones. Full of nothing. No thing. They could not rot.
I began to explore. There was a reference system. I went to the 800’s. I was listening to a lot of music at the time. I walked clicking my fingers when it was sunny. And sang when no one else was on the paths. The songs my father played on the piano – ragtime beat. I went to 811 just like that. Clicking my fingers. 11 was my lucky number. I wore it for the soccer team when we won the schools cup. Clicking my fingers. I scored twice. No one else in the row. I didn’t sing. It was too quiet in the library. I was shy. I didn’t have friends on the team.
811. 811. I looked at the names of the spines of the books there. They were different from the names of the law books. They were short and clear. And the names of the authors were bright. Some of them were written there in bold golden letters. The law books were all written by names like ‘Harris’ or ‘Barry’. Land owning english names. Though they said they were Irish. Names like ‘Roger Davis’ and ‘D.B Parsons’. None of them seemed to be women. Down near 811 it was different. That meant something. I took a book. 811 Poe. Poetry.
I kept going back to the 800’s. Every time they told us to take out some law book. It made sense to me. I walked in clicking my fingers. I looked at the girls. Sometimes I just said ‘hi’ to them as I went by even if I didn’t know them. Sometimes they said ‘hi’ back. Mostly they didn’t and I just went on clicking my fingers. When it was getting into spring I did that a lot.
The books I found led me to others. It turned out that Poe wasn’t the only poet in 811. He had friends. People he didn’t know. Other poets. They turned up all around him. It meant I got to hear about some even before I had heard of them. I never checked out beforehand which books were where. That wasn’t the point. They had to be discovered. But I remembered their names. They were hard to forget. Someone told me that they were false names. I didn’t think that could be true.
Sometimes I’d see the names of writers I had heard of. Sometimes they were great and other times they weren’t. It was amazing. I clicked my fingers as I went through the library. All those years. In the end I came to the last book. The last of the 811’s. 811 Pound. Ezra Pound. The greatest of all the names. Ezra Pound. I clicked my fingers.
By then I had started to whistle. I couldn’t sing so good but I had air in my lungs. People didn’t seem to mind the whistling. Other times when I had went down a path, here or there – singing, people heard and they didn’t seem to like it. No one said anything about the whistling. So I went on those walkways doing just that. Thinking ‘811 Pound’. Saying it over and over in my head.
By then they wouldn’t let me take books out. I had fines. I forgot to bring the books back. So I could only read them right there in the library. I carried Ezra Pound to a desk. I always chose the one’s that looked out the window. But sometimes they would all be taken. It was one of those days. The only seat was facing a pillar. I couldn’t see anything. Apart from Ezra Pound and to my left. A girl sat there. It turned out she sat there most days. She wrote on lined yellow paper and her handwriting was terrible. My teachers could never read my essays. My parents bought me a typewriter. The other’s all wrote neat and clear. I sat there with her and Ezra Pound and thought, ‘I bet they can’t read her essays neither’. She wore blue jeans. Her eyes were green. I would have sat beside here everyday from then on, but sometimes the seat was taken. Other times it was free but she wouldn’t be there. I wondered if something had happened. In the papers they wrote about people being hit by buses and people going missing. They wrote about young people leaving the country. I hoped that she was still there. I hoped that she hadn’t been hit by a bus or gone missing. Those days she wasn’t there. I couldn’t read at all. I just sat there hoping.
In the end Pound made me speak to her. Normally I didn’t speak much. Just said ‘hi’ here and there. But to her I said “Hello. My name is James” and then we went for a walk.
She didn’t know anything about the 811’s. I had to tell her all about them. She listened. Her eyes were green. She liked the sound of the things I told her. I talked a lot. It was sunny. I clicked my fingers. I couldn’t help it. She asked if I liked music. She played the piano. She wore blue jeans. Ezra Pound. I left him on the desk. The lake was full of resting gulls.
She told me it was her birthday one week from that day. I said it over and over in my head. I didn’t want to forget.
I had some money, not a lot. I decided to get her a present. I took the bus to town. It was yellow and I sat on the second floor. The bus driver had a strange mustache. The shoes of the man beside me were square. I didn’t take the bus much.
There was a bookshop on the quays. It was hidden behind the traffic. When you opened the door a bell rang. It was a high pitched kind of bell. I had been there before and looked at the books. They smelt different to the one’s in the library. There was a lady at the counter. She had round glasses and an old neck. I felt sorry for her. One day I would be old. I felt sorry for myself. She told me that she would be right back. Then she was. And Pound was with her. The book was clean. I thought that it didn’t look right. She told me that was the only copy. I bought it and walked home. I had no money left for the bus. But I didn’t mind. I clicked my fingers. I whistled. I felt strong.
There were always birds in late spring but people had exams. The library was full. I went there early that day. I wanted to be sure to get the seat beside her. When I got there I wrote inside the cover of the book. I said: no one can read my writing either. After that I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t given many birthday presents. I bought my friend in primary school a football. We were 10. You didn’t have to write on a football. I didn’t know what to put. I wrote: love, James – happy birthday. Then I closed the book and pushed it to the far corner of the desk.
She didn’t come that day. Or the next. I kept her present in my bag. I didn’t know what to do with it. I walked around the library searching. I didn’t click my fingers the same way. Her name was Lucy. She wore blue jeans. She had green eyes. I couldn’t find her. Ezra Pound…
Michael Phoenix is a 22 year old writer from Belfast based in Dublin. He writes poetry, short stories, and has recently completed his first novel. He has been published in the 10th Anniversary Edition of the RedFez.
Knees slightly bent, head tucked in between outstretched arms, and hands clasped together. I shiver and take a breath; there’s no one else around but me in my polka dot bikini top and khaki shorts. The sun has only just glimpsed out from behind the Cuillin’s and the earth hasn’t yet warmed to the day ahead. As my toes curl round the edges of the rock I push off from my stance and inhale one last time before cool air becomes freezing water. I hear the thunder of falling streams hitting rock from further up the pools before the shape of noise changes in my ears and I hit the glassy blue of the deep well that only a moment before I looked down upon. If these hills could speak, surely they would remember me?
Cocooned within the icy spray, I kick further down into the well. Three hundred and sixteen days have passed since I was last here yet nothing about this ancient place seems to have changed. I touch the rocks as I swim around – testing to see if they’re really there – the rough edges confirm that I can’t be dreaming. Foam from the waterfall fills the surface of the water above me and I adjust my direction so I don’t break from the water directly in its path. If Cal were here he’d push me under, only to rescue me from the weight of the water a moment later.
I re-surface and catch my breath. The cool morning air descends and clings to my skin making it tingle. I hold onto the ledge beside me and get my bearings – the morning rays capture Skye, and the Glen in all their beauty. Coming back here could have been a mistake but the morning sun has lightened my head of the heavy thoughts that had washed their way in.
Following the path I’ve already made I plunge again; this time looking around, checking the ridges of the underwater rock to see if there’s something I missed the last time I made this swim. But there are no secret caves, or darkened corners to explore. The sun – climbing higher into the sky now – has made beams of light transcend the water and filter down into the well. Everything is lit anew. I don’t want to break for air but I never was as good as Cal at holding my breath and I can feel the beginnings of a burning sensation as my lungs cry out for oxygen. I rise again to the top and perch my goggles on my head. Blinking back the sunlight I am startled to see a man looking down upon me from the ridge. Cal standing, camera in hand, coaxes me as I lap around in the pool –
‘C’mon, look up at me. You never look into the camera’.
I ignore him and instead goad him to join me, ‘You won’t feel the cold once you’re in.’
‘Yeah but I’ll feel the cold the whole time I’m getting ready to go in! Do you think I’m as mental as you are?’
I laugh and splash about a bit, ‘You’re such a woose… I mean seriously, bringing me all the way up here under false pretences that you’re going to come in and have a romantic swim with me. I’m hurt.’ I do my best puppy-dog eyes and petted lip and for a second I can see on his face that I’ve got him but I ruin it by laughing again and he breaks into a smile…
‘Are you all right down there?’
The voice shakes me from the memory. I look up to see the man standing on the ledge.
‘What?’ I ask, not quite sure If I caught all he said.
‘Is everything OK? It’s a cold morning to be swimming in the Pools.’
His voice is deeper than Cal’s. I can’t quite make out his features from the way the morning sunshine is bouncing around the Glen. I adjust my position slightly to get a better look at him,
‘I’m fine thanks. It’s not cold in here.’
I can see now that he’s not very tall, probably about 5’6’’ at the most, greying slightly or is that just the light? I can’t tell if he’s carrying a little weight round the middle or if he just has multiple layers of clothing on to fend off what must be the beginning of a cold walk taking in the Cuillin’s.
‘We just caught sight of something in the water as we were passing and wondered what it was; we were a bit startled to find someone out swimming.’
He nods behind him as he says the word ‘we’ and a woman emerges from behind the bank. She smiles down at me, but her eyes tell me she’s as baffled as her husband over my morning dip. I smile back and turn my attention back to the man,
‘Oh, don’t worry about me… I always come up here for a swim.’
They look briefly at each other, assessing this new information. The man quips,
‘In November? We thought we were mad… ah well, good luck to you. You’re braver than me.’ And off they both walk, half-laughing, half-talking.
I pull myself out of the water and sit on the rocky ledge beside the heap of clothes I left minutes before. My teeth chatter as I wrap a towel around my body and squeeze the remnants of water from my hair. I stand but the platform is only high enough to see what’s immediately around me. I scoop up the clothes and slide on my flat pumps, the inside of my shoes become soaked and I squelch as I walk. I climb the shanty dirt steps that have been battered into the ground over the years. The man and woman come into view, heading towards Sgurr an Fheadain, probably just to take in the beauty of it than to climb. They are almost dots on the landscape now. Snow is scattered upon the tops of the hills and a cool wind makes its way down the valley.
I walk alongside the pools, further up the path – I know which pool I’m looking for but can never remember if it’s second or third last…
‘How far up are you going?’ Cal shouts between pictures.
‘I’m going to the deepest one, and you’re coming in too.’ I look over my shoulder and smile at him as he makes his way up the path behind me. The rush of falling water grows louder as I come to the place. The climb down is trickier here – the steps steeper, and less secure. I leave the clothes at the top and use my hands to steady me as I climb down. Just as I reach the bottom Cal is above me.
‘You’re insane’, he says as he starts making his way down too.
‘No, we’re insane.’ I correct him, ‘C’mon just jump in. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’
He takes the last step down and reaches the platform closest to the pool. The spray from the waterfall hits the back of my bare legs and makes goose pimples appear on my skin. Cal looks around, assessing the pool – it’s deeper than the others – the water is clear, the underwater arch teases as it rises just slightly above the surface of the water, it whispers as water laps against the rock.
‘God… okay. But I’m telling you if I get hypothermia I’m holding you responsible.’
‘Yes!’ I do a little dance of victory as he kicks his shoes off.
I dive first – the coolness of the water flooding my senses and making my heart surge – the archway is ancient and stunning. I swim through touching the underside of the stone as I pass. How many others have done the same and felt the unexplained connection to this natural landscape? I rise to the top and burst out from the water to wait for Cal.
‘C’mon, hurry up – we haven’t got all day!’
Cal stands, watching me.
‘What if I dive from higher up?’ he asks,
‘Why would you want to do that when you haven’t even been in yet?’ I reply, slightly confused but he’s an excited school boy now and I’m just one of the guys, egging him on in his head,
‘It’ll be fun. Look how deep it is! You do it too.’
Before I can say anything he’s darting back up the steps towards the higher ridge beside the waterfall.
‘Cal, I think that’s a stupid idea…’
But he’s not listening or he can’t hear me over the fall of water. The pool is deep but that’s a high jump. I try and work out the depth he’s likely to fall from such a height. I drop under for a second and check the bottom of the pool – it’s not smooth. Every surface is a point, a crag; rougher than the beauty of it lets you believe.
‘Cal… Just come back down and dive from here.’
‘What? I can’t hear you.’ He’s at the top now, arms folded in front of him, shoulders hunched from the cold.
‘Come. Back. Down.’ I say louder, emphasising every word.
I don’t like the angle of the rocks below him, I don’t trust what lies directly beneath the waterfall, concealed by the froth and foam as the water sprays in all directions.
It’s too late, he leaps but in his haste the dive isn’t right – he’s overshot the angle, almost somersaulting but not even managing that. Instead his head is at an odd juxtaposition with his body, his arms splayed out to the sides as if he’s trying to correct himself mid-air but can’t manage it. He hits the water and he’s gone… seconds pass. I panic. I dive under the water and kick hard in his direction. I can see the shape of his body as it slowly floats to the surface and I know instantly that something isn’t right. I reach him just as his body reaches the surface but he’s limp and unconscious. I turn him onto his back so his head is above the water and pull him away from the harshness of the waterfall that’s only centimetres from him. There’s no blood, no clue as to what I’m trying to fix.
Even with his weightlessness I can’t get enough purchase to do much except shout for him to wake up. I edge him to the side of the pool and attempt to lift us out of the water but I can’t. Minutes pass, I can’t find a pulse on his neck but I’m not even sure if I’m checking the right place. I scream for help – there’s nothing but a heavy echo from the wide open space. As time passes I grow colder, shivering from my lack of movement. My arms grow tired from the effort of keeping Cal at my side while the rush of the water around us tries to pull him away.
He doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch. I hug him to me and pray; pray for help, pray he’ll be OK, pray that I won’t die here with him – the two of us becoming entwined by the pull of the water as it cascades from one pool to the other. Eventually a man and his wife come by, snapping holiday memento’s as they go…
At last the memory has surfaced, a tear runs down my cheek and I brush it away with my hand. The water will wash away the sadness but the echo of that morning will play out in the landscape for eternity. Knees slightly bent, head tucked in between outstretched arms, and hands clasped together. I shiver and take a breath; there’s no one else around but me. The cold, crisp November morning has kept the visitors away. If only these rocks could speak, the stories they’d tell. I dive again.
Kirsty Fraser currently resides in Glasgow with her cat Buttons. She studies Media & Communications by day and by night she blogs on New Hellfire Club and Sabotage Times about all things music. She writes short stories and poetry, that in the most part, only her bin gets to read. In an attempt to change that she’s currently writing her first collection of short stories – she hasn’t figured out how it ends yet. Check out Kirsty’s music blog.
– By Cal Ashton
He drew hard on his pint. Madeline frowned. The third sigh in ten minutes left him hunched over like an inflatable leaking air.
“What is it Tom?”
The sigh was heart-rending and lasted a full twenty seconds, rising and bursting from his pursed lips. His fingers crept around the pint glass again as if to lift it…but just stayed wrapped around it, unable or just not caring enough to lift it.
Each breath left his body, but wasn’t replaced. He hadn’t breathed in now for an hour. All his air was leaving him.
His brain air left first, his mind had shut down three days ago. Neglect had left it numb and rusty. Seized up. The banality of an undemanding job, no challenge, even in conversation with his work colleagues, all too shallow to communicate and when he got to his own office he never talked to anyone anyway. Except Dave, the Doorman. But a “Hello” that had dissolved into a murmur, then a grunt, then a conciliatory nod of the head, then brief eye contact, had finally collapsed into a non-physical act whereby Tom would only react if Dave wasn’t there.
And Dave was always there.
Home was empty, a chair so long and so familiar there he couldn’t describe it to you if asked him, even if he did answer he would say it was just, y’know, a chair, kinduh greeny grey-blue red thing. Nice. There.
TV was on. Unless he fell asleep, woke up again , realized it was on, turned it off and went to sleep again.
One shop, never-changing for never-altering tinned food.
And now – a heart unused beat out the air, pushed smaller and smaller amounts of blood to the vital areas, even then, it forgot why. The heart had never raced since long ago. Not even reflexively. If Tom tripped, Tom fell. He didn’t stop himself. The adrenalin breathed out of him 3 days ago. There was only his self left. And he breathed it out now.
“Tom, what is it?”
Tom looked at Madeline through half opened eyes. 3 day stubble dotted his see-every-day-of-it lined 42 year old face. The curly hair, the thin grey lips. The hollow cheeks.
The next sigh blew out the light in his eyes.
His hands dropped to the table, still surrounding the glass of half drunk lager. The next sigh drained all the colour from his skin. He was pale to translucence, fish scale grey. He breathed out his lungs. The noise was a low rushing puncture now, like a gas ring hissing unlit. He breathed out his powdered bones and his body deflated into a skinsack, a bag, a film across the table. As his body dropped forward his face never touched the table surface. He breathed away his skin and left on the table, chair and floor were only his hair and clothes.
Tom had not-lived himself out of existence. No-one cared. He had made sure of it. Not deliberately, he just had. Death by torpor.
Cal Ashton is a redhead but accepts the term ginger. A Scot, he has wandered from Germany to Australia and is currently in Hong Kong. Cal has had work published many years ago in Shanghai Metrozine, That’s Beijing and Oxford University Student magazines and has performed in numerous plays in numerous dark basements and international schools throughout Europe and Asia. Check out Cal’s website.
Midnight Shadows, Passing
– By David McVey
Everybody hates me, thought Kyle, just because my hair sticks up in that funny way and Im shy of girls and I havent had a job since I left college.
He had snaffled a good handful of his mums stash of sleeping pills; enough to do the job, anyway. But what about the mess, the scene? He’d probably puke before dying and if it got on the carpet or bedclothes mum would be raging. And she’d hate all the hassle – police, ambulance, undertakers. How much did a funeral cost nowadays? Even if nobody came?
And then Kyle thought about Derryburn Wood. Nobody went there except dog-walkers and daft wee boys who wanted to get drunk and there would be nobody there at night. He could slip out, find a hidden spot, pop the pills and die quietly. No one would be inconvenienced, no one would mind the mess.
It was nearly twelve and there was a bright moon. Kyle pulled on a capacious hoodie, transferred the sleeping pills to a pocket and took a bottle of spring water to wash them down. He was about to leave the bedroom for the last time when he noticed that the duvet, which hed been lying on, was crinkled and untidy. Mum would go mental. He shook it smooth before creeping quietly downstairs in case he woke her, and then disappeared into the cooling night to die in Derryburn Wood.
A ship of light swept over the horizon of the dark trailing a wake of silence. Jane had missed the last bus.
It had already been a hard evening, involving what Sally from work had called a break-up date. She had arranged to meet Scott in a charmless chain pub called the Goblet and Wishbone on an edge-of-town trading estate. While Scott fetched the drinks, Jane had reflected on the meanness of her reason for ending things: Scott was just too nice.
He held doors open for her. He bought her flowers (too many some bunches went straight into the green bin). He was open about his feelings and considerate about hers. He loved children; before long thered be a marriage proposal with a view to starting a family. He was generous, sharing, thoughtful, someone who wanted to share his life fruitfully – with someone else.
Jane didn’t. Not yet, anyway. Scott was 30, which explained a lot. She was still only 24 and wanted the free, fun-loving life a bit longer. And yet, even when she told Scott the cold truth, he had managed to be gracious.
I didn’t see this coming, he said, with the puzzled facial expression of a gentle forest creature that had misplaced some nuts, but I appreciate your honesty and courage in telling me.
Get angry, Jane had thought. Why do you never get angry?
Scott left soon afterwards but Jane had remained behind, drinking. Only when the last bus was due to abandon this desolate urban periphery did she emerge, only to see it disappearing down the ring-road. Bus drivers just want to get home too, she thought. She’d drunk a lot and it moved her to be reasonable. Like Scott.
She considered phoning for a taxi, but it was a dry, breezy night in May the sun had barely gone down and while it was a long way by road to her home on the Glenturlie Estate it was just a mile or so through countryside. A footpath ran from the ring-road between fields to Derryburn Wood; soon after the path re-emerged from the wood, you saw the first houses of the estate. There was a moon riding high in the sky and surely on a Tuesday night there would be no feral fourteen-year-olds giggling round a bottle of tonic wine in some dark corner? She clicked across the ring-road in her heels and crunched onto the gravel farm track that marked the beginning of the path.
Reverend Rab Soutar needed to pray. He needed God to hear him, and to know that he had been heard. There was always something unsatisfying about praying in the manse; nothing to do with Carol or the children, just the sense of being enclosed. A ceiling wouldn’t prevent words reaching an omnipotent God but it could inhibit the person doing the praying.
Glenturlie Parish Church was a pleasing modern building of plain harling with some pinewood panels; large windows in the ceiling brought the sun into the morning service. The estate it served was large, sprawling and rich. The church was rich, too; Rab ministered to lawyers and GPs and lecturers and high-powered IT execs, their wives, husbands and children. There were always funds for repairs to the church building or crèche equipment. But Rab tried to open the congregations hearts and minds to mission, to bringing Christ to the lost, to serving the poor and despairing and hungry. There were many needy folk, locally, albeit on the other side of town. His sermons were met with nods and smiles but little else. The church was determined to keep its hands clean.
Rab craved prayer. He would go to a quiet spot in Derryburn Wood and pour out his soul to the Lord, seeking His will for Reverend Rab Soutar and for Glenturlie Parish Church. He would pray also that God would lead him, personally, to troubled souls that he could help.
The moon blinked between trees as Rab entered the wood. Away from the sodium-bathed streets, darkness embraced him and stars upon stars gleamed from the velvety sky, an infinity of tiny lights that spoke to him of the limitless, unimaginable reach of God. He decided to pray where a small patch of grass bounded the path. He took off his Craghopper cagoule, laid it on the ground, and knelt on it.
This is SHITE! yelled Jason, hurling a newly-emptied lager can into the unseen undergrowth. Its dark. We cannae see anything. What are we doing here, man?
Chill, man, I just thought it would be cool, said Connor, all spooky and that. I didnae think it would be so cold and dark.
Jason softened when Connor admitted his error. It’ll be a magic place to come when we plunk off school, though. Naebody from the council will find us here.
Connor detached the plastic carrier bag of drink from the branch on which he’d hung it and they began to pick their way along the path using the faint light from their mobiles. Then Jason stopped. Thats weird, man. Do you hear that?
Naw. No at this time of night, surely…
The path led past some pine trees to an open glade wanly lit by the moon. Just off the path they sensed a dark, stooping figure no, a kneeling figure muttering away to himself. Show me your will… lead me in your ways… soften our hearts towards the weak…
He’s mental, whispered Connor.
It’s pure scary, man, lets go.
They ignored the path and clattered off through the trees. Dimly, they saw the lights of the Glenturlie Estate and ran towards them, the branches clawing as they went. They only stopped running when they reached a scruffy field bordering the estate.
I left the bag, said Connor.
The bag with the drink. I dropped it when we saw the mad guy.
This was a great idea. Jason trudged away towards the lights of town.
This is life, Jane thought as she entered the wood. She was warm from the gentle climb through the fields but it felt good. Pity about her shoes; they were ruined. She switched on her mobile to light the path a little.
Kyle inhaled the mouldy breath of the wood. There was peace, here, quietness. And then, just ahead of him, he heard a muffled tattoo of running feet on the soft woodland floor. Two shadows fled past through sparely-filtered moonlight.
Not far along, on the same path, he saw something bright that shifted and crinkled gently in the breeze; a plastic bag. He picked it up and peered inside; a half-full bottle of Buckfast and a few cans of multipack lager. Well, they’ll help, Kyle thought, they’ll deaden the pain.
More footsteps, behind him this time. They stopped.
He turned to see a young woman, wearing a light raincoat over a short dress, and smart, high-heeled shoes. He edged closer to get a clearer view.
Don’t hurt me, said Jane.
It’s all right, said Kyle, I wont. He nodded at the plastic bag. This isn’t mine. I found it.
He sounded nice, thought Jane, well-spoken. What a shame he was out on his own, drinking. Id better be getting along, she said.
Yes. Midnight walk?
Yes. Just going home.
He watched as she disappeared into the gloom. Even struggling with those heels, there was a grace about her. If she was the last person he’d ever see, he hadn’t chosen badly.
He crawled into the midst of a cluster of rhododendrons and felt in his pockets for the tablets. He sat on a dry stump of wood, remembering that mum always said you could catch something from sitting on something damp. He reached into the carrier bag for a can and wished he hadn’t brought the water. It seemed a waste, now.
Rab stood up and retrieved his cagoule. A night of victorious prayer. Now and then he had heard voices, whisperings, the sound of passing feet. Distractions sent by the Enemy? If so, they had failed. Rab glanced at his watch; quarter to one. The night would soon be compromised by the first dirty grey light. He set off for the manse.
Connor followed Jason into the Glenturlie estate, where all the poshies lived, but then turned towards the path that led back into Derryburn Wood. He couldn’t leave that drink behind.
Just as he entered the wood he met an attractive young woman who was coming the other way. Ignoring his Hi, doll! she continued speaking into her mobile; I’m sorry to phone so late, Scott, and I’m sorry about tonight. Can I see you tomorrow? Lucky Scott, whoever he was; she had nice legs and that, though she shouldnae have walked through the wood in those heels.
He hadn’t gone much further when he met a middle-aged man wearing a cagoule and a tweed bunnet. They both stopped.
Can I help you, young man? Im Reverend Soutar of Glenturlie Parish Church.
Aye. Have ye seen a plastic bag somebody might have dropped?
Kyle lay down; the damp didn’t worry him, now. He just felt warmth and peace and silence as the faint smell of rhododendron blossom fought with the mouldiness. He was hidden from sight in this lonely woodland place. Would anyone ever find him?
The minister guy had tried to convert Connor so he had pulled away and scampered into the wood. When he got back to the place there was no sign of the carry-out but at least the mad guy had gone. A strong gust of wind blew in from somewhere, penetrating even the sheltered places, the kind of wind you got at scary bits in horror films. Behind those big bushes, something rustled. A plastic bag?
There were steely bars of light in the sky now but it was still deep-dark among the bushes. There was his carry-out, though. Someone had definitely been at it, just two cans left and no sign of the Buckie.
Connor turned and saw something dark and still on the ground. He looked at the silent shape for a long time and wondered what it was. The light seemed a long way away.
David McVey worked for many years at the University of Paisley, but he has also been a grouse beater, a tax officer and spent one miserable Saturday night stocktaking at a B&Q. He has published nearly 100 short stories and hundreds of non-fiction articles. David enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, telly, and watching football, especially his hometown team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC and the Scotland national side. Check out David’s website.
In Alice’s infinite wisdom, and after the success of our Beat Writers’ Issue, she allowed me to take the reins for a special issue of my own. So here it is, The Bohemyth’s special issue dedicated to and inspired by the work and life of Samuel Beckett.
I would like to thank each and every person who submitted their work. The standard and variation was incredibly high – a testament in itself to the influence of Beckett – and the decisions on what to select for publication was harder than I would have imagined. I believe the pieces we have chosen are a fitting tribute to the memory of Beckett and I hope you feel the same after you have read and reread each one.
In Jan Wilm’s flash fiction, Colm O’Shea’s short story, Eamon Mc Guinness’ personal essay, Kenneth Hickey’s short drama, Denis O’Callaghan’s painting, and Claire Tracey’s photography, I hope you will find something that stays with you and gets you talking.
I would like to thank everyone who helped to spread the word about this issue and I hope that you continue to do so.
Finally, I would like to thank The Bohemyth’s amazing editor Alice Walsh. Her passion and enthusiasm for encouraging new writers is only surpassed by her own distinctive writing. Her ability to do both continues to inspire me.
I hope you enjoy the issue. And remember: BECKETT IS THE WORD.
Photography – Claire Tracey lives and works in Dublin. She has previously lived in France, Italy and Singapore. She has also travelled throughout Asia, America, Canada and Europe. Claire is currently working on her first screenplay.
Snow. Why. Repeat. Why. One. Three. Two. Four. Five. Why. One draws the blinds and fills the room with moth light of morning. Heaviness in the bones. Five. Why. One lifts the hands to touch the lakecold plain of the snow window. The white sinking hourglass sand. One is suddenly old, too old for life over again, all of life an old memory, forever redrawn in a puppeteering mind, one is old overnight, one with oldness. Why.
One recalls the moments of old, like crystal stars in darkness, snow petals on the windowpane, blooming, dying. The hand, her starfish hand spread out against the windowpane, tiny little thing, and the white sinking hourglass sand. Mercury, like dust, like mould, forms cold, but soft, around the hand. The greying warmth enfolding her fingers, a giggle, her head turning from frozen memory, a lily blossoming from the darkness, the mercury print of fingers left against the windowpane. One breathes against the lakecold windowpane. Blooming, dying. Too much remains of too little.
Why. Snow. Five. One has been to the room, the last room, her smell on the air, tender as pastry scent on the wind on a day of hunger. The blanket, which safeguards her shape against time, some day it will have to be straightened. The mine field of playthings on the floor, thinly arrayed, the mind field ploughed out already by the impossible mornings to come. Alone with age. Nothing to be done. No more marrying, no more having of children, no more hearing the lull of the voice, tiny little voice, when she turned herself into voices, so as to be together in solitude. One looked quietly from the kitchen to the rectangle of sunlight on the floor in the hall, dust flakes floating, the hourglass sand settling on your daughter. One day you step into the rectangled light and see the cut that it makes in the floor as what it was, open grave of time, tiny little thing.
You have returned to the living room with the memory of her scent, flying into the void of memory altered, pure silence in the walls, in the clocks, in the dawning sky. You, sequestered in the void, hold still to memory devoid of words, devoid of time, falling from the night of your mind, like moth dust through the hourglass, and you hold death in your eyes, in your eyes behind your eyes, vast rooms of death, streamed with light glaring in your eyes as on a stage, a full moon of expectation, and you keep still. You touch her hair somewhere in that room, you take her hand somewhere on that stage, her hand moves with your hand onto the windowpane. A tiny cracked moon of a hand eclipsing an older sun, the lake cold windowpane against your palm. Your hand is alone, an image puppeteered in the mind, of the hand, the tiny little hand of dimpled knuckles on the windowpane. Blooming, dying. Repeat.
Why. Five years too late for returning, barren tides, holding hands in memory. You remember the call made together. Can you dial the last digits. A giggle. The number, dear. One. Three. Two. Four. Five. The giant receiver on the small sea shell ear. The waiting, the ancient waiting. Daddy. I dialled the dadgets. Breathe. Repeat. Alone, the number escapes you, you look it up, you dial, the last five digits like stabs, you wait, the receiver restored as of old. His voice, a question as from the wintry void itself. You exhale against the windowpane, his voice unknowing still, waiting in another world, against another light for news that is, already, ageing and eternal. Mercury evaporates. You answer. No. It’s just me.
Jan Wilm (*1983) teaches English literature at Goethe University Frankfurt. He lives in Frankfurt.
– By Colm O’Shea
The wait, the long wait. Longer than before, not as long as it will be but longer than before. Here, now, here, rain again, as before, softer than but rain all the same. Waiting here, in the dark, waiting. Waiting for the door to open and waiting for him to come out. Waiting here, not standing, tried that, seen, chased away. Not sitting, tried that, seen, stones thrown at me. Crouching now, here, waiting, crouching. Behind the bins, crouching, ready, waiting but ready. Ready for the door to open and for him to come out. Waiting for someone to see me and I can be off, gone, run, away. Waiting. Waiting for the door to open and I, me, here, waiting. He knows, when he comes, he knows now, he knew then, he knows what he did, when he did it, before he did it maybe but he knows what he did then, and he knows it now. He knows and that’s why. He knows and that’s why I wait. He knows what he did and he knows he must expect it, not expect me, he doesn’t know me, well he does, but he doesn’t know me well, well he does. He does know me. He doesn’t know me now. He’ll be expecting it all the same. The same thing maybe, maybe not, maybe not expecting it at all, got away with it so far so why not. No, he’ll be, he is, he’ll be expecting something. Deserves something. Stupid that, fucking stupid that. Deserve, deserve, deserve means nothing anymore, never meant anything. Used to tell each other, used to be taught, used to be told that deserve, deserve meant something, meant we earned it, whatever it was, good, bad or indifferent, we deserved it. Meaningless word now, I mean look at it, when you look at it, when you think about it, deserve, really, deserve, means nothing. No one, not me, not him, no one keeping track, keeping score, keeping a tally on it all, on us all, no one. No one to decide who deserves what, good, bad or indifferent, no one. But say it all the same, think it all the same. Why I’m here, deserve, he deserves and I’m here. I did, I allocated, I tallied, I kept score and I decided. No better than anyone else, my own flaws, my own faults, my own, all my own, mine own and no one else’s. But I kept score and I decided, oh yes I did, I decided that he deserved, that he deserved this, that he deserved this now, here. He deserved this then, when I waited, the time I waited, all the time, all the times I waited, he deserved this then too, all of these times or just once. He deserves this once and that will be the end of it, no more deserving for him, never, all gone. He’ll deserve and I’ll give, I’ll dole out, I’ll serve, I’ll. Me, does it count, does it deserve the name, that word again. Should be banned, deserve, like that old nun, that old nun that taught us the words, taught us the words and the rhythms and the rhymes, the alliteration and the assonance, taught us the metre, not the metres, that was someone else, gone, funny that, their faces gone, her’s still here. I’ll ask him if I have the chance, I’d ask him if I thought I had the time. Others, there had to be others, there were others, she, that old nun, no, not a nun, that former nun, she only taught us the words, nothing more, not that we needed more, not that I remember any of the rest of it. I remember the words though, I remember them, funny that all the same. At the time we hated them, we hated her, always going on, always nosing and pointing, hated the sight of her, dreaded her, dreaded the words. And yet, and yet now, all that remains, all that I can recall. Ask him if I get a chance. Who were the others. Think on that, think on that later when it’s finished, when it’s done. What was that anyway, why that, why her, why that old nun, that old former nun. Deserve, yes, that was it, deserve, hate that word, ban that word. Words she banned, no, only one word she banned, never cursed, never swore in front of her, swore plenty behind her back but never in front of her. One word she banned, one word, only word. Nice, only word she banned, only word she never let us use, never let us say. Silly then, stupid then, I mean, nice, nothing wrong with it, we thought, nothing. Nice, good word, does what it says on the tin word, nice, has its place and use it word, nice. See it now, nice. Hateful word, nice, understand it now. He was never the nice one, no, he was, the bad one, no, not exactly, not at the time, no, didn’t know that, weren’t aware of that at the time. If I knew then, if we knew then, no, no point, would have happened anyway, no. Think what I want, couldn’t have stopped it. No, I was the nice one, yes, cursed with being the nice one, ruined by being the nice one, yes, ruined everything, ruined it all by being the nice one. Could have been much more, could have had much more. Could have deserved, no, not that word. Much more, anything more, anything. Could have anything if I wasn’t the nice one. Ruined it all for me. Ruined it all for myself. Should have been worse, should have been a cunt, no, maybe. If I’d been a cunt I would have had more, I would have been more. No, had to be, was, no point in discussing it, debating it, was, is, am, will be, nice. Ignored, nice, always is, always will be. Looked at, passed over, considered for a little while, yes, it’s nice, isn’t that what they all say, what we all say, it’s nice I suppose, it’s nice and all that. Maybe it will do for, maybe it will do for someone else. Oh yes, it’s nice, I mean it’s harmless and invisible, it won’t cause any problems, but it’s just, it’s just. Oh, I don’t know. I mean it’s not good enough for me, you say, I say, we say. I mean it’s not good enough for me but may be someone else will look at it, I say, you say, we all say. Knew what she was on about, have to give her that, admit it now. Have to give it to her now, knew what she was on about. Ban that word like the other, means worse than meaning nothing. Ban it, ban them. Knew what she was on about that old nun, that former nun. When you think about it, I mean when you really think about it. No, no, not too much. Miss it all if I think about it too much. No, forget, put it aside, ask him if I get a chance. Won’t get a chance, never ask him. Still, think on it again, sometime, somewhere, forget. Just now, just here, now. Think, yes, know what I have to do, know what I had to do, do it now, do it here. Wait for, wait here for the door to open and, yes, wait, yes. Know it, have it. Have it in my hand. Cudgel, yes, have it in my hand, the cudgel. Waiting here for him now with the cudgel. Knows why, he knows why. Thought of more before. Thought of more, maybe the stick, maybe the knife, maybe the Hurley, no. Thought about the knife, no, can’t do that. Thought about the gun, no, can’t do that. Get a gun, me, no. No, nothing left except the cudgel. Has to be the cudgel. The sound, the name, says it all, no words but it says it all. Wait here, stand here, no, crouch here with the cudgel, yes. Deserves, no, merits, no, just being stupid now, pretending it’s not one thing or the other. Earned, maybe, maybe earned. Either way, anyway. The cudgel, me and the cudgel waiting here, waiting here in the alley for the door to open, waiting here and then. And then what, yes I know, yes I know, I know what will happen then, he knows what will happen then, should know, might ease the pain, no don’t be stupid. Just wait, wait. Listen for anything, listen for anyone. No one here, no one here except him. No him, not the him. The other him, the other him here now, looking over, standing over. On the wire, a crow now, a crow, he’s a crow now. Know it’s him, of course, has to be. Look, even now in the dark, look. The black eyes, the black cold eyes and the long beak. Looking down on me with the black cold eyes and the long narrow beak. Looking down on me and saying no, always saying no. He doesn’t know, of course he does, then why does he say no. Has to know the truth, why does he say no. Looking at me, looking at me crouching here with the cudgel and he says no. Not listening to him anymore. Used to listen to every word he said, we all did, every word. Not anymore. Words mean nothing now. His words mean nothing now. Ask him about it, if there is any time. Ask him, he should know. Thick as thieves, him, me. Were, best of friends if that means anything, if the words mean anything, not banned, allowable words, still, mean very little now, almost nothing. Still, yet. True, was, were, him, me. Yes, best of friends. Once. Now, no. Now, here, now I wait, crouching in the alley with the cudgel and the door will open and he’ll get what he. Should have told him, for old time’s sake, should have sent a message. Let him realise the truth, let him realise he can’t, no, he won’t, yes, he won’t get away with it. Let him know he can’t get away with it. He knows what he did, knows it, has to know that others know too. Has to know that I know it too. Has to know that he can’t get away with it. Don’t tell him all, shouldn’t have told him all if anything, no, no point. Wouldn’t have told him about the alley and me and the crow and the cudgel. No, wouldn’t have told him that. Surprise, like the old days, jumping out and shouting surprise. Like that time, that time in Wicklow, walking, him and me, in the dark. Walking ahead of the girls, young, much younger then, we all were. Walking in front of them in the dark, along the road going down to the village, yes. Knew, we knew, barely had to say a word about it, both knew. Hid behind the trees, me on one side of the road and him on the other. The road, the narrow dark road, trees overhanging, darker than dark hiding behind the trees until the girls walked by then jumping out and yelling, yelling something anyway, forget what it was. Ask him if I get the chance. Good times, thinking now, good times. Knew it then sure he did, sure I did, knew they were good times. Cudgel could have come from one of those trees, old enough, knotted enough, maybe, maybe not but maybe. Still, quiet, still. Crow given up on me, once more says no and leaves, flies, gone. Crow given up and gone, more pickings elsewhere. Maybe it doesn’t know, maybe it really doesn’t. Might have had rich pickings, man and a cudgel, good for crows, cracking open the shell and letting the meat out, letting it all out onto the alley. Crow might have liked that, no chance to ask him. Crouching here, waiting, yes the crow might have enjoyed it, me, the cudgel and him, yes. Light now, door opening, yes me and the cudgel, swinging, knows what he did, body coming out, light dimmed for a moment, light from inside blocked from coming out into the alley, held back, blocked. A body. A body stepping out into the alley, the alley, me and the cudgel, yes thing about it, swinging, looping, a looping arc, bringing it, bringing the cudgel crashing down. The body moving in the alley, the face on the body. Know the face, have seen the face, the cudgel swinging through the air, one long arcing swing. The face on the body, recognise it, know it. Ask it, could ask it all the questions I have, could do all that. Just think about the cudgel, just think. The body, the face, doesn’t see me. Say something, call out, ask it the questions, ask him the questions. No, just think, the cudgel, the swing, the crash, breaking the shell and the meat coming out. The face and the body passing by, walking away. Could ask, don’t ask. Could ask the man everything I wanted to know. He knows, he knows, he knows all, he knows what he did and if I ask he’ll know why I’m waiting here in the alley, standing, no, crouching in the alley with the cudgel. The body and the face are gone. He’s gone. The light returns, the dim light returns, the darkness returns, if it was ever anywhere else. The crow hasn’t returned but the darkness has. Waiting, crouching in the alley. Waiting in the alley with the cudgel because the door will open and he will step out into the alley. He will step out into the alley and he will know, and he knows what he did.
Colm O’Shea is originally from Leixlip, County Kildare. He currently lives in Dublin City where he works as a Civil Engineer. He was one of the winners, in 2012, of the inaugural Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition. Check out his blog.
´I can´t write about him´ – Writing in the Silences: Beckett, Grief and Art
– By Eamon Mc Guinness
It started with reading the letter Beckett wrote to his friend and poet Thomas Mc Greevy in Paris after his father died. It opened up things for me and gave me the strength to start expressing myself in new ways. It was 2010 and I was doing an M.A in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama in U.C.D. One of the modules was ´Beckett and Contemporary Irish Drama´. My father had died earlier in the year. I was teaching English in Spain when it happened, came back in June when the academic year had finished and threw myself into the masters in September. I read every book and article recommended. I spent hours in the library and would often be there when it opened. I didn´t know what else to do. If I stopped I didn´t know what would happen. I didn´t allow myself to properly think or write about what had happened to me and my family.
Beckett was 27 when his father William Beckett died aged 61 on 26th of June 1933. Beckett wrote to McGreevy in Paris on the second of July. That act itself was comforting; the writing of the letter was an important gesture for me. Putting pen to paper was a conserving act. When I returned to Spain after the funeral I gave myself daily writing tasks. I wrote long letters and e-mails to friends and family. Communication was vital. There is, I believe, an honesty and space to letters and I sought that out. Whenever I´d been away before my father and I exchanged letters and my time in Spain was no different and we wrote to each other regularly. In reality, I wrote anything just to keep myself busy. Quotes, shopping lists, dreams, memories, plans, regrets, books I wanted to read, song and film titles, places I wanted to go, to-do lists; anything.
Beckett´s letter to McGreevy is concise and direct. It also contains more overt emotion than I´d up to that point encountered in his work.
It opens with:
“Father died last Monday afternoon after an illness lasting just under a week, and was buried the following Wednesday morning in a little cemetery on the Greystones side of Bray Head, between the mountains and the sea.”
He then goes on to briefly describe his father´s death and the practical matters that needed to be taken care of. One of his main duties was to help his mother and respond to the “endless letters on her behalf”. His own uncertain future is alluded to: “My position of course is vaguer than ever”.
In the final paragraph he mentions some memories he has of his father´s final days, “joking and swearing at the doctors”, “in bed with sweet pea all over his face” and most poignantly his father´s assertion that “when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart”. I could relate to all of this. In the weeks preceding his death I would speak to my father regularly on the phone. I was living in Santiago de Compostela and would constantly see the relieved and joyous faces of pilgrims who had finished El Camino de Santiago. I told him that many people who had been sick would walk the Camino when they had recovered. We planned to do this together when the treatment was finished and he was better. He too promised that he´d never go back to work.
Beckett says that his last words were “Fight fight fight” and “What a morning”. I´ve racked my brain for three years but still can´t remember our last conversation or his final words to me. In a strange way that makes me happy, there was no ´final ‘conversation over the phone, no ‘goodbye’ moment. Our last chat was I´m sure filled with trivial matters; the weather, family, news from home and work. One thing that sticks out though and that I wrote down in a journal at the time was something he said to me. We were talking about friendship and falling out with people and he said “Eamon, there is no time to make enemies”. I don´t know why I wrote it down but I did. Beckett finishes the paragraph with the beautiful sentence: “All the little things come back – memoire de l´escalier.” The French phrase refers to, according to the footnotes, “an inspired afterthought that comes to one only after leaving, that is, on the stairs”. It was and is true; all the little things do come back, at unexpected and surprising moments.
This letter was read out at the start of class by Prof. Anthony Roche and needless to say it numbed me. Beckett was 27 when his father died, I was 24. His father was also 61. I´d been in a haze, working hard, and trying to avoid the pitfalls that accompany grief. I wasn´t drinking or going out much. My girlfriend and I were living in my family home and we were all supporting one another. Beckett´s letter brought me back to my own letters and writing in the weeks and months after my father´s passing. I tried writing poems and stories about him but they all ended in failure. I was, perhaps, too close to the incident. In his signing off Beckett heartbreakingly states: “I can´t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him”. In a letter to a friend afterwards I remember writing about my dad: “I am always in his shadow”. I think of that line often and try to figure out what I meant by it but writing it made me feel better. The letter floored me and gave me the most intimate reading of Beckett´s work I could hope for and I began looking at his work from the perspective of ´not writing´.
That final line has stayed with me the longest and I return to it often. The next day I went to Prof. Roche´s office and he photocopied the letter for me. We then began speaking about death and expression, how or when a writer can begin to express certain topics. When does the grief settle and the expression become clearer, more objective and less filled with raw emotion? There was and is no concrete answer. For some, that expression comes quickly and clearly, for others more slowly and for some it never comes.
The final line is telling. Beckett has just written three paragraphs “about him” before telling McGreevy he “can´t write about him”. However, we know what he means, “write about him”, in poetry, prose or drama. Beckett´s work is full of allusions, glimpses, memories that linger, small incidences that remain in the unconscious and will not go away, the little things that “come back”. In Krapp´s Last Tape Krapp speaks of a lost love and wonders “What remains of all that misery? A girl in a shabby green coat, on a railway-station platform? No?” and later on “I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.” Krapp is haunted by these images and returns to them constantly. The death of Beckett´s mother in 1950 is alluded to in both Rockaby and Krapp´s Last Tape.
In Rockaby we hear v reliving old memories:
“at her window
let up the blind and sat
quiet at her window”
Later, we hear:
“in the end went down
into the old rocker
where mother rocked”
Similarly, in Krapp´s Last Tape death and blinds are again referred to:
“I was there when the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs…I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last.”
The letter to McGreevy allowed me to write about things at my own pace, if at all. There was no pressure but simultaneously a reminder that these feelings would remain and would re-emerge again and again. It was the willingness and bravery of Beckett and other writers to mine, investigate and confront these memories and emotions from different artistic perspectives that was and is the most inspiring to me.
In my shock and sadness I saw grief everywhere in art. I returned to albums and songs that dealt with loss, most notably Bob Dylan´s ´Blood on the Tracks´, Beck´s ´Sea Change´ and The Streets´ ´Never Went to Church´. I actively sought them out. Czeslaw Milosz says: “When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.” Everything was re-shaped and sounded different, as if seeing or hearing things for the first time. I saw Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses not as the portentous arts graduate with literary aspirations but as a lost child whose mother had recently passed away, who is wandering the city, going from one de-energising group of men to another. A case in point being his friendship with Buck Mulligan who dismisses Stephen´s grief in the ´Telemachus´ episode: “You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissecting room. It’s a beastly thing. It simply doesn’t matter”.
Bloom has himself suffered great loss. The suicide of his father, the death of his mother and the tragic early death of his son Rudy. Throughout the day he is constantly reminded of his suffering: “Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house”. Soon after, in ´Lestrygonians´ Bloom says of Rudy: “Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand”. Bloom has the wherewithal to walk away from groups (the newspapermen in ´Aeolus´ and the drinkers in ´Lestrygonians´) and his ability to keep his own company marks him out from Stephen. It is little wonder that it is Bloom who saves Stephen during his drunken escapades and brings him home to 7 Eccles St for a cup of cocoa.
What intrigued me most was the idea of mining and confronting one´s past. There are certain incidences and memories we constantly fall back on and remember, certain people we can´t quite forget. I became intrigued by artists who not simply revisited their pasts but allowed these references to reappear in their work again and again. To some it may appear futile or even easy to go over the same ground but I see it as an act of bravery. In John Mc Gahern´s work there is a constant re-examining of his childhood in which his mother died at a young age and he was brought up by his aggressive and domineering father. We see this theme in both his short stories and novels throughout his career and again in Memoir.
As we see with Krapp´s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot, there are different versions of the self constantly at play. Our old selves die, we improve in some ways and dis-improve in other ways but the key point is that certain memories remain. There is a willingness and an acceptance on the writer´s part to return to the moments that define us as humans and tackle them again with fresh perspective amidst new experience and more objectivity. What differentiates this mining from simple repetition is that the standards are high and never frivolous. Stephen Fry, speaking about music, said: “Listening to music may inspire an extraordinary emotional response, but extraordinary emotions are not enough to make music”. Essentially, when Beckett or McGahern re-examine a moment from their past it is not simply through emotional laziness but more so a desire to view that moment again through a prism of change and new experience, from a more mature vantage point. It is not enough to simply have these experiences and write about them, a poem about a dead father is no more valid than a poem about a lamp, it depends on the execution and this is what characterizes the great from the good in my opinion, that determination to return again to the defining moments that shape us and attempt to create great art from this.
For example, knowing that there is biographical detail in the works of Beckett, Joyce or McGahern doesn´t improve the work. It has to stand alone on its own terms. Being aware that Bruce Springsteen´s ´My Father´s House´ is a personal story doesn´t make it a better song. Similarly, in Guy Clark´s ´Randall Knife´ he sings honestly and directly about his father´s passing, using the knife as a metaphor for his loss. Knowing that Clark´s father owned a Randall knife doesn’t artistically advance the song but strangely adds even more pressure on Clark to write universally. There is an impetus with the great writers to take their experiences to the next level, where it becomes useful not just for the writer but for the reader or listener too. We see this also in Patrick Kavanagh´s ´Memory of My Father´, Raymond Carver´s ´Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year´ and with Seamus Heaney´s ´Digging´ and ´Dangerous Pavements´. They are not simply diary entries but nuanced and crafted poems that work on both a subjective and objective level.
It was Beckett´s letter which gave me the mental space to express myself. It allowed me to face things at my own pace. I have written many bad poems about my father´s passing but have also written some lines that I am extremely proud of. By simply writing and examining the silence I feel I have made some progress. Where will it end? Will it end? Everyday there are reminders, “all the little things come back”. For me it´s about remaining open to the experiences and feelings, being aware that something will re-emerge that will throw you off course, get you down and open up old wounds. Grief gets quieter and becomes consumed by life and daily routine. It´s rarely as loud as it was at first but the desire to express and examine those feelings is still as valid as ever. The oft quoted Beckett phrase from his 1983 novella Westward Ho: “Ever Tried? Ever Failed? No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better” encourages us to persevere both mentally and artistically.
People have different ways of dealing with grief but for me it is returning to the page, to the clichéd notion that art saves. I even question this at times. Does it save or merely distract us? Either way, I still see the desire to write in the silences everywhere. Dermot Bolger´s recent collection The Venice Suite was a masterly collection of poems he wrote following the sudden death of his wife Bernie in 2010. He said he didn´t remember writing them but wrote them in a daze on “multiple scraps of paper” and “barely legible lines scribbled on envelopes”. Bolger says: “Reshaping them into poems allowed me to confront that initial grieving process and try to imagine myself into the different life I now lead”.
The bravery to return to these memories inspires me. In my view, the great writers write in the spaces, tackle the silences and go to the dark places. Speaking about his life Beckett said “Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile…a stain upon the silence”. It was this silence that I wanted to explore, the ´not writing´ and emptiness that consumes us all. It´s seeing it as a part of the human condition and once that space is accepted it is like having the end of the story, the in-between is there to be filled, to be written in, walked in and loved in. There is a pervasive loss that everyone feels, that everyone will go through, a search for meaning, for stability in the world. Filling it up as best you can becomes not only a means of survival but also a duty.
Eamon is 27 and from Dublin. He has had poetry published in wordlegs and Bare Hands Poetry. He has been writing for the last few years and is currently working on a series of short stories and poems.
Observations on a Funeral (After Beckett)
A Short Dramatic Piece
– By Kenneth Hickey
DUM – A Man
DEE – A Woman
VOICE – An Unseen Male Voice
[The stage lights slowly come up on DUM sitting on a small wooden box, like an orange crate, slightly to the left of centre. He is dressed in pinstriped trousers and dark cardigan over a dull grey shirt. All his clothes are threadbare. His boots are worn and broken. He has a wooden bowl of gruel and a spoon in his hand. He stares straight ahead. DEE stands slightly to the right of centre in front of a small wooden box similar to DUM’s. She is dressed in a dark cardigan over a grey dress. Her clothes are equally threadbare. There are ladders in her tights. Her boots are worn and broken. Her bowl of gruel and spoon are at her feet. She stares straight ahead. On the floor in the space between them is an old fashioned black phone. From darkness to the stage lights being bright DEE begins to speak in a single rapid monotone delivery. Her speech is about three quarters the volume of normal delivery.]
DEE: Watching them walking, the shape, the curve, the movement of one step in front of the other down the streets, the eyes hidden behind cascading hair, the smile, the look, the not look, ignoring, pretending to ignore, the watching, all that’s hidden and not hidden, the lies, the make believe, the sun pushing through their fingers, the curve, the curve beneath, the curve beneath garment and coat, hidden, why hidden, hidden from watching, the futile attempt not to care, they all care, watching, nails painted, eyes painted, lips painted, nails, eyes, lips, the lips, oh the lips, the bounce, the twist, the turn, the half turn, glancing into windows to glance back, smiling half smiles, hidden, watching from the corner of eyes, wanted to be ignored so they can watch back, they lie, I lie, we lie, together lying, too clever, too clever for our own good, twirling the world on the tips of their fingers, impaling, pulling, dragging, catching me and dragging me after them around dark corners, gone, gone now, and me with them, the smell, oh the smell of them on the air after, after they have left me, perfume, the perfume they possess, left with me, the small crack, the crack of dark tongue darting, behind small teeth, too white, too white, darting, the darkness behind, inside, inside those glittering lips, glittering with the glitter they put there, the glitter I watch for, the glitter I want, inside there, and underneath, my imagination, the small, the tight, pink and red and black, holding back, taking back, all I want to see, these eyes no good for underneath, I think, I dream, I invent the underneath, where I cannot see, underneath, and there it lies, and the skin sucks me in, imagination gone again, the heels, the hair, the lips, oh the lips, closer, closer till the kiss, only the kiss, imagination, every one of them as they walk by, skin on skin, finger on skin, them, me, them, it all, all of it, and then the blink, the blink till it is gone, and then another one, the skin again, and the lips, and back again, underneath, inside, the lips, and I am gone, again, the heat, the touch, they move, touch them as they move, want, wanting to move closer, the touching…
[Taking up her bowl and spoon DEE sits on her wooden box. Long Pause. DUM and DEE both remain motionless for several moments and continue to stare straight forward as they speak.]
DUM: You start.
DEE: No it’s you.
DUM: How long have we been here ?
DEE: Too long.
DUM: Has the world fallen yet ?
DEE: To which world are you referring?
DUM: [Confused.] Which world ?
DEE: The world here or the world beyond ?
DUM: Oh… The world beyond of course.
DEE: I don’t know about that. I’d have to check.
DUM: Well would you ?
[DEE puts down the bowl of gruel and spoon, gets up and without looking at DUM takes her box and moves to stage right. Pause.]
DEE: Isn’t there a ladder? I think I remember a ladder.
DUM: There usually is.
DEE: Was there one last time?
DUM: I can’t remember.
[DEE steps up on the box and peers off into the audience. Pause.]
[DEE continues to strain to see into the audience.]
DEE: Well what ?
DUM: Has it fallen then ?
DEE: Hard to say.
DUM: But if you had to say ?
[DEE continues to stare out.]
DEE: There’s not much out there.
DUM: If you had to guess.
DEE: Then I’d guess it’s still falling.
[DEE climbs down from her box and crosses with it to her original position.]
DUM: Not quiet finished then.
DEE: Not quiet done.
[DEE sits down on the box, picking up the bowl and spoon before staring forward again.]
DUM: Time still remaining yet.
DEE: Time still left.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DUM: Have you begun the preparations ?
DEE: For what ?
DUM: The party.
DEE: The party ?
DUM: The weekly celebration.
DEE: It’s not a birthday party?
DUM: No definitely not.
DEE: [Animated.] Is that you, Petey? [Pause.] Petey is that you?
DEE: Let me go back. [Looking up into the rafters.] Is it okay to go back? Just a little bit?
[Pause. No response.]
DEE: The party ?
DUM: The weekly celebration.
DEE: It‘s not a birthday party?
DUM: No definitely not.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DEE: And who will come ?
DUM: Too what ?
DEE: The party.
DUM: Those which remain.
DEE: But who remains ?
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DUM: My mother remains.
DEE: She left when you killed the dog.
DUM: His barking kept me awake at night.
DEE: You were right then…
DUM: …To kill the dog.
DEE: …If it’s what you wanted to do.
DUM: Have you washed the plates for the party ?
DEE: You threw them from the window.
DUM: After I killed the dog.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
My father will come.
DEE: He left when you killed your mother.
DUM: Her complaining about the dog kept me awake at night.
DEE: You were right then…
DUM: …To kill my mother.
DEE: …If it’s what you wanted to do.
DUM: Have you polished the cutlery for the party ?
DEE: You threw them from the window too.
DUM: After I killed my mother.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DUM: My sister will come.
DEE: She left when you killed your father.
DUM: His complaining about my mother kept me awake at night.
DEE: You were right then…
DUM: …To kill my father.
DEE: …If it’s what you wanted to do.
DUM: Have you counted the chairs for the party ?
DEE: The chairs?
DUM: Hurry up dear and close the window.
DUM: Let me go back. [Looking up into the rafters.] Is it okay to go back? Just a little way?
[Pause. No response.]
Have you counted the chairs for the party?
DEE: You threw them…
[DUM turns to stare at the window, the point where DEE was looking form earlier. He is confused.]
DUM: [Unsure.] …from the window !
DEE: After you killed your father.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DUM: My wife will come.
DEE: She left when she found you in bed with your sister.
DUM: She was lonely after my father.
DEE: You were right then…
DUM: …To sleep with my sister.
DEE: …If it’s what you wanted to do.
DUM: Have you cleared the table for the party ?
DEE: [Confused.] You threw it…
[DEE stands and crosses to position at left where she stood on the box earlier and stares up at it confused.]
DUM: [Unsure.] …from the window.
DEE: After you slept with your sister.
[Long pause as DUM continue to stare directly ahead. DEE continues to stand and stare.]
DUM: Then my sister must come.
DEE: She left when you got the dog.
DUM: I’ve always wanted one.
DEE: Since you were a boy.
DUM: So I was right then…
DEE: …To get a dog.
DUM: …If it’s what I wanted to do.
DUM: Have you placed out the caviar for the party ?
DEE: You threw it from the window.
DUM: After I got the dog.
DEE: And so we eat gruel.
[DEE returns to sitting as before. Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DUM: We’re the only true nihilists left then.
DEE: With our hollow cell…
DUM: Our dull defence…
DEE: …To guard us.
[Pause before the stage lights slowly fade to blackout. Pause before dim stage lights come up again on DUM sitting as before. DEE is standing as before. From darkness to the stage lights being less bright than before DEE begins to speak in a single rapid monotone delivery. Her speech is about three quarters the volume of normal delivery.]
DEE: Rooted, rooted to the spot, can’t move, can’t touch, they walk on with eyes, hair, lips, the curve, the slip, the slide, the slide, then the badness, it comes, comes inside, the anger, twitching, itching, eating, that badness, that jealousy as they walk, not looking, why don’t they look, the hardness of me, inside me, with me, too long, too long, take it away from me, take it, take them away, leave me alone with my inside words, inside thoughts, thoughts, inside, without them, without them, then gone, it is gone, thank god, thank them, and I am back, back to my watching, then the two of them, the him and the her, him, leave him, the her, him with her, testing the badness, the darkness just left me, testing, the him and the her, the laughing, the joking, the joking I can’t hear, don’t want to hear, but straining, straining to hear, I don’t want to, hear, the him and her joking, the him and her, the look, the glance, the touch of them, the children unborn between them, ignored now, more ignored than before, more ignored than completely, the him, the her, hands held, hands holding, together, the small dead leaves crushed beneath their feet, still testing, still holding, holding the badness back, the bitterness to spit into theirs, wanting what they have, wanting theirs, the him and the hers, wanting, pushing my eyes across the street, away from the him and her, back to them walking, the hers, the hers, with the walk, and the curve, the inside, the underneath, my imagination back, the badness gone for now, now, for now just the watching, the leather, the lace, the small things, the small things they wear, their colours…
[Taking up her bowl and spoon DEE sits on her wooden box. Long Pause. DUM and DEE both remain motionless for several moments and continue to stare straight forward as they speak.]
DUM: You first.
DEE: No it’s you.
DUM: And how long have we been here ?
DEE: As I said before, too long.
DUM: And have you checked ?
DEE: If the world beyond has fallen ?
DEE: I checked before so you’ll have to check this time.
DUM: You think I should ?
DEE: It is your turn.
[DUM puts down his bowl of gruel and spoon, gets up and without looking at DEE takes his box and moves towards thewindow at stage left.]
DUM: It would be better if there was a ladder.
DEE: It’s usually provided.
DUM: But not this time?
DEE: It would appear not.
[DUM steps up on the box and peers off into the audience. Pause.]
DEE: Well ?
[DUM continues to strain to see into the audience.]
DUM: Well what ?
DEE: Has it fallen then ?
DUM: Hard to say.
DEE: But if you had to say ?
[DUM continues to stare out into the audience.]
DUM: It’s a pretty grim view all round.
DEE: Try to get past it.
DUM: Then I’d say it’s fallen.
[DUM gets down from the box and crosses to his original position.]
DEE: Quite finished then.
DUM: Quite done.
[DUM sits down on the box and picks up his bowl of gruel again.]
DEE: No time remaining.
DUM: No time left.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DEE: No point in me beginning the preparations then ?
DUM: For what ?
DEE: The party of course.
DUM: The party ?
DEE: Our weekly celebration.
DUM: Oh that.
DEE: Yes that.
[Long pause as they continue to stare directly ahead and eat from their gruel.]
DEE: Because there’s no one left to come is there ?
DUM: No, no one left to come.
[DUM and DEE continue to stare out directly ahead and eat from their gruel as the stage lights slowly fade to blackout. Pause before dim stage lights come up again on DUM alone on stage standing before his wooden box. His bowl of gruel and spoon is at his feet. The other orange box is in the same position as before. From darkness to the stage lights being less bright than before DUM begins to speak in a single rapid monotone delivery. His speech is about three quarters the volume of normal delivery.]
DUM: The fall, the feel, the move as they move, it all, all on top of me, the boots, the boots that make them walk so tall, so small to me, the detail, but the boots that have me, trample all over me, all over me, trample me, longing to be stepped upon, squashed, made nothing by them, by those boots and their walking, nothing, the light cotton and the little Vs, all their little Vs, and back to the underneath, the unseen, there my mind rests, rests and pants, and pants and moans and rests, the underneath, the small dresses and the pale thighs, pale thighs leading to the underneath, the line, the move, the curve, forbidden but calling, forbidden calling me, calling, and little bags of tricks on their arms, little bags of tricks, and there is no talking, no words, just the watching, the silence, the unsaid, unsaid and silence, no talking, no need for words, they don’t look, pretending, not noticing my watching, my watching, loving the silence between us, between me and them, me and the hers, the hers with their movement and curves, the me and the hers and the watching, then she looks, catching my breath, she looks, the smile, the flick, the smile, the look, rooted, rooted as before I watch her watching, the smile, the flick, the curves, the lips, oh the lips, the inside, the underneath, the inside and underneath are smiling, imagination smiling, I shift, I twist, I turn, the her watching from across, across the street, stopped now, stopped, smiling, watching, I turn, ignore, am moving, moving, all bravery gone, washed into the darkness, but the underneath, the underneath, I cough, another appointment calls me.
[Pause. DUM sits down on the wooden box, picking up his bowl and spoon. Pause.]
[Long pause with DUM staring out at the audience before the stage lights slowly fade to blackout.]
Kenneth Hickey was born in 1975 in Cobh, Co. Cork Ireland. He poetry and prose has been published in Ireland, the UK and the United States. His writing for theatre has been performed in Ireland, the UK, New York and Paris. He has won the Eamon Keane Full Length Play Award as well as being shortlisted for The PJ O’Connor Award and the Tony Doyle Bursary. He is currently completing an MA diseratation on the late plays of Samuel Beckett, 1975-1983: Footfalls to What Where, at University College Cork. Follow him on twitter @kennethjhickey
Susan Prediger was born and raised in the USA, and has lived in Berlin, Germany, and, for the last 14 years, Galway, Ireland. Her award-winning photography has been exhibited by the Galway Arts Service, at the Botanical Gardens, and other venues around Ireland.
Ruth breathed on her bedroom window. Scratched boo with a fingertip.
‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning the Jericho Centre’s gardens. Snow dusted the bare oak. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, far streetlamps twinkled. A fairy troop, thought Ruth. To the north, amber lights on high bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.
Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’
Ruth studied the bridge. Stark iron like a goliath mantis over the river. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital. I wanted to visit. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’
‘It creeped me.’
‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her friend. ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’
A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’
‘Hat, mister’ said Grace.
‘My head is immune to the cold.’
‘Doubt it. Looks like mince,’ said Ruth.
‘We’re ok.’ Grace stamped a heel. ‘Booted up.’
‘Cars are buried in Kent,’ said the watchman. ‘Six foot drifts.’
‘Grandpa said a snowdrift is Satan’s cloak,’ said Grace.
The watchman pointed at a field. ‘There’s His pup.’ A fox bounded stubborn, robust fur deep in snow, a zigzag channel up a slope. ‘Vermin,’ he said, and shut the door.
Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Tonight was Tuesday. The road was white and mute and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and headed toward the river.
‘Enjoy your shopping trip?’ asked Grace.
‘It was good to be out. Shops were mobbed. There were two Santas in John Lewis.’
‘How was aunt Flo?’
‘Did she invite you to Christmas dinner?’
‘No. Dad’s going. But aunt Flo said she has a surprise for me in the New Year.’
‘Maybe planning a party for your sixteenth.’
‘Do you know something I don’t?’
‘I had a party once,’ said Ruth, sniffing.
‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’
‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’
‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’
‘She’s the disease.’
‘At least you met her.’
‘Wish I hadn’t.’ Grace blew into cupped hands. ‘I liked the thought of her.’
‘You needed to meet.’
‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’
Town centre, an empty car park, four juvenile boys, hooded in tracksuits, played hockey with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench.
‘They’re from the home,’ he said.
‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ bawled a beak face.
Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’
A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.
‘Remember soap?’ Beak bent, choked in hilarity. ‘Muck necks.’
The girls jogged, slipping. ‘Inbreeds,’ shouted Grace, vapour breath, shiny hair wild in a gust.
Up a cobble lane they halted outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas hurt thin bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled; face flared orange, smoke drizzling thin from her nose.
‘Last one?’ asked Grace.
Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’
They smoked in turns. Keen drags, passing the fag. Grace took a last pull and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab,’ she said, stomping, December devouring worn soles.
‘A large donner.’ Ruth smacked her lips. ‘Tons of onions.’
‘Stop it, Ruth.’
A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. Gloved and parka’d like an Inuit. He dragged his eyes and loped to a sleek four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, Eskimo man, bloat with revulsion.
Steamy flue heat had thawed a clearing. Grace sat on the warm cobbles. ‘He’s a stink.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’ Ruth kicked the slush curb. ‘Fuck hole.’
‘Wonder if he has a daughter?’
‘I was a baby once,’ said Grace, hands cosy under her bum. ‘Funny that.’
On the main road a church service had ended, congregation flooding the square. The girls fused in the flock, pink and lime zippers loud in a beige and brown spill.
‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’ she asked, her eyes wet and glad.
‘I don’t know him.’
Pencilled eyebrows rose to her woollen hat. Plum cheeks puffed. ‘He’s an inspector.’
‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’
‘Don’t be a fruit. Malcolm hates church.’
‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ asked Grace. ‘Shall I get the priest?’
‘Mother.’ A neat man, coat and scarf, cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’
‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ said Ruth.
‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’
The man led his mother to a car. He turned and saluted the girls, a stiff middle finger.’
Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd. ‘Merry fucking Christmas,’ said Ruth.
‘His mum was nice.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Traffic picked up. Cars, vans, trucks moaned past. Exhausts spewed black breath, rising sour and noxious in the dusk. On the embankment, Ruth squat and retched.
‘Holy pish.’ Grace spanked her spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’
Folded on her knees, Ruth vomited bile.
Grace massaged her neck. ‘Dump it up, babes.’
She heaved and puked a fizzy pool.
‘Chuck it out.’
Another sore retch, yellow slime strings swung from her mouth.
Ruth spat on the snow. ‘I’m done.’ She rested sucking and blowing.
‘Take your time.’
‘That was grotty.’
Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better.’
‘Much.’ Ruth rose and sleeved her chin. ‘I nearly fainted.’
‘Maybe we should wait.’
‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’
‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’
‘Me too. I’d kiss dog shit for a fish supper.’
‘Freak. You spew your guts, now you could eat a whale.’
‘Mental, isn’t it.’
Zippers shut at the throat; fisted pockets, they walked on, teary cold. Sleet hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other. Shied away. Fixed on the path. A mutual trance.
Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a bank. The girls saw a gloved hand adjust the side mirror. ‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’
The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’ asked a man, silver beard, glasses.
‘No thanks,’ said Grace.
‘Anywhere you want.’
‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge,’ said Ruth.
‘I can run you.’
‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed, blueish face crunched.
‘I can run you.’
Arms locked, they mushed up the embankment, boots slippy sliding. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’
Gritted stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea,’ she yelled.
A truck grumped past. Ruth wagged a red numb hand at her red numb ear. ‘What?’
‘The sea. Taste it.’
‘I love that.’
They dallied along the footpath. Leaned on the chest high railing. Below, broad waters lifted and fell and clapped. ‘Choppy isn’t it?’ Ruth gobbed a frothy blob. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’
‘Smells like shells.’
‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth watched purple hills. ‘Grace.’
‘Do you really believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’
‘Probably sorted it weeks ago.’
‘Thanks, babes.’ Ruth climbed the rail.
Grace scrambled over and stood beside her, boots sunk in a snow shelved girder. Vehicles’ horns blared. The girls held hands and stared down at the syrupy blackness.
‘Do you think God is real?’ asked Grace, chilled and lost.
‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
They stepped off the bridge, into slappy icy air, and Ruth shouted, ‘So there must be a God.’
Michael Crossan was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2011. And shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2011. In January 2012, the Atlantic Wire published an interview piece about his Cormac McCarthy Twitter parody. His novel – Morningplace – is written. Three years work. The story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations. Think esoteric Twin Peaks. London editor, Gillian Stern, said Michael is her next big novelist. He is researching agents. Born in Scotland to Irish parents, he plans to settle in his forefathers Donegal and write a dozen novels. Check out Michael’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @MichaelCrossan
Ólafía Lárusdóttir was born and raised in Iceland. She is an Arctic Biologist. Her interest in photography first started when she lived in Venezuela. Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory was taken in Skagaströnd, in north Iceland.
You drive into the village, make a right by the church, and you come to the beach. No one is swimming. The beach is the end of the road. You drive along it to the turning circle where the fish factory used to be, and you circle back again on the same road.
Ahead of you is the one shop and the bank that doubles as a post office. You pull up at the petrol station. Here is where you work. You keep the older folks’ cars ticking over, and you sell sweets, soft drinks, and cigarettes to schoolchildren whose lives are just like yours used to be a few years ago.
The children who come by the petrol station are never alone. They walk in small groups to school and home again, always surrounded by friends. When they reach school they pull off their boots and leave them in the cloakroom to dry along with the herds of other shoes and boots, then pad around the corridors in knitted socks, as comfy as if still at home. Many walk further to school than the short way you drive every day from your parents’ house to the petrol station, but you never walk it, not even in high summer. It’s safer to drive, easier to pull a car round you than it is to pull on a coat and gloves. In the car you can just press play, and the music surrounds you and keeps you warm.
The village is not far off the Arctic Circle and it can snow here even in May, although nothing like the snow in winter. Then it’s so cold your face hurts, so dark that if it blizzards as you switch off the petrol station lights all sense of direction goes, everything shrinks to dark points of ice that needle your face. Once you were so lost you fell into the sea while trying to find your car. That night the water was colder than snow, although scientifically you know that’s impossible. The sea was not properly frozen, only caked in a layer of ice that crunched as your foot sank into the inky liquid below. Lucky for you it was only knee deep.
Some winter mornings – but this happens less often now than it did when you were a child – you wake to that special thick silence that comes when the town is awash with snowdrifts. On those mornings you don’t open the petrol station. It doesn’t matter. Nobody is going far, those days. You and your uncle take out the diggers and work to clear the town of drifts. This might take one day or three, all depends on the whim of the skies. Until you’re done, people hole up indoors and eat dried food, waiting for the freeze to end. Waiting for the light that can seem as if it will never return. Your brother disappeared one of those dark hushed nights, any clue that might have led to him blanketed in pure fresh snow. The police have a word for this, you heard them say it when they stood outside your house. ‘Snowdrop’. They saw you watching, and they hushed and turned away. But the word echoed silently.
Snowdrop. A body hidden under fresh snow. And the killer chose their snowstorm well. It was months before they found your brother. Twelve weeks, three days and three nights. Short days and long nights that stretched pointlessly, each like the last. All that time your mother stayed in her bedroom alone. Neighbours brought hot meals for the family and sat with her. My son, you heard her cry out to them, when is my son coming home? No one had an answer. You were her son too, but she never spoke about you.
You examined old family photos, convinced she had always loved him more than you, ever since he was born. Just one photograph showed all seven of you together, in height order. Your mother stood next to him; he was the only child taller than her. So alike. Blond, happy, smiling at your father who took the picture. In the next photo he and your mother were singing. They often sang together. Old songs, from the island long ago. Campfire songs.
The church was crowded out for the service, and part of you wondered if the killer had chosen the wrong son: he could so easily have taken one who would have been missed less. One who was less alive. He could have taken you.
Your father was quiet as always, and strong. A month after the funeral he cleared your brother’s bedroom and began to sleep there. You found your brother’s hi-fi and record collection in the garage, and his guitar. One day you put on a record in a half-hearted effort to teach yourself to play. After maybe an hour, your mother stormed out of her bedroom and raked the needle hard across the record, scratching a deep line in the vinyl. You stared at her. Then she hugged you to her and shook with tears. Afterwards she began to cook dinners again for you and the other children. This made you think of how, in winter when there are just a few hours of slanted sunlight to see by, a fishermen will make do with moonlight to get some fishing done. Yes your mother cooked hot meals for you and your siblings, yes she cleaned the house, but you never again heard her sing.
Winter is long and dark, that’s true. Each time it comes and sits on the mountains, it seems as if it will never leave. But when finally the sun swings up over the mountains and melts the snow, everything burns brighter and for two or three months the whole village lives twice as much. Lawns outside bright-painted houses are crowded with bicycles, boats and trampolines. Children bounce skywards in slow motion, freed for once of their heavy coats, wearing fleeces or hand-knitted jumpers. And everyone has things to do – summer feasts to sing at, hills to climb, fish they must hang out to dry.
You sell a lot of petrol those months. Sweets, too. And high-energy drinks. People nod and greet you by name yet you seldom find two words to say back. Locked out of their sped-up world, you take their money and watch them leave.
The hours of your shift pass slowly. You wonder sometimes – rarely now, but still it happens – if the polite neighbour you just served was the one who killed your brother. How they met. Were they friends, or not? It never came out in the end who killed him and the police put the death down to a passing stranger, but you don’t believe this. It had to have been a local. Only a local would have timed it so well. His walk home after singing practice, alone because he’d stayed behind to rehearse his solo part for the Christmas midnight mass. Was it a grown-up, a teacher maybe? Or one of the kids from school? Many of them went away to study and never came back. You wonder, did your brother’s killer run away to forget, and keep on running until he was off the edge of the map? Far beyond this island and this language, to other islands and languages that you do not know.
As you finish at the petrol station tonight, the light is strong. It pulls you. Instead of going home you fill the tank and drive. Past your parents’ house, past the school, past the disused farmhouse on the edge of town where even now streaks of brown snowmelt cling to the barren hill. Here is where they found your brother: it’s always the last place to lose its’ snow. Only a local would have known that. You speed on. Past the farmhouse and its snowmelt, and over this mountain to the next town and the one after that. It’s late, and the road is empty save for an occasional silver truck all lit up like a fishing boat luring squid. You turn up the sound and sing along to the radio: these are new songs, songs that have a fast insistent beat. If one of the old songs comes on that he and your mother once sang, you punch the dash and change stations. It’s not that you don’t care. But… His time is over now. And you need the kind of music that keeps you warm and alive.
On this bright bright night the light slants endlessly so that you feel the world spin under you, the sun a crazy ball bouncing on this round horizon, a ping-pong tied to a bat with elastic string. The clouds deepen in colour until they’re like petrol floating on dark oily puddles of sky, then lighten again as the sunset segues into dawn.
You know then that your chance to sleep is gone. But why waste a sunny night sleeping? You can sleep when you’re dead.
Lane Ashfeldt grew up in Dublin. Her stories have won the Fish Short Histories prize and the Global Short Stories prize. You can read more stories by Lane in her début collection of short fiction, SaltWater.