ARE YOU A SECRET WRITER?

ARE YOU A SECRET WRITER?

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Well get your pen out and get yourself to the Doolin Writer’s Weekend.

Budding and established writers are being invited to submit entries to the second annual Doolin Short Story Competition 2014, details of which were announced today.

 

Hotel Doolin has confirmed a prize fund of €1,000 will be awarded to the winning entrant, with €600 and €400 prizes for the second and third placed entries respectively. The winning entries, which will be published on the Irish Writers’ website, will be announced at the Doolin Writers’ Weekend in County Clare on 28-30 March 2014. The second annual Doolin Writer’s Weekend in Doolin, County Clare, will once again feature workshops and readings by some of Ireland’s leading writers, including Claire Keegan, Claire Kilroy, Theo Dorgan and Arlene Hunt. There will also be a publishing workshop with Eoin Purcell from New Island Press and live traditional Irish music sessions hosted by Conor Byrne, as well as a DJ set by music legend Terri Hooley. According to event organiser, Donal Minihane, “It is a great opportunity for aspiring writers as well as literary fans and published authors to get together and celebrate everything that is good about Irish Literature. Many artists and writers spent time in Doolin, including J.M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and Oliver St. John Gogarty. This spring we look forward to welcoming back some of Ireland’s best writers to North Clare.”

Entries to the Doolin Short Story Competition 2014 can be on any theme and should be no longer than 3,000 words. The entry fee is €10 and the closing date for entries is Monday 3rd March at 5pm. To enter click here.

Below are last year’s winners: this is your yardstick. Go beat it!

 

PETE

BY VALERIE SIRR

 

Viv, his care worker, flicked the switch on the boiling kettle lowering its rumbles to a hiss. Viv came twice a week to see that he went to work. He looked at her feet in her flat-heeled shoes planted on the black-and-white squares of the lino. He was often surprised by the presence of others – their weight, their outline, how firmly they were moored in the world. Nothing would pull Viv’s legs from under her. Viv knew where she stood.

He looked at his own white shins jutting out from trouser legs too short for his gangly limbs. ‘I’m a scarecrow.’

Viv laughed. She was all teeth and wrinkles. ‘You’re Pete,’ she said, handing him a mug of milky tea. ‘Pete Roberts.’

He gave her a blank look. She placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘Have you taken your pills today?’

He flinched. Then he nodded at her.

He covered his eyes with his hand to hide the vision of his morning capsules bleeding purple dye into the toilet bowl, same as every morning this week. Then he looked down at her hand resting squarely on his shoulder as if it were a part of some alien creature. He wondered why people were always touching each other. He stirred his tea. Viv always nagged about pills but he knew better than Viv.

She removed her hand. He watched it move across the broad expanse of her skirted hip as she turned back to the counter. He looked at the glossy skin on her solid calves. Black women had softer skin. The guys at work told him that. He liked the look of women’s skin. He liked everything about women. There were women in the supermarket, women in the street; women in cars. Sometimes they stood near him in a crowded tube. He would shrink from their touch but would be spellbound by a cluster of freckles, a single flyaway hair on a cheek, a tongue licking a lip. He would try to keep his eyes on the map of the underground, but he couldn’t. His eyes would fix on an earlobe, a smooth neck, a pillowy cleavage, until its owner moved away.

He kept his head up as he walked down Pepys Road trailing one hand across the park railings. It was his fifth day without pills. The world was taking on a new resonance, vibrating like a film with the sound turned up. Frame by frame, he saw every branch of every tree, heard parting words in doorways, felt moved by the captured light. Everything was part of everything else. The wind, daylight, voices, his own edges thinning as though he no longer had a skin. There was a girl approaching; raincoat plastered against thighs. He flashed a smile at her startled face.

He walked on, smiling. He had graduated from Unit six of the Bethlem Royal to his own bunk bed at the hostel, and a job two mornings a week, and soon he would have a girlfriend. A car pulled up at the kerb. A woman got in, kissed the driver’s cheek, then they pulled away. He felt a rush of joy. He didn’t need drugs. He was sure of it. It was ages since that time in the hospital. Noises hurting his eardrums. The never ending table tennis in the common room, pock! pock!, the bedlam of TVs and stereos, pock! pock!, slamming doors and shouts,pock! pock!, the thundering of the tea trolley, pock! pock!, and Wednesdays in a tiny white room, where he sat in front of a psychiatrist, who sat in front of a wall-chart, which seemed to frame his head. He used to stare at the image on the wall, the fleshless head in coloured sections: cell, brain, blood, bone, the white paper of the chart shining through the gaps between them.

‘Is that an actual person?’ he asked the psychiatrist once.

– Am I an actual person?

But he was sorted now. He had a job to go to. Pete, Pete, Pete. He shook his head. It emptied for a moment then the voices returned.

The van waited for him outside New Cross station, its hazard lights flashing warnings at him. He decoded its white letters ‘SNUGFIT DOORS & WINDOWS’ against their flaky blue background. He approached and glimpsed Ray the driver then the squatting figures of Frank and Eddie through the open mouth of the side door. He climbed in, concentrating on Viv’s Tasks For Today. Smile and say hello. It was important to practice for tonight. He hunkered down among the huge rolls of fibreglass padding.

‘Hello Frank. Hello Eddie,’ he said, focusing on one of Frank’s Doc Martens and stretching his lips into a smile.

Eddie nudged him with his foot. ‘Shut the door, Pete.’

‘Right mates. Peckham today,’ Ray shouted over his shoulder and started up the engine.

He watched Eddie offer a rolled cigarette to Frank. Frank took it between thumb and finger and sucked in deep. ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’

He saw Frank’s head jerk in his direction. ‘A bit radio rental.’ Frank winked at

Eddie.

He looked away from them, his eyes irresistibly drawn to the congealed paint splashes on the van’s floor: a woman’s face in profile, a woman’s hair, flowing. Silhouettes jumped out at him then retreated. The world was coming at him in fugitive shapes. Outlines formed on the misted van windows and in the exhaled jet-trails from Frank and Eddie’s nostrils. He shut his eyes.

He practised listening to Frank and Eddie. Listen actively. Frank and Eddie knew about things.

They knew about women and football and politics. He looked at Eddie. Eye contact. ‘I’m meeting my girlfriend later.’ He jumped. His own voice felt sudden and loud.

‘In your dreams, mate,’ Eddie said, laughing.

He thought it was definite. But when he was sure about something he would begin to see it in a way that made it something else, then something else altogether, then his first thought would vanish before he could get hold of it again. It was his thinking disorder, his ‘cognitive dysfunction’ Viv called it. Organise your thoughts. Football, he thought. Favourite teams. Contribute your ideas. He looked in Eddie’s direction. ‘Arsenal played good last night.’ He got ready to say it again.

Eddie snorted. ‘Arsenal! Crowd of old women could beat Arsenal!’

A girl on a red mountain bike followed the van. She was close to the back window now and he could see the sheen of her wet cheeks. Her fringe was dripping rain and she was blinking. ‘She’s not old,’ he said. ‘She’s nice.’ He imagined she was a girl in a club and he was snogging her as if he enjoyed it like the guy in EastEnders. The van pulled away again.

He forced himself to look at Eddie. ‘Manchester United are definitely good.’

Eddie wasn’t looking at him. He was saying something about blind old women now and Frank was laughing.

He laughed too to show that he got the joke. He visualised last night’s sports page in the Evening Standard. Wing-backs, four-four-two, flat-back-four, sweepers. He tried to grab unto the words but they were leaking through the gaps in Pete’s brain. He hated Pete. ‘Outside-left,’ he muttered, ‘forward-centre, four-back-flats.’

He felt his brainwaves taking up the rhythm of the music from the van radio. Totten-ham, West-ham, Chel-sea, Ar-se-nal, he mouthed silently.

They dropped him back at New Cross station at lunchtime.

He stood by the entrance trying to make eye contact with passers-by.

He squinted through windscreens at drivers heading east for Lewisham. He would tell Viv about his morning. How he had practiced all his social skills and how Frank and Eddie had let him seal up cracks with strips of draught excluder, Eddie measuring it out for him, Frank’s drill drowning the voices in Pete’s head that said Pete, Pete, Pete.

He saw Viv approaching and raised his right arm carefully. ‘That was a good wave wasn’t it?’ he said when Viv was in front him.

‘That’s right, Pete.’ Viv reached up and took his arm down. ‘Not so stiff though, okay?’

He gave a solemn nod and walked down the noisy street along with Viv, remembering to keep his head up. He looked back at the station. ‘Let’s go to Ted Baker. I want to get trousers in Ted Baker.’

They passed a building site and he was distracted by the sight of a man high up above them in the box of a crane. He’s on his own up there, he thought. Toblerone, out on its own, a jingle from the van radio sounded loudly in his head. He heard Viv saying something about budgets as she led him into the charity shop. He saw the name over the door and was distracted again. It reminded him of a word from one of Eddie’s jokes. A word that rhymed with Oxfam. ‘Jam,’ he said. He wasn’t sure whether he had spoken. Sometimes his thoughts were echoes, sometimes his words were thoughts and he was surprised to hear them repeated. He stood in front of the counter. ‘Eddie said to put jam on my shoes and invite my trousers down to tea,’ he said to the man at the till.

In the toilets of the Coburn Arms, he checked the buttons on the fly of his new jeans. He missed the small screech of a zipper pulled firmly into place. He washed his hands then stood in front of the condom machine staring hard at the bright yellow sticker in case it had a message for him. The red letters snapped into focus: Release-any-jammed-coins-using-reject-knob. He pressed the knob three times then he shrugged and walked away. Back in the lounge, semi-circles of people were collecting by the bar. A queue waited to be served from steaming dishes behind a glass counter. He stood beside Viv.

Viv handed him his well-thumbed brochure. He stood staring into the distance. He turned it in his fingers. Viv ordered him an orange juice. The woman beside her took a sip from her drink and left a crimson lip-print on the glass. Viv moved and stole his view of her. A large woman sat in one of the chairs lining the room, flicking lint from her skirt. Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep, he followed the sound of the cash register to decipher its signal. On another chair a man sat in a solemn trance, fractured occasionally by a smile.

He tried to smile too.

The slam of the till drawer made him jump. He held the brochure in front of his face. The letters were hopping on the page but he knew the words by heart.

‘Club-night-at-the-Coburn-Arms-the-comfortable-surroundings-of-the-

upstairs-lounge-bar-with-leather-covered-armchairs-make-it-very-easy-to-get-to-

know-people.’

He murmured this to himself, keeping his eyes on the illustration of the lounge bar. It looked real. Organise your thoughts, a voice told him.

He felt Viv touch him on the arm then she turned to speak to the barman. Leather covered girls. A girl stood by the food bar. Her face curved against the collar of her jacket. Her skin shone as if there was a light behind it. She smiled at her friend. Her face lit brighter when she smiled. Her friend had mousey hair and a hard, shut-in face. Her hostile glances met his stares in mid-air making him blink and lose focus. The bright-faced girl had a lot of sounds in her voice – sometimes light, sometimes low, sometimes like chocolate. She smiled. Smile and say hello. He saw himself chatting her up like on Eastenders.

‘Alright, Pete?’ Viv spoke to someone.

He tried to stop thinking. Sometimes Viv saw his thoughts.

Viv moved away and he watched her disappear through a doorway nearby. There was a tiny silhouette of a crinoline lady on the door, like the ladies on the covers of Viv’s Mills & Boons. She grew as the door swung shut, slowly, as if she was coming towards him. A man came out of the Gents and the door swished closed along with the door of the Ladies. Two small figures danced on the doors, swinging through gaps of bright light: a crinoline lady twirling, in a swish of billowing skirts; a silhouette man, advancing, coat tails buoyant on a current of air. Romance. Happy endings. Viv’s stories.

The girl was definitely smiling. The air between them was sparking with smiles.

He put his glass on the bar and approached the girl and her friend. His vision was playing tricks with him. They were nearer to him than he thought. ‘I’m not

drunk,’ he told them, ‘I don’t drink.’

They were tall and thin and almost touching him. Now they were small and fat and far away. He heard voices again. Red letter day. Listen actively.

The girls turned their heads away from him. Reject knob. He could not hear what they were saying. ‘You don’t look real!’ he said loudly. ‘Do I look real?’ He saw that they couldn’t hear him either, and he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he was speaking or thinking.

He bent closer until his face was inches from the girl’s. ‘Sometimes I see things. Do you ever see things?’

The girl wasn’t smiling anymore. She was moving away with her friend who was dragging her by the arm. A circle of people opened for them then the circle closed again. She was unreachable now, like his own self.

He saw the barman approaching. His stomach tightened and the tightness gripped his entire frame. He navigated his way unsteadily through the lounge, the faces of the guests looming like faces behind magnifying glass.

Inside the Gents he swung on the door of a cubicle. One by one, the voices shouted at him until they were all clamouring at once.

He turned on all the taps. He pressed down the stoppers. He leaned against the washroom wall watching the sheeting water, his back against the cool tiles, his outstretched right hand periodically pressing the steel disc of the hand-dryer.

He kept his left hand over his eyes and hummed loudly to the drone of the machine, drowning the voices in white noise.

He stayed like that without moving, losing all sense of time.

Occasionally, the bright mouth of the Exit swung open, slipping shadowy figures

towards him from the murmuring crowd outside.

When two of the figures advanced, a half-voluntary movement allowed him to peer through his fingers. He was surprised by the man standing in front of him and by the smell of Viv’s flowery perfume.

His brain, empty of thoughts, registered the rough feel of a blanket against the back of his neck and something sharp pricking his arm.

The familiar cadence of Viv’s voice made him want to sleep. The man’s hoarse voice answered her. Their sentences made no sense. He watched them peel his wet shirt from his arms. He felt a second prick in his arm.

He watched the man replacing items in the open metal box: syringes, needles, several phials.

Viv showed him a piece of crumpled paper before folding it carefully into his jeans’ pocket. The girl’s number! He tried to locate his voice.

Viv reached up and fixed the blanket around his shoulders. He felt its settling weight gathering him in, locating him. He saw his reflection in the mirror, outlined by the grey blanket, standing out against the white tiles, the white tiles standing out against him. He felt the weight of Viv’s hand on his arm, and he felt his own weight against the wall.

He walked outside with Viv. He felt the floor through his soggy trainers. It was dark out at the bar. He blinked to adjust his eyes to the shadowy figures – yawning, stretching; searching for coats. Viv went to get her coat.

He pressed his fingers against his pocket. He reached inside. There was no paper. Fluorescent lights flashed on overhead. He searched his pocket again. It was empty.

He sank into a torn seat near the door.

He stared at the dull yellow paint curling from the walls. He saw the cheap poster advertising the evening’s menu Sellotaped to the door. The shifting of crates behind the bar battered down the silence in his head.

He covered his ears with his hands. He stared at the faded red swirls of the carpet.

Viv’s solid feet swam into focus. He slumped against the stained leatherette. ‘Viv.’

She put her hand on his shoulder. He gripped it.

He held on tight. His voice shook. ‘Viv, I’m Pete.’ he said.

EXILE

BY PHILOMENA YOUNG

‘This is to be your bed, Charlie.’ Nurse Gillane led him to the narrow bed with its iron frame. One of about ten in a long room. The room was painted a shiny green. It was very cold.

‘You can put your things into the locker,’ she  said, ‘and leave your boots beneath the bed.’

Charlie’s things consisted of his pyjamas, some clothes and a photograph of his mother and a man who was his father. Well, Mama said he was his father. Charlie didn’t remember him. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, and looked just like so many of the men in Charlie’s town. Mama said that he was killed in the war. He was a hero.

‘You can be a hero too Charlie! You be a brave boy now,  and when the war is over we’ll be together.  Just the two of us. There, how grown up you look in your new boots.’

She had just bought him new winter boots. Heavy black leather, laced beyond his ankles, and with studs on the soles, which he could make spark when he struck them off the pavement. They were too big for him, but she said he would grow into them.

‘By the time you come back home, they’ll be just right size for you. But mind you don’t scuff the toes now. You have to look after them, so that they’ll last until you come home.’

She had kissed him then, and he had got on to the train with the other children. They were the most important thing, his boots. While he kept his boots safe, he was linked with his mother and his home.

Charlie remembered little of his journey. Noise, confusion, darkness. The whistle of the train, the rocking motion which soon put him to sleep. The long boat journey during which he was sick. The panic as he tried to clean the vomit from the front of his boots. And then being brought to this long grey building, with lots of other children and lots of nurses with red crosses on their fronts.

Over the next few weeks, Charlie did as he was told, said as little as possible, and tried not to be homesick for his mother. He did all the jobs he was told to do, he paid attention in the classes which were set up in one of the rooms of the building, and he ate the food which was put in front of him. Each morning, as soon as the bell to wake the boys rang out, Charlie jumped out of bed to check if his boots were still there. As soon as he put on the boots, the cold, raw feeling which had been with him all night seeped away, and he felt a measure of security. While his boots were safe, he knew his mother would come for him.

The months went by, and gradually the number of children in the building grew less. ‘We’re finding foster homes for them,’ Nurse Gillane explained. Charlie hoped they would not find one for him. What if Mama came searching for him and found him gone? And then, one morning, Charlie was called to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had a letter in front of him.

‘Well Charlie. How have you been getting on here?’

‘Fine sir.’

‘And you’ve been happy enough?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good, good.’ The man looked awkward and ill at ease. Charlie knew there was more to come.

‘You see this letter?’

Charlie glanced quickly at the letter. Black typing. Heavy paper. Official looking.

‘The thing is, Charlie. You have to be brave. Very brave ….’

Charlie knew then. He knew it from the flutter in his stomach. From the trembling that shook his knees.

‘You see, she knew, Charlie. She knew that she had only months to live. That’s why she wanted you to be here … in safe hands. She knew we’d take good care of you Charlie. And  we will. We will.’

Charlie looked down at his boots. She had made him a promise. The boots were still shiny and barely scuffed. He took such care of them. He would not let anyone touch them. He never let them out of his sight. But now, she was not coming for him. He would never be going back. Who else was there to go back to? There had only been him and Mama. And she had promised. The shaking that had started in his knees now took over his body, his hands, his teeth. He couldn’t stop shaking. The superintendent rose, and coming around to his side of the desk, put his arm across Charlie’s shoulder.

‘There, there,  boy. Don’t cry now. Be brave. We must all be brave at times like this. Nurse Gillane will look after you for the moment. You like Nurse Gillane, don’t you?’

Charlie nodded.

‘Yes. Well, she’ll take care of you. Until we decide what’s to happen. I’ll call her now Charlie. You wait there. There’s a brave lad. She’ll know what to do.’

  *  *  *

The train journey seemed to go on for ever, but Charlie didn’t want it to end. He sat on a lumpy seat by the window, a window so caked in dirt that it was like looking at everything through a fog. Across the carriage from him was a brightly coloured picture, beneath which it said ‘The Lakes of Killarney’. A man and a woman sat  in the seat opposite him. The man smoked a pipe which sent out waves of strong smelling smoke. The woman was knitting, and every now and then she would put the knitting on her lap, lean over towards Charlie and ask  ‘Are you alright son? You’re not feeling sick?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, she would continue her knitting. Charlie hunched into his seat and closed his eyes. He wondered where he was going to, but didn’t really care. Fostered. That was what happened to the other boys who had disappeared. Some were excited, most were crying. But none of them had ever returned to the grey building.

‘A lovely couple in the West.’ Nurse Gillane had cleared out his locker, and helped him to pack his things back into his little brown suitcase.

‘They’ve no children of their own, and want a little boy to help them on the farm. You’re so lucky Charlie! Do you understand how lucky you are Charlie?’ She gave his boots a little wipe with his handkerchief, and slicked down his blond hair.

‘What I wouldn’t give to get out of the city and have all that fresh air!’

Charlie knew nothing of the country or fresh air. He and his mother. Up three flights of stairs to their home. One room that overlooked a city grey with industry. Tall chimneys belching smoke. Cars, buses, trams…noise that was comforting in its ever presence. People everywhere, hurrying, busy, purposeful.

He opened his eyes now. He didn’t want to think of his mother. Of their life before all this happened. It was raining over the countryside. Mountains loomed out of their misty shrouds. Sometimes a burst of sunshine filtered through, to light up the vivid greenness of the fields. A rainbow hung like a child’s drawing, touching down behind a cluster of tiny houses.

‘Are you being met son?’ The knitting woman and her husband got up, gathering together their many bags and boxes.

‘Yes, thank you. I’m going to the west. To be fostered.’ Charlie heard his voice, as if it came from someone else.

‘You poor mite.’ The woman shook her head, and mouthed something at her husband, who nodded, and said to Charlie, ‘Isn’t that fine for you. That’ll put a bit of brawn on you.’

The woman pressed a coin into Charlie hand.

‘That’s for luck son,’ she whispered. Then they got out at a one building station, and once more the train hissed on its journey.

There was nobody in the carriage now, and Charlie stretched out, putting his feet on  the seat opposite.   He closed his eyes.

*  *  *

‘Here you are lad! Out you get.  There’ll be someone to meet you here.’  The guard shook Charlie by the shoulder. Guiltily, Charlie removed his feet from the seat.

‘Are we in the West?’

‘As west as you can go, boy…unless you want to jump in the Atlantic.’

The guard handed him down his case, and Charlie stood on what seemed to be a deserted platform, wondering what would happen next.  A cold, grey, drizzle seeped from a leaden sky and found its way down the collar of his coat and into the top of his boots. This west was the emptiest looking place he had ever seen. Maybe nobody would meet him. Maybe he was just being abandoned here. But he had been told to wait, and Charlie had always done what he was told, so he waited.

* * *

 ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ Pat shook his head.

‘There’s no going back now.’ Nora turned away from him. It was what he had always wanted, wasn’t it? All those years. All that hoping and longing. But the years went on, and nothing had happened. And the hope had turned to sourness. He never said…Pat wasn’t like that. He was a quiet man. But she had failed him. How can a man work a farm without a son? And what was the point of it? Well, now he would have someone. It would take the burden off her. It would not take away the ache, but it would be someone for Pat.

Pat clicked on the reins, urging the pony to move on. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Weren’t they alright as they were? He had long ago come to terms with the fact that there would be no children. That was the way it was, and what was the use of wishing your life away? Of course it was different for women. He knew that. He knew how she had lived from month to month, in those early years. But hadn’t they been happy enough together? And now this! Fostering a strange, foreign boy. Was there ever such a daft notion in all the world? Pat let the pony slow down to his customary shuffling gait.

Charlie watched the man approach. As there was nobody else on the platform, this had to be the man who was to meet him, and Charlie looked at him in a detached way. He saw a small man, not much taller than himself, wearing a long grey overcoat, wellington boots, and a cap.

‘You’re Charlie? The man’s blue eyes slid away from Charlie shyly. He took Charlie’s case, and motioned him to follow him out to where the pony was tethered. Charlie climbed on to the wooden cart, and sat on a bundle of sacks behind the man. The sacks were wet, rain glistened on the pony’s rump, and the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The man spoke in bursts, shooting out long rambling monologues which made no sense to Charlie. He wondered was this Gaelic? Or some other foreign language? It certainly didn’t sound like the English he had listened to in the grey building outside Dublin,  much less the English he had been taught in school. He listened hard at first, then switched off. He clung to the edge of the cart and stared straight ahead. Eventually the man stopped talking. Darkness was creeping across the grey landscape by the time the pony trotted into the yard in front of the farmhouse. The pony shook himself in relief, and Charlie got down , every bone in his body aching. A woman stood at the farmhouse door.

‘You found him alright?’ she said to her husband. She nodded at Charlie.

‘You can call me Nora, and himself Pat, and you’d better come inside, for you look half dead.’

Charlie felt half dead, what with cold and tiredness. At least he could understand this Nora better than the man, and he followed her into the kitchen, where the heat from the fire soon sent clouds of steam rising from his clothes. Nora took his case and his coat, but when she made to remove his boots, he shook his head.

‘You want to do them yourself? Suit yourself. Now sit up there by the fire and have a bite to eat, and then you can go way to bed. Things will look better in the morning.’

In spite of herself, Nora felt sorry for the lad. He was much smaller and younger looking than she had been expecting. And so white and scared. He wouldn’t be much help to Pat anyway. Scrawny little thing, sure he’d never be up to farm work. Still, a couple of weeks they were told, and then they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him.

Later on, when the boy had eaten and gone up to the attic, where he was to sleep, Nora asked Pat what he thought.

‘He’s a strange class of a lad, to be sure. Never opened his mouth all the way home, and looked like he was going to cry every time I spoke to him.’ Pat shook his head. ‘I don’t know why we’re doing this at all, Nora. We’re too old for this business. And I’d say that boy was born and bred in a city. He knows nothing about farming.’

‘Can’t you be teaching him? He can surely take some of the load off you, can’t he?’

‘We’ll see, we’ll see. ‘

The months passed. Winter yielded to spring, and the greyness of the west peeled back to show its undercoat of greens and purples and blues. Charlie fell into the routine of the farm, rising early to help Pat with the work. Cleaning out stalls, shifting dung, milking cows, harnessing the pony to take the churns to the creamery. All the daylight hours were spent working, so that when darkness came he could go to his attic bedroom and sleep. The two weeks’  trial period had passed. Pat and Nora were happy with him, and he was to start attending the village school after Easter. Charlie fell in with whatever they wanted him to do, and obeyed without question.

‘I never saw the likes of him!’ Nora whispered to Pat as they drank tea by the fire one evening. ‘It’s not natural for a child to be so good.’

‘Maybe when he goes to school he’ll unwind a bit.’ Pat answered.

‘I don’t know … I don’t know. But then, hasn’t he been through the mill? Away from his own country, no family, no home, nothing. Isn’t that enough to touch any young fellow, when you think about it?’

‘Hasn’t he got us now?’

Nora warmed to the statement. She could see that Pat had really taken to Charlie. He didn’t think that she noticed, but she had seen how he watched the boy. How he protected him from the heavier work, how  patient he was when Charlie made mistakes, how he encouraged him to eat  and to rest more. And in turn, she herself now took more pleasure in cooking meals for her ‘men’. If Nora could win a rare smile from Charlie she felt that  all the extra trouble was well worthwhile.

‘Have you seen how he’s filled out? He’s bursting through that jacket of his, and his coat will barely tie on him now.’

‘I know … it’s your grand food Nora. And all the fresh air. Sure what fresh air would they have in them foreign cities? By the end of the summer we won’t know him!’

‘If we still have him at the end of the summer.’ The thought of losing Charlie was suddenly a bleak one.

‘Have you noticed those black boots of his?’ Nora asked.

‘Why wouldn’t I. Isn’t he forever cleaning and scraping the mud off them?’

‘Well, I’m of a mind that they’re squeezing his toes – he’s grown that much. They’ll give him blisters if they’re too small for him. I thought maybe I’d bring him in to Connolly’s shoe shop on Saturday and buy him a new pair. What do you think?’

‘You do that Nora. He’s earned it, God knows’.

Nora sat back pleased, and sighed in anticipation. She and her foster son, shopping in the town together. Charlie’s eyes lighting up. Tommy Connelly bringing out his best, his most expensive leather boots. That’s a fine young fellow you have there Mrs Ryan. He’s a credit to the both of you!

*  *  *

 ‘No thank you.’ His voice was polite, but quite firm.

‘But they must be pinching you, Charlie.’

‘They’re not pinching me. They’re fine.’

‘Now, don’t be silly. You know you need a new pair. And don’t be worrying about the cost…we want to give you a present.  Take those off, and we’ll see the size. Sure they must be falling to bits at this stage.’

Nora reached out towards Charlie’s feet. His reaction was instant.

‘No! No! Leave them alone. There’s nothing wrong with my boots! They’re fine. Just leave me alone!’ He sprang up and dashed out of the kitchen, taking the attic stairs two at a time, and banging his bedroom door. He didn’t come down for dinner that evening, and when Nora went to the top of the stairs to call him, she could hear his sobs. She quietly entered the room. He was lying face down on his bed. He continued to cry as she touched his face and stroked his head and murmured  endearments to him. ‘Hush, hush. There, there. It’s alright , lad, it’s alright’. He continued to cry on and off throughout the night. Nora stayed with him until he cried himself out and fell into a deep sleep.   She pulled the blankets up on him, and tucked them in beneath his blotched  face. It was as she was closing his door on her way downstairs that she noticed the strange animal like shape of the boots beneath the covers. She did not remove them.

It was the week before Easter. In two weeks’ time he would be starting in the local school. Charlie sat by the river, his head full of plans. Nora  had got him all the books he needed, and Pat had bought him a bicycle, so that he could get into town each morning. He loved cycling. The freedom of whizzing along empty roads, of feeling the wind whistle past his ears. At home he had rarely cycled. ‘It is much too dangerous,’ his mother had said. ‘Maybe when you are older…but the city is not a good place for children on bicycles.’ She had worried about him all the time. She would hold his hand tightly when they went out on the streets together. He remembered her white face, and the coldness of her hands on that day when she had brought him to join those other refugees on their way to Ireland. She knew then that she was going to die. Maybe she knew that he would never be coming back. Charlie closed his eyes, and let himself think about his mother. All those images which he had stifled for so long. He let them in, and examined them.   Her long black hair, which she braided into a plait each morning. The way she chewed the end of her pencil as she worked out her budget – always trying to make her money stretch. The smell of her when she kissed him good night. Soap and lavender water. Mama would like it here. She would love the openness, and the colour of the mountains, and the softness of the boggy grass. She would laugh at the curious way the cows stared over the wall, and at the pony’s antics when he was let out of the harness. She would be like a child gathering armfuls of wild flowers from the small wood behind the farm, and pressing them to her face saying ‘Oh, Charlie, smell them! Feel their silkiness!’

Charlie sat up. The sun was hot now,  much too hot for the week before Easter. He unlaced his boots, and released his feet, red and sore from their tightness. He spread his toes, and watched as slivers of grass sprang up between them. He felt the tickle of a small insect venturing up the  mound of his arch, and down the other side. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear Nora calling to Pat that dinner was ready. He knew he should be getting back to the farm. Nora got cross when they did not eat her food while it was hot.  Anyway, it was bacon and cabbage today. He loved bacon and cabbage.

Charlie jumped up. Grabbing his boots by the laces, he swung them over his head, round and round, and flung  them into the fast flowing river. He listened for the splash as they hit the water and sank. Then he ran home, barefoot.

 

COUNTING DOWN

BY LISA HARDING

There is a huge disembodied thumb and it’s pressing down on my chest. I’m pinned. I open my eyes and stare at a crack in the ceiling.

Big Joe is singing in his sleep, a tuneless whistling kind of snore-song. He is so big the spindly bed looks about to collapse. I find I can move my head from left to right, left to right and wriggle my toes. Some fella in the corner tells me to kindly shut the fuck up as I hum along to Big Joe’s tune. I think it’s the new guy who came in last night: the ruddy farmer who bellowed like a bull and had wads of cash stuffed in his socks. There are eight beds in this prefab, and it is narrow and low. Under the nylon sheets I am cold and clammy. In case we piss ourselves, there is a plastic under-sheet.  February in Ireland on the outskirts of a small town shit-hole and it is raining. I can hear the steady drone on the tin roof. The man above hasn’t stopped piddling down since I arrived here three weeks ago. He’s having a laugh, and drowning us.

There are nuns here. They lead the group meetings and the rosary which is said three times a day. I’d rather a screw any day – I mean a prison warden – that kind of screw. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits high on a shelf in the corner of every room, where a wide- screen TV should be, and she is smirking down her nose at the men with their tattoos and swagger. I want to smash her smiling face in.

I am sober now and I have the shakes, the sweats, the colds, the hots, the hard-ons. The tremors, the deliriums, the tremens, the demons, the scratching, the snakes slithering and biting. Seriously, this place, the dried-up auld bodies in their habits swishing along the halls, the lack of alcoholic anaesthesia, the round yellow pills with TV44 scratched into them, all make my pecker stand on end. The little bastard won’t lie down. I swear those old crones know what they’re doing. I swear it is their revenge on the male sex. It hurts like hell.

I’m going to start throwing the pills away. There are tiny yellow faces hiding in every fake palm plant.

I swing my swollen purple feet out of the bed and sit at the edge, clinging on to the plastic. I can move. The cold lino is sweating and sighing beneath the soles of my bare feet. I need to get to the tap on the other side of the prefab and splash water on my face. I sway and stumble, and the farmer dude shouts some more. Big Joe doesn’t stop whistling, even when I crash into the bottom of his bed and curse loudly. I bruise easily these days.

In the gloom I make out the fluorescent green liquid in the dispenser by the tap. Kryptonite. It smells sharp and burns a hole in the back of my throat. I fan my pyjama top out behind me like a cape and punch the air. The stingy soap makes my hands tingle and go bright red. I cover my face in it anyway and splash it with icy water. My ugly mug scowls back at me in the chipped mirror – raw, red now, and old so fucking old. Last time I counted I was eighteen. I already have that bloated stupid face the old man had. Will I end up in the canal, before I’m forty? I cover myself in the green jelly again and I am the Incredible Hulk. I pretend to burst muscles and roar silently.

Reflected in the mirror I see a shape sitting up in bed. I can feel rather than see his black pointed needles-for-pupils jabbing into me. It is the Bull, and he isn’t bellowing now. He’s laughing; a kind of high pitched girly giggle and it is shrill and sharp and stabs me with its edges. The fucker has that kind of leering swollen face, stupid and mean, that kind of face that I know. I breathe in and out, right down to the tips of my toes, like that lady councillor taught me, the one with the lovely smile and the carefully-cared for hair. She told me when I felt like this, out of body, out of mind, to breathe and the world will centre itself. Breathing in crisp cool clean air, breathing out any tension, any anger, any malice. I breathe and I breathe and I feel like I’m working myself up into a fiery dragon-like rage. My breath is coming hot and fast now and short and shallow. Maybe if I hold my breath long enough I will float away. I count down from one hundred, my cheeks puffed out like one of those pufferfish fellas, and I know that underneath the green slime I am bright red. I hope I bust a gut, I hope I implode, or explode right here right now.

Instead, I find I have to breathe out. My body has betrayed me once again. It is a stupid, weak thing, over which I have no control. I have no control. None. The Bull in the Bed is still staring and I stalk over to him and punch the air above his head, and he cowers. He is a coward. I despise cowards. I despise that part of me that used to piss myself under the couch, instead of donning my cape and flying to her rescue. I look at the statue of Our Lady and I see her mild face and it isn’t mocking me now. She reaches out a hand and she smooth’s down my cow’s lick, and she rests her hand on my head. I close my eyes. I am blessed. When I open them again, the Bull has burrowed deep under his thin yellowing blanket, and I think I hear him pray. He doesn’t have violence in him, and something warm and fluffy and calm burrows inside my brain. My brain is a warren-hole.

A trickle of light leaks in through the gap at the bottom of the brown frayed curtains. The trickle starts to flow until it pours, and I pull back the curtains and welcome the flood of sunshine that forces my tired eyes to open wide. The rest of the men turn their backs to the sun. It is too bright, too exposing. I blink fast and feel like my blinking is the lens of a camera trapping the light. I’ve always wanted a camera. The lady with the lovely hair encourages us to make art. I have been making pottery: pots and vases and houses. I am shit at art. I got a D-minus in school last year. Mr O’Callaghan delighted in his minuses, to add to the shame. But I am sure my eyes can see things other people don’t see. Yes. I’ll ask the lady for a camera, even a crappy throw-away one. I’ve never owned a camera. I think I might be good at it, capturing moments.

I stand at the streaked window and look out at the mangy vegetable patch, and the playing pitch. Today is visitor’s day, and no one will come. This is the first day I have seen the view, it is the first day the rain hasn’t covered us in a wet blanket of grey. They grow their own veggies here. I’ve only ever had baked beans and frozen peas. Carrots make me want to puke. Rabbits eat them. And the heads of broccoli look like shrunken bunny’s brains, green from too much grass. There are chickens in the coop behind the vegetable patch. Stringy, skinny little fellas and I decide that today I will go and feed them, and maybe I’ll kick a football around the pitch, although it is utterly pointless. The lady councillor said that was exactly the point. There is no point. It is about having fun, she said, I don’t think you know how to do that. Just have fun. She says funny things like “Just be,” and “You are okay exactly as you are. You are loved.”  I gag.

“I love you,” the old man would say. “I’m only doing this because I love you so much.”

I rub my stinging face with a brown towel. I wonder why they want to surround us with so much of the colour shit. It’s probably because it hides the dirt, and I look at the towel and see maggot-like germs crawling all over it. Iridescent and hopping. I know this is not real. A great whopping monster of an imagination. I have been told it’s a good thing. It means I am “creative,” apparently. They keep trying to make me put a pen to the page. To put order to the chaos, to let the chaos flow, to make words. I have never been able to make sense of words. Numbers make sense; they line up or down and move in straight lines. Words jump about too much. There are books here and I can’t make head or tail of them. What is the point? To relax, she says, to escape, to maybe see a part of yourself in someone else. That can be a relief, she says, and I know what she means, kind-of, because when Big Joe spoke yesterday about his da, I felt it too. I can’t say it but I can feel it.

The bells of the Angelus ring. It is time for morning meditation. I decide to dress carefully and to try to listen today. I find it very hard to hear what other people are saying, my mind whirs about like a jumbled-up washing machine, which is why they tell us to meditate, or medicate as Big Joe calls it. My mind gets louder in the silence and the sitting. I need to move and be surrounded by noise. I am more comfortable with shouting, than silence. This I something I need to un-learn apparently. It seems like everything I’ve lived with so far is wrong. It is wrong to feel angry all the time, to feel jumpy, to feel like you want to punch a hole in the face of the world. Although, the word wrong is wrong too it seems. The word is acceptance. And love.

I am the first today, and I kneel with all the crones in the big cold hall, and I look at Our Lady and think that’s what Ma looked like, before she met him. The room slowly piles up with half-sleeping men, who as soon as they are settled on their knees sleep again. Soon it is filled with the sound of shallow breathing and whistling. Big Joe is swaying in his sleep. He is twenty-five and looks about fifty. A fifty year old Womble, and I look around me at all the other wet-brained Muppets and I choke on a chuckle. A nun narrows her eyes at me and says, Shuuuuuuuush, and her fat lips look like two wet worms, and I laugh even louder.

“Leave,” she spits, “and say ten Hail Marys.”

I go to the canteen and have a cup of gloopy rancid coffee. There is a yellow piss-like stain covering half the wall. My stomach feels like its lined in acid, and I want to throw up. My shin is throbbing, where I hit it against Big Joe’s bed. I roll up my trousers and see a shiner, and I am reminded of the women in my house, all pretty in purple. I run my hand over the pink-red swelling and press down on it hard. A nun comes in and tells me I have a visitor.

“Your sister has come to see you,” she says.

I wonder why my sister would come to see me. I wouldn’t, if I was her and she was me.

My sister is twenty, exactly one and a half years older than me. She has big blue eyes and tiny fluttery hands. Dommo and Neill both fancy her and tell me they’d “do” her. I tell them I’d murder them first. I wonder will either of those assholes come see me here. I doubt it. So much for The Three Musketeers. Stick a fork in me I’m done fellas. This time I’m really done. Overdone, cooked, done-in.

My sister’s name is Beth.  I don’t know anyone else called Beth. Da told me it was Ma that called her that stupid name, and because he loved her so much he let her. He told me that it was himself that called me Kev, after his da. I never knew Kev Senior but Da spoke of him often with watering eyes. I was Da’s favourite. He never hit me, and he gave me money on the sly. He told me all his secrets when he came in stinking from the pub, and he was in a soft gooey mood. He’d wake me up in my bed and say “Son, I’d like to tell you all about how hard it is to be a man,” and he’d launch right into it. He’d hug me hard to him afterwards, and wet my hair with his tears.

So, today is the 17th February 2013. It means nothing to me, although the nuns are fond of telling us the date, the time, the place. They ask me when my birthday is… I don’t remember when my sister’s is either. I don’t think I have ever given her a card. Today I will ask her when her birthday is, and I will write it down. I forget everything, until sometimes I remember snippets now I’m sober, and I want to forget again. I feel some kind of extra whirling in my stomach. They are teaching us to “name” our feelings in here. Anxious, is one word for it, angry another and apparently – vulnerable, although I don’t really know what that means. I try it out. I feel vulnerable, and I don’t like it. It makes me feel small, so I settle for anxious.

“What about happy?” the lady asked me one day.

I see my sister through the round window of the waiting-room. She is wearing a blue dress with black tights, and is sitting on the edge of a plastic orange chair, ready to fly away. She looks like a tiny blue bird.

“Hi Bro,” she says, when I’m through the door.

“You look lovely.”

“Wish I could say the same for you! Jesus, look at the state of you; all skin and bone. What do they feed you in this place?”

“Carrots!”

“You’ve never eaten a carrot in your life.”

“Nope, and I’m not about to start,” I say imitating a rabbit with my two front teeth, and hands for paws.

She laughs, and looks at the ground.

“How’s Ma?” I ask

“Ah ye know. The same. She doesn’t notice much these days.”

And I think she hasn’t even asked about me, has forgotten all about me.

“I think she misses Da,” she says.

And I think that’s right; there never was any room for anyone else. That hulking baby took all of her. I look at my sister and I can see something reflected in her eyes. That something in her eyes says “I’m not here, not really.” She kind of floats and disappears all at the same time, like a wisp. She has always possessed the special Power of Vanishing. I want to wrap my arms around her and say “I’m Sorry,” instead I pretend to be a rabbit again, and I say I don’t want to turn into Bugs, so I ask her       “Would you go out and buy me a six-pack of Tayto?”

That way by the time she comes back visiting time will be over.

And I fancy a pack of Tayto, I really do.

I notice that her right eye is twitching and there is a raised scar close to the baby blue, and I am back there in the kitchen and I AM HIM. I push her against the wall and punch a hole in the thin chipboard, and graze that eye.

I think she got in my way, or something.

My stomach heaves. It has shrunk and I can feel my ribs sticking through my checked shirt.

“Are they good to you in here?” she asks.

“Apart from force-feeding me carrots and broccoli, yeah!”

“Good, that’s good. Glad to hear it…Right, I’ll be off now. Crisps, anything else? Fags?”

“I can get fags in the shop on site here, just not Tayto.”

“Ok” she says and turns to go. I know that when she comes back there will be no time left, and so I say to her back,

“When is your birthday Sis?”

She turns towards me, and she looks like all the air has been sucked out of her, like vapour, as if she might evaporate, and I wonder will she come back.

“Yesterday.”

And I think ok, that means my sister’s birthday is the 16th February. I take out my pen and notebook and scribble the date. I can do that. I can write numbers and names.

“I knew that! Happy Birthday Sis. Hang on a second.”

I run to the recreation room and I take the clay model of a house I’ve been building. It’s wonky and tiny, and looks like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. I even put little blobs of clay for sweets all over it.

“This is for you.”

She says “Thank you” all formal and polite, and I think she is holding her breath, her shoulders are up around her ears and her face is going red. She does it too, I think, and I imagine her counting down from one hundred.

 

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