Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Tumbleweeds

May 30, 2012

If only my mother had got me what I’d asked for for Christmas, what happened would never have happened. At least, it probably wouldn’t have. And maybe things with Mary Jo and me would have gone differently. Could have gone well. It wasn’t that my parents couldn’t afford it. It was just that my mother didn’t want me having one. Instead, I got a Playstation. I found it under the tree and unwrapped it. Why had she got me this? This useless console? This wasn’t what I’d asked for. I left the sitting room and went to her bedroom. She was already up, drying her hair by the dresser.

“MAM!” I call loudly. “MAM!”
She turns around and sees me at the door.
“¿Que es?” she asks, switching off the hairdryer. The sound drowning away.
“What’s this?” I ask dejectedly.
“Is what you asked for,” she says.
“It’s what I asked for two years ago!”
“Well, now you has one.”
“But, nobody uses these anymore, Mam.”
“Did you or did you not ask a Playstation from us?”
“I did, yeah. Two years ago. But I don’t want one now.”
“Now that you has one?”
“Yeah!”
“See,” she adds philosophically. “We always want what we can’t have.” As though this has somehow resolved the issue, absolving herself of any responsibility for my disappointment. She turns back around to the mirror, flicks the hairdryer back on, and returns to combing her hair. The noise fills the room. I stand in the doorway, and stare at her incredulously.

*    *    *

Mary Jo Sullivan is a girl in my class. In our home-room, she sits in the row to the left of mine, one seat back. My desk is right in the middle of the class. She has a big ball of fuzzy hair on her head. Like a tumbleweed.  Kind of greyish in colour. Tiny, dusty curls. Her desk is always cluttered with little balls of crumpled paper. They litter the ground around her feet too. A bit like tumbleweed as well. Blowing past. These little balls of scrap paper. They seem to be drawn towards her.

I’m a bit drawn to her too. I don’t know why, but I am. I like her. I think I do anyway. I mean, like, I like her. But I’m not sure if I like, like like her.  I just think she’s funny. She doesn’t even know she is, but she is.

Mary Jo is a scatterbrain, always wandering cluelessly around the corridors between classes looking for the right room. I suspect she may be incapable of reading a timetable, so often does she wander into the wrong class. She’s never on the right page. Literally and metaphorically. Sometimes she’s not even on the right book. Whenever a teacher asks her to read and she hasn’t a clue where we’re supposed to be, she goes bright red and giggles nervously. And even when everybody starts to laugh at her, she doesn’t seem to mind. Instead of being humiliated, like I know I would be, she seems to find it just as silly as everyone else does. ‘Mary, Mary, away with the fairies.’ Girls in school are always saying that to her. Though she never seems to mind this either. This big bright smile forms on her face when they say it. As though it amuses her too.

I like the way she looks.  Kind of all over the place. Her mismatched clothes. Her constantly undone shoelaces and uncontrollable hair.  She always looks like she’s just come off a rollercoaster. But still she’s pretty. She’s doesn’t have the shiny hairdos other girls do. Or the long painted nails. Or the eyeshadow or the earrings, or any of that stuff.  But she has these big wide eyes that make her seem in a constant state of surprise. Her skin is light with barely a freckle. And there are dimples in her cheeks even when she’s not smiling, though she usually is. These things; girls can’t buy.

*    *    *

“Ask her for her number.”
“How!?” I ask.
“Just go up and start a conversation, and then ask her.”
“I can’t do that!”
“Course you can. Just go up to her between classes and say hi.”

It seemed so easy the way Twenty Percent says it. It seemed the simplest thing in the world to him.  He means it too. I’ve seen him do it loads of times: just walk up to a girl and start chatting to her and then ask for her number. Not that he ever got a number from them, but that never seemed to put him off.  Twenty Percent’s 0% success rate with girls never discourages him or makes him re-think or question his approach. Luckily, this hasn’t become common knowledge, or he could end up with an even worse nickname than the one he already has. I’d say if he became known as Zero Percent, he’d start to miss what he is being called at the moment. He’d start missing the twenty percent he used to have.

“But I dunno what to say to her. How do I start a conversation?”
“Talk about her sketches or something like that.”
“But I don’t know anything about drawing.”
“So! Who does? Just pretend you do. ”

She’s always drawing.  That’s where all the scraps of paper come from. She crumples them up if she makes even a small mistake. She draws these odd pictures on her bag, and on her pencil case. She draws on all her books and copies.  She puts little characters in the corners of every page, so that when you flick the corners you can see little cartoons. Even in Art class, she can’t hold back from putting her little characters clambering all over her still lifes. No matter what Miss Simmons asks us to do, Mary Jo always goes and does something a bit different. Miss Simmons never gives out to her though. I think she encourages it. She says art is all about ‘expressing yourself’. But I don’t have anything to express.

“So, I just pretend I’m into drawing?”
“Yeah.”
“And then, what do I do?”
“Say you’ve something funny to text her, and ask for her number.”
“But I don’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just say you do.”

Mary Jo’s grades and mine are like the reverse of each other. Art is the one subject I do badly in, and the only one in which she does well. I suck at art. I’m easily the worst in class. I can’t even stay inside the lines in a colouring book.  I get A’s in all my other subjects though. Not because I’m smart. I’m not. I just have a really good memory. If I hear or read something once, I can remember it without any effort. But art isn’t about remembering things. It’s about something else. Something Mary Jo has: talent. If you were to judge us by our grades, you would think that I am the gifted student, and Mary Jo is the dunce, but I think the opposite is true. She is the one to watch. She is the one with the gift.

*    *    *

The next day during the eleven o’clock break I saw her in the yard. In her mismatched clothes. With a new purple denim cap on her head. Though it wasn’t really on her head. More like it was on her hair. Just balancing there on top of her curls. She was on her own, leaning against the wall outside the first year building, playing her Nintendo DS.  She was engrossed in her game; with that childish smile on her face.  I watched her from outside the canteen, trying to pluck up the courage to go and speak to her. I could see her nibbling on her lower lip with her upper teeth. I look at my watch. 11:15 it reads. Five minutes to next class. ‘It’s now or never’ I say to myself. I take a deep breath, and begin to walk across the yard. She gets closer and closer. I haven’t even thought about what I’ll say to her. I hope something comes to me when I get there. I really do. But, quicker than I’d imagined, there I am. Standing beside her.

“Hi,” I venture.
“Hey,” she says, without looking up.
“I like your cap”
“Thanks,” she says.

There’s a short silence, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She is too wrapped up in her DS. This eases my nerves somehow.

“What are you playing?” I ask.
“Picross 3D.”
“What’s your score?”
“There’s no score in Picross,” she replies matter-of-fact-ly.
“No?”
“No.” She still hasn’t even looked at me.
“So, like, how do you play then?” I wonder if she even knows it’s me she’s talking to.
“You kind of make pictures out of blocks and stuff,” she explains.
“Oh, ok.”

Silence.

“So, you like drawing then?”
“Yep.”

More silence.

“I’ve seen your cartoons in your copybooks. They’re pretty good.”
“Thanks.” She just continues poking the screen with her DS pen. She seems happily disinterested. I look at my watch. 11:18. Two minutes till class.

“I’d like to see some more of your stuff some time.”

Again: silence. I wait for the tumbleweed to blow past.

I stand there awkwardly trying to think of how to subtly ask for her number, and can’t come up with either a plausible reason or the courage to ask her with.  But just as I’m about to give up, say bye, and walk off; the unexpected magically happens. She taps one last time on the screen, closes her DS, slips the stylus into its back, and says, “Sure.”  Then reaching into her bag, pulls out her phone, and asks, “What’s your number?”
“What!” I say, unable to believe what she’s asked.
“What’s your number? I have a few animations I’ve made saved onto my phone. I’ll send you some of them.”

She’s asking for my number! This; I had definitely not expected. I’m completely taken aback, and am so elated that for the briefest of moments I manage to forget what my mam didn’t buy me for Christmas. I forget that I don’t have a mobile phone. I don’t have a number to give her. Why wouldn’t my mother buy one for me? It’s the only thing I asked for. I must be the only kid in school who doesn’t have one. My folks have no clue how embarrassing this is.

“Eh, I don’t have my phone with me,” I say. “My mam won’t let me take it to school.”
“Right,” she says, unfazed. “So, what’s your number anyway?”

Should I tell her the truth or not? I probably should. She probably won’t care. Maybe I’ll just tell her that I don’t have one. Or will she think that my family is really poor? If I don’t have a phone? And I suppose, I’ve already told her one lie, so… No, I’ll just tell her the truth. It’s easier if I tell her the truth.

“I forget it,” I lie.
“You forget your own telephone number!?” That big bright smile breaking across her face.
“I know,” I say.” I’m an idiot.” And I begin to laugh too. “It’s a new phone,” I add. “I just got it. Still can’t remember the number.”
“And I thought you remembered everything,” she says teasingly.
I am stunned that she knows this about me. I am stunned that she knows anything about me. But I am still stuck in this sticky situation. Small lies begetting bigger lies.

“I don’t ring myself a lot.” I try to joke.
And even more unbelievably, she finds this funny. She starts to laugh that cute, nasal chuckle of hers.
“Nor do I,” she chips in, which tickles us both. And here we are, standing here talking, and laughing, and looking straight at each other, and I can’t believe how easy it all is. This is great. I realise I do like her. I like, like like her. Like, I like her a lot.

“How about you give me your number?” I say. “Then, I’ll text you after school.” She says ok and pulls out a pen and writes her number on my hand. She’s actually touching my hand! Holding it! She glances up at me with those huge eyes of hers as she does so. Her dimples deepen as she smiles; whether at me or to herself I do not know. She finishes and puts the pen back inside her bag. I look at the number on my hand, and instantly memorize it. We share a look, and just then the bell goes.

“What have you got now?” I ask.
“Spanish,” she says. “You?”
“French.”
“Right. See you later,” she chirps as she turns to go. “Text me.”
“I will.” I say.

‘If I can think of a way,’ I say to myself. I remain there for a moment longer, watching her. Away she goes, meandering towards her next lesson. Gentle and carefree.  She is so lovely. And for the first time I realise how much she may mean to me. I stay there, where I am, my heart and eyes following her as she goes. Heading off towards her class; in what I’m pretty sure is the wrong direction.

Reins

April 30, 2012

When it rains here, it rains. It falls heavy and straight down, and does not apologise for the inconvenience. Rain falls here like it has a right to. It comes and goes on time. Just like the trains.

I am waiting for a colleague in the station of a small university town. He is not late. It’s just that I am very early. From the dry safety of the station I stand watching hundreds of umbrellas pouring out into the street. Most people exiting the station are students. Of their umbrellas, there are full yellows, bold reds and bright oranges. Some are decorated with flowers or patterns. I stand waiting, and watch this vibrant multi-coloured stream flow away towards its campus and think about colours.

Were I to be several stops away at this time of the morning, at Ikebukuro or Shinjuku, it would be a different sort of sight I would see. The umbrellas there are either black or transparent, and amalgamate into grey. A river of grey, moving in straight lines. More of a canal, whose movements have been dictated by the will of man. It does not curve. It does not waste time. Those streets, at this hour, look like they have been clicked and dragged over.

My colleague and I will be doing student orientation. Students attend lectures on career guidance on their first day of first year. They are often very unsure of themselves and very nervous. Understandably so. Even those who display an outwardly appearance of extroversion can be painfully, sometimes debilitatingly, shy.  Character is much harder to read here. Another train stops, and lets off its passengers. They pass in a flurry, giggling and chattering, exit the gate, and open their umbrellas. They are mishmashes of colours and fashions: the students. They have waves and curls and highlights in their hair. Some could belong to the cyber-punk generation of the future, while others would not be out of place in the nineteenth century. I have seen students wearing the oddest things. They pass without pretension and are un-laughed-at. A few young people I have seen on campuses come to mind: a male student in high-heels, a student who dons a large bright-red dickie-bow as his everyday attire, a girl who dresses like a rabbit.  These are not cos-play girls nor emo kids. Just normal guys and girls with different tastes in clothes. One student I know regularly wears such odd clothes that on Halloween, no one was certain whether he had dressed up or not. In Japan, you are allowed to be as different as you like. At least for a while. Till they start to rein you in.

When students arrive at university, they look colourful and are endlessly varied. When they leave, they are all dressed in black. Black suits with black shoes and straight black hair. A large part of third and fourth years are taken up with job-hunting seminars, interviews, and company open days. When looking for work, no variation is acceptable. No marks of individualism are permitted.

My colleague arrives. We follow the stream towards the campus. The rain stops. Today we are in Gakushuin University. This is where the emperors of Japan are educated. Our presentations are in a building which used to be the dormitory for the royal students. The dorms are classrooms now. It is still a working university, but accepts regular students as well as the elite these days.  I wonder which room Emperor Hirohito stayed in while he studied here. He had a keen interest in marine biology. I imagine him sitting here at night studying sketches of skeletons and illustrated jellyfish, unconcerned with what the future might expect of him. Unaware of whom he would become, or of what that might mean.

I was born in the 55th year of the Showa reign. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and the calendar began again at year one of the present reign. Emperors have no surname. At birth they receive one name. When they are crowned, it is discarded and they take a new one. As a mark of respect, however, Japanese people never refer to the emperor by name, but simply refer to them as ‘Tennou’, meaning ‘heavenly sovereign’. In death, they are renamed once more, after their era. So, the Showa Emperor of Japan was formerly Emperor Hirohito, who was formerly Prince Michinomiya. In a similar way, most Japanese are born Shinto, marry in Christian churches, and die Buddhist, and nobody considers this to be strange. Nor is it considered conflicting that when asked, almost all Japanese answer that they do not believe in any god. Nor is this seen to be at odds with the fact that temples and shrines are sacred places, revered by the Japanese, at which people regularly attend, pray, and give offerings.

Emperor Hirohito was born a god but died a man. His expansionist dreams undid his godliness. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to renounce his divinity and perhaps concede that man has more destructive power than any god. The name Showa, which was conferred on Emperor Hirohito after his death, means “enlightened peace”. The Second World War brought about the deaths of one hundred thousand Americans, roughly three million Japanese people, and the deaths and brutal torture of ten to twenty million Chinese. No charges of war crimes were ever brought against him. They say he was misled into imperialism. That his generals deceived him. That he was kept in ignorance. The militarists held the power, not him. But he was not so completely blinded or blameless. He was not so unaware. Nor so passive or so pacifist. His pacifism was inspired more by looming defeat than by compassion. But we were offered a version of history that was more palatable, and it was readily accepted. General McArthur, who oversaw the rebuilding of post-war Japan, felt the country would be more easily run if the emperor remained as its figurehead. So blame was removed from him. The responsibility for his part in the war and its atrocities was taken away, and re-written. The reins of history are held tightly here too. The unseemly truth of the past is kept at arm’s length. Tamed and subordinate.

I am shown around this old dormitory building by my colleague. He points out old features which, though no longer used, still remain. Between our recruitment presentations I look out the windows of a second floor corridor. There is a kindergarten next door. I can see the children playing in the yard. The emperors also attended there. The kids are being taken through their exercises. They jump and squat and stretch and march. They are bursting with energy. By the partition is a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. Cherry blossoms inspire awe in Japan. What astonishes me is just how astonished the Japanese are by these sakura. They watch them appear as though they had never seen them before, and gasp in wonder as if they had not expected this to happen. Apparently it is their transience which makes them sublime. They bloom. They explode into life; pink and white. They are beautiful. The nation rejoices. Then, almost as quickly, the wind strips the trees of them. They float down and land on the ground and in the rivers, and soon they are gone. They are fleeting. Therein lies their beauty.

The first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, was a descendant of the goddess of the sun on his father’s side and the god of the sea on his mother’s. Those gods also had lineage. After the god Izanagi had returned from the underworld, he washed himself in the sea and shook them into existence off himself. Izanagi and the goddess Izanami had fallen in love and given birth to the eight main islands of ancient Japan. She died giving birth to yet another child. Heartbroken, Izanagi went down into the shadowy land of the dead to find her, but she had eaten of their food and now belonged to that world. Izanagi longed for her to return with him, but when he realised her flesh was rotten and was infested with maggots, he turned and fled. Izanami gave chase and was joined by the foul creatures of the underworld. Izanagi ran, casting aside anything he could think of in an effort to distract them and slow them down. He threw off his headdress, which transformed into grapes when it touched the ground. Out of his comb; bamboo. His hideous pursuers fell upon and devoured these. He urinated against a tree, producing a great river. This delayed them even more. Eventually he reached the entrance of the dark land of the dead and locked them all in with a great boulder. But Izanami, in her rage, swore vengeance on her former husband, and vowed to kill a thousand people a day as punishment for his abandoning of her. This is how Death was brought into existence. Even the gods are mortal.

When our class presentations are finally finished, my colleague and I pack up our stuff, and take our respective trains. I take the Yamanote and Chiyoda lines to Kita-Senju and change to the Isesaki line and head home. I study the other passengers.  They look at their phones. Their iPods. Their gaming devices. They read their books. Their newspapers. Their comics. Or they sleep. Nobody looks at anyone else.  It is considered untoward.

I watch the people across from me in the carriage and imagine their lives. There is a salaryman opposite me with shopping bags of designer products. He is balding and exhausted. His heavy eyes fall out from his head and are too tired to close. He wears a black suit into which he seems to have shrunk. I imagine this same man working as a fry cook, in a hot steaming kitchen, in a stained apron, with a smile on his face. But it would not do for him to be a cook. So he is an ill-suited businessman. Always falling short of what is needed. Passed over for promotion. He endures his role for his family, his in-laws, his pride. He perseveres to save face. He is unhappy, disappointed, and disappointing.

I look down the row at the passengers sitting beside him. Read, sleep, phone, phone, sleep, read, sleep, phone, read. All eyes are averted. Trains in Japan are strangely private places. People lock themselves into their own worlds. These are the only three activities which take place here. Speaking on the train is frowned upon. To speak on your phone is considered a crime. Everyone pretends to be alone. It is part of their national sense of community. Their solidarity. Even in carriages where passengers are crushed in so tightly that you can lift both your feet off the ground and not fall down, people remain locked away in their own personal bubbles as though nothing were happening. Their faces give away no sign of discomfort or annoyance.

Some characters in Noh theatre are identified by their masks. Those of the gods are fearsome and monstrous. Human masks are more subtle in their design. In full light, the masks appear to betray no emotion. Just a blank motionless stare. But they were crafted so that an actor can hold his head at different angles, and the lighting will portray a range of emotions – fear, anticipation, joy, sadness – depending on how the light reflects upon the masks. People here are like that too. Their expressions may not change, yet neither can they be concealed. They are revealed by the changes in the light.

At the end of the row by the door sits a businesswoman. She is petite, demure, and beautiful. Her suit: jet black. She is perfectly symmetrical, reading two books. One in each hand, both resting on her briefcase. She reads them at the same time. A page each. Changing from one to the other in rhythm. Beside her sits a girl who hides away in herself. She does not wish to be seen. Her feet point inwards. Her elbows; drawn across her. Her iPhone; held to her chin, headphones drowning out the world. She longs to disappear. She keeps her head down, but she is not sleeping. Merely avoiding being awake.

Kabuki theatre does not use masks, but the actors are heavily made up with white powdered faces and elaborate dress. The stagehands, who move props around in the background and change the scenery during the play, are known as kuroko. They dress in black robes with their faces hidden. The colour of their clothes signifies that they are not to be considered part of the play. It is their skill to be noticed as little as possible. Ninjas, too, are renowned for their ability to evade detection. We imagine them also as being dressed in black. They were not. They were covert assassins and needed to be inconspicuous, so as not to draw attention to themselves. They wore whatever the people around their intended victim were wearing in order to get as close as possible without being noticed. Occasionally in kabuki theatre, a stagehand would jump out from the background and murder one of the characters in the play. The twist in the tale being that the ninja had disguised himself as a kukoro and leapt out of the non-play into the action. Our modern image of the ninja dressed all in black, their faces concealed, comes from this. Their outfits are those of kabuki stagehands.

I reach my stop and get off. The rain has started again. I have no umbrella of any colour. We emerge from the station into the darkening evening and disperse. Japan is a strange place. It disguises itself with itself.  Beneath the make-up, there is pain and pride and passion. Within the contours of the masks lie hidden expressions. There are ninjas lurking in the shadows, waiting to be written. Appearance is everything and it is nothing. Truth and untruth exist simultaneously. Belief and unbelief blur into each other. Fact and fiction, history and myth, the real and the unreal: they co-exist here without contradiction. All the colours run and it is impossible to find the line where one becomes the other. Everything is permeable here. Everything is fleeting.

Coins

February 24, 2012

Coins sat in the bar by the seat where he always sat. Not in it, but by it. Staring into the surf of his drink. Two twenty-something girls had occupied his usual corner. A blonde and a brunette. Dressed in primary colours. They were out of place in that bar and knew it. They felt awkward. As though everyone was staring at them. Everyone was. They spoke to each other in whispers and muffled giggles, looking back and forth to their touchscreens for distraction. Despite their obvious self-consciousness, there was a kind of excitement to their discomfort. All the Irish pubs they’d been in so far had been full of lively, confident men and women from around the globe. Well-dressed and comfortably hip adultescents that were closer to the present moment than any generation that had gone before. The iGeneration. This pub was not one of those places. This place was new. At least to them it was. This place was news.

“What can I do for you?” asks Philip, the barman.
“Could we have two whiskeys and one bottle of coke?”
“Sure. Ice?”
“A little.”

They had come looking for adventure and memories. They had found both. All the things that had happened, good or bad, could later be recounted as proof of having lived. Their hostel had been overbooked, and they’d had to share a room with two Japanese girls, who were equal parts fun and caution. They had kissed the Blarney Stone and lost bracelets in the process. Temporarily, at least. They had stepped up and down the Giant’s Causeway and had edged across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. They had seen more of Ireland than most Irish people had, or would in their lives. In less than a week. Now they were on a new mission: to get lost.

“Here you are. Enjoy,” says Philip, placing the drinks before them.

The Settle Inn was a typical small town pub. Its seats were covered in green upholstery, and the stools were maroon, or at least people remembered them being that way. The lights were low, and were nestled in tulip-shaped lampshades, coloured a light brown by years of the bulbs’ heat. Philip, barman and owner of the inn, longed for new clientele. He generally had a positive outlook on life, but of late had begun to succumb to despair. A kind of restlessness was growing in him. The bar. This bar he owned. That was the source of it.  It was this place that he blamed these seeds of sadness on. Nothing he had done since taking over The Settle Inn seemed to have had any effect. The place had a mind if its own, and no redecoration could lift the heaviness that clung to it. His favourite part of each day was the morning, alone, preparing for what lay ahead. He would unload the dishwasher, checking each glass as he went, all the while looking around at the empty room imagining what it could be like. He imagined a small stage near the doorway, where singers could sing, or poets could recite. He’d have it by the front window, so passers-by would see them and drop in to have a look at what was going on.  But his plans never came off. His quiz nights bombed. The older folk complained that the questions were too hard, while the younger ones just cheated with their phones. He stopped having them after the fourth one. None had been profitable. He’d brought in a digital jukebox to liven up the place. He’d filled it with classic jazz and blues albums, indie rock compilations, Hits of the Eighties, and a whole hell of a lot of Motown, but all that anyone ever played was The Pogues.

“Where are you girls from?” he asks.
“Australia,” says the brunette.
“Ah, very nice. What part?”
“Sydney,” says the blonde.

Though the locals held the out-of-towners in disdain, everybody warmed to the tourists. Some summer nights, the local to tourist ratio was an even split. Mid-July to late August there was a buzz about the town. These were the best nights of the year. His weary regulars would rise to life, as though awoken from a great slumber. They smiled. They winked. They advised. They warned. “Throw that guidebook away, will you. It’s nonsense,” they said, regardless of the fact that they’d never read a page of one of them. The locals rose to the tourist challenge, ticking all the boxes required for stereotypical Irish folk. Hearts became deeper. As did pockets. Glasses and voices were raised to the roof. They told tall tales, broke out in ballads, and the Irishness of their English grew stronger with every syllable and every sup.

Today was not one of those days. This was winter. The end of November. The little light that came in only served to highlight the dust floating in the air. Coins sat at the bar with his head so close to his pint you could swear they were talking to each other. Jim McCudden sat reading the form in the snug in the corner. Patrick Owens and Michael Comiskey were playing draughts by the fire. The only voice to be heard was that of the TV newscaster announcing more cuts, and the occasional ‘Shower of bastards’ response from one customer or another.

“Shydney, eh?” says Coins, lifting his head from his pint and turning towards them, while at the same time looking past them. As though really talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t there.
“Wazh there Chrizhtmas,” he says and pauses, his sentence hanging on the verge of being a question, cryptic and dreamlike, until he adds, “nineteen shixty-sheven.,” and pulls himself upright into his proper storytelling posture.
“Chrizhtmas. Hotashell…  May.” He pauses again, squinting. “Or maybe Lily?”

He began his story in the middle, which is the same place he began a lot of his sentences, and some of his words. The girls listened and nodded along, as though they understood. They couldn’t. Coins’ speech was slurred when sober, incoherent when tipsy, and incomprehensible when drunk. He had been a seaman. He’d seen every port, and had a story for each one. At least he used to. Or thought he used to. It was not just his speech that had slurred, but his mind too. Places had muddled into each other over the years. Of all the cities he had seen, events he had witnessed, women who had quickened his heartbeat, and mischief he had got mixed up in; only a few fragments remained. Misremembered girls walking renamed streets of cities in which they had never been, where whatever words they had once whispered in his ear had long since faded into sweet nothings.

“Fire… she is… broke… rise up… over all over… lasht thing I saw…”

Philip translated as best he could. Having gotten used to Coins’ slurred speech over the years, he was able to decipher most words. Though the narrative still escaped hm. Not that he cared. Philip had a love/hate affair with his clientele. Summer threw up a few joyous weekends every year, but for every one of those glass-raising, spirit-lifting, heart-warming evenings, there were a hundred down-in-the-dumps, dog-tired days. He was tired of talking about the weather. He was tired of the horse races he had to show on the telly. He was even tired of Fairytale of New York. But most of all, he was tired of his regulars. The auld fellas who clogged up his bar with their mumblings and their grumblings. They seemed to soak up the daylight. No matter how sunny the day outside, or how strong the light streaming through the window, these guys always made it seem dull and rainy. He dreamed of barring them all. Let them find another bar to depress. Why did they insist on bringing their doom and gloom into his bar? He knew his regulars put off potential customers. Potentially interesting customers. The locals weren’t fond of out-of-towners. At least once a day, a couple of fresh faces would step inside the door and glance around. Philip tried to usher them in with words of welcome, but it rarely paid off. The regulars would turn, look, snort, look again, and turn back around; and the potential customers after a quick consultation with each other, would make a dignified retreat.

Philip was aware that it was the cold stares the barflies give that drove them away. The stares and the silence. A bar with ten people in it, and not a word being spoken. But, what could he do? He’d love to kick the regulars out, but at the same time they were his livelihood. Every spare penny they have ends up in his pocket. He’d go under without them. Plus, they’d never done much to warrant being barred. Besides getting drunk, incidents in The Stumble Inn were rare and easily resolved, and he could hardly criticize them for getting drunk.

“Deep clear blue. Falling. Falling,” continues Coins. His eyes are glassy and red. The girls have gone back to their touchscreens, communicating more with the hemisphere they’re from than the one they are in. Coins has lost his audience, but he goes on nonetheless. Philip slices lemons. Less listening than observing. He has heard them all anyway. And made sense of none.

“One two kangaroo. One two kangaroo,” blurts Coins, as a wet laugh breaks out on his face, down through his nose and out the side of his mouth.

Coins’ gift of the gab had long since waned from what it was. It wasn’t just that his words were incoherent. Behind the words themselves, the story itself had been eroded. Where once he would embellish his tales with fanciful untruths and colourful exaggerations, now he merely tried to tell the dull truth, and rarely got even that. A combination of senility and self-regulation had whittled away the rich tapestries of bullshit that he once wove.  What might have been seen as bawdy and bold in a man of younger years was considered lewd and lecherous in someone of his age. His cheeky charm had crept towards a vile vulgarity. His pausing, which used to be for effect, was now solely for the purpose of recollecting his train-wreck of thought. His catalogue of memories, which used to come to mind so vividly, eluded him in his ageing. The details grew cloudy and distant: names of places, and of faces; causes and effects; the reason and the rhyme; the season and the time. These things hid in the dusty cobwebs of his memory, and he could not go on till everything had become clear. And it rarely did. Neither the truth nor the lies coming to mind. Nothing but the grey between the two.

“Six feet six teeth I says,” he says, as the bar telephone rings.
“I’d love to stay and translate,” Philip says quietly to the girls, “but I don’t want to ruin the ending.” They laugh politely.
“In all the other bars on this street, there’s two more like him, and at least one worse,” he adds, picking up the receiver.

The girls returned to composing posts on their phones, so friends and family back in Sydney knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. They had wanted to find the real Ireland, the one off the tourist trail. As did everyone else. And they had duly found it and subsequently ignored it. They tried to capture it in texts, tweets, photos, and video; so that in the future they will be able to look back on the time that they had almost been here. They were here and yet not here. These present moments would become their future pasts. And unfortunately, they knew this.

Philip hung up the phone, and started wiping down the bar.

“Where else are you girls planning to get to?” he asks.
“Not sure. Any suggestions?” asks the blonde.
“Anywhere but here,” he says jokingly, but in his heart he meant it.

He was dreaming of the bar he could have had. In a city far away, where the Irish were the tourists, and the locals were vibrant and loud. Where stories were never told twice. Where people spoke in truths, and not just in gossip, rumours, and hearsay. Where folk danced on matted verandas out the front no matter how old they were. Where there was no jukebox because the customers themselves were made of music.

“Pull uz another, Phil,” says Coins, pushing his glass away from him.

Coins, too, was lost to another world. To faraway times rather than faraway places. He thought not of what he lived through or of what he had seen, but of the times when he was still able to remember what he had lived through and could reconstruct in words what of the world he had seen. Times when he could hold court with just the tone of his voice. When he could build suspense, cloak an audience in intrigue and mystery with the will of his tongue, or deliver a punchline to an enraptured bar. No one could hold a candle to him when it came to tales of adventure or of misadventure. But his wit and wisdom was not what it once was. No sooner would he begin his tale than it would start to unravel. He had told them so many times he was no longer sure of which parts he had made up, or of which he had left out. He had sifted fiction from fact and back again so often that he could no longer tell the difference.

“There you go.” Philip placed the pint down on the beermat in front of him, picking up the change that Coins had counted out.

At the far end of the bar Jim McCudden rose from his seat in the snug and wandered across the room to the jukebox in the opposite corner. He put his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a pile of coins. He picked through them in his palm, dropped a couple in the slot, and returned to his seat. And soon after, once again, it was Christmas Eve, babe; in the drunk tank.

Daylights

November 2, 2009

It’s funny how bright this place seems now, these fields, open and expansive. Even the woods feel light and easy, unburdened by memory, unhindered by regret. I stroll around the edge, stopping every now and then to read the names which have been carved into the barks of trees; wondering if I might recognise any. So far, I haven’t. Some are barely legible; only a vague imprint that something was once written there remaining. The trees also struggling to conceal their scars; each year falling a little further inside themselves.

It has been so long since I have been back here. My brothers – born a year either side of me: Darren, older; Shaun, younger – have long since left. As have I. We chased this place away when we could. It’s funny though; growing up we spent so much time running about these fields and woods that I keep expecting either one of them to jump out at me from where they have been hiding in the long grass, or to drop down before me from a branch above. I keep glancing over my shoulder, in case they’re coming up behind me with water-balloons.

You always had to be on your toes with Shaun. Ever-grinning, he was always up to something, and I was usually its victim – he was scared of pulling pranks on Darren, scared of how he might react. Shaun was an interminable messer. That cheeky smile fixed to his face, he was more prone to fits of giggles than anyone I’ve known. Strange how, when we meet these days, the memory and the man seem so at odds. The years have pulled down his cheeks. He smiles now only with his lips. The jokes no longer funny, his eyes grew dim.

A year and a week older than me, Darren was the rock of us. It almost seemed like he was born to be older than us, as though he had chosen the role. He was always the one with the plan and Shaun and I would follow him regardless. I remember the bridge he built. We found a log deep in the forest, a large trunk, and he pulled it at least a hundred metres along the forest floor, waded the water with it resting on his shoulder, and laid its end on the opposite bank. Shaun and I had given up after an hour; feeling ourselves to be more of a hindrance than a help. But Darren pulled that log all day, without a break, half a metre at a time. Step by painstaking step. And when it was done, he was proud. And he was happy. When he set his mind to something he could not be stopped. No matter how hard it was, or how long it took, he would not give up until he had succeeded. He never complained and he never cried. I remember how, once, while cutting roses for our grandmother, he fell into a mass of briars, and came out covered in thorns looking unrecognisable. He was so cut-up that I cried, and I could not look at him, but he didn’t shed a single tear. He didn’t even seem upset. And I really believed that he could not be hurt.

I continue walking along the track where the field and forest meet. No kids play here today. Maybe they don’t come here any longer. I go on a little further, and then stop; contemplating whether or not to venture into the woods a little. I look in past the trees, and then back out across the field. It is so much brighter here than I had recalled. Even the breeze is light. And as the sun streams down gently, I am stricken with sadness; a sense of grief, knowing I have lost something, but unable to remember what. And I steal off into the past. We catch minnows in the shallow pools; and cautiously inch across them when they freeze each winter. A fox’s den in the undergrowth; we lie in wait, us three, camouflaged, under mounds of leaves. Defending tree-huts from invasion, alliances rising and falling. In the long grass, after school; nervously; my first kiss. Her name escapes my memory, her face too.

It’s strange how far we let ourselves drift. Drifting off, and away, and apart. We were so inseparable then; my brothers and I, keepers of a sacred bond. Now we are grown, and we do not share our fears anymore. We divided them up between us, and each buried a piece.

For there are those other memories too. The ones we hid, and bade ourselves keep. The ones that Shaun could not laugh off; that Darren could not fight. Memories of hiding out here past dusk, refusing to go home; of the things we could not do then, of the things we did not understand. Feeling afraid. And over time, that fear became anger, and I could not put it out. We locked them up in the dark, and made them dull; those memories. We left them in our wake, so that they might fade. And the details slip away towards obscurity, but never fully get there. The colours dampen in the mind. Who wore what when? Who did what to whom? And in what order? These things go. Dialogue is erased, the faces are drawn blank; the light drained.

I look at the land about me, the woods, the sheer brightness of the day, the colours so vibrant in the daylight, and it hardly seems like this could have been the place.

Our memories are elusive. They paint their own past. Or cover it over. We are left with a negative; a small dark clip of the truth, and that is all that we are able or prepared to see. We are afraid to blow it up, afraid of the bigger picture. These things we have seen; they have shaped us. They direct us still. And we will keep them with us always, whether we mean to or not. So, no, we have not forgotten; but then again, nor do we remember.

Crumbs

October 24, 2009

How long had it lain there? Hiding behind the remote controls; controls which either work for appliances that don’t, or vice versa. If one of them did function, I have no doubt that I would, this very instant, be upturning the entire front room, looking for it, and effing and blinding the blasted thing, and breathing loudly through my nostrils, and cursing the fuckhead who had put it in such a ridiculously unfindable place. Naturally, it would turn out to have been me. And, it would be down the back of the sofa; not that it had slipped there. No. I would have put it there to hide it on someone else, and then I would have forgotten I’d done it, and the prank would have backfired on myself.

I have lost so much money down the back of that sofa while napping in the evenings, that I now look on it as a kind of comfortable piggy bank. In a couple of years, if the housing market and my increasing narcolepsy continue in their current directions, I’ll find enough change down there to buy a nice place overlooking a nicer place overlooking an even nicer place overlooking what’s left of The Liffey.

But, it is still looking at me from behind the remote controls, inviting me to taste it. Cellophane wrapped, its gorgeous bun-ness tempting me to partake of its delicious chocolaty-ness. How long has it been there though? I saw it first some time last week. Where did it come from? I’m not sure. I don’t know whose it is. Every evening I sit here with my housemates talking, and there sits the little cake on the edge of the table crouching behind the zappers, looking up at me. But now, I am alone. And I am weighing the options in my head.

It has an air about it, that cake, as though it had been specially baked for someone, and therefore I ought not steal their gift, and yet I also think that had its owner really appreciated their gift, they should have eaten it by now, and if they had been waiting to eat it later and savour it, and cherish it, and give it its due attention, they ought not to have left it in such a conspicuous place. The reasoning process stirs. I already know the verdict. I just need to justify it, work out the probable cause, tamper with the evidence, select the jury. We all know I’m going to eat that cake. I just need to go through the mental motions or else it would just be heartless. Who would abandon such cocoa-laden delicacy? Who would ignore such saliva-inducing chocolacy? It has been slightly crushed or misshapen by its ungrateful intended eater. This cake’s owner loved it not, not like its baker did. It has been left to me to appreciate this crumbly muffinesque offering. In fact, not only would it be right for me to eat it, I fear it would be wrong for me not to. It is my duty to eat it. It is my calling.

I move the remote controls aside and eye it greedily. I pick it up and hold it to the light, like a priest with communion. The cellophane wrapping glistens; hopefully it has kept it fresh. I pull the cellophane off slowly. I bring the bun to my nose and inhale the care with which it was made. I bite into it and pause; even though it’s not, it still tastes warm. I hold it in my mouth for a second before I begin to chew, slowly at first, then faster, before I swallow it down into my hungry, hungry belly. The second bite I eat a little more quickly, and then I just shove the whole rest of the bun, over three quarters of it, in to my mouth, in a moment of uncontrollable self-indulgence, crumbs flying, drool slipping out, murmurs escaping in little ‘m’s and groans. And it is so satisfying, so good, like I imagine a vampire’s first kill must be.

And just then Damo walks in. He fixes me angrily. My jaws cease from their movement.
“Eating my bun, are ye?”
What can I say? I clearly am. I look up at him with what I imagine is a mixture of guilt and surprise. He looks at me with disdain; a look of continued disappointment in me.

And then, in my surprise, the cake, reduced to mulch in my mouth, goes slightly down my throat and gets stuck. And suddenly I can’t breathe. I try punching myself in the back, but I can’t dislodge it. Damo stands watching me choking, as though deciding whether or not to intervene; whether my life is really worth saving. I stand up, and with my eyes, and ever-reddening face, I plead him to come to my aid. I beseech him. He looks doubly irritated now, but he turns me around, and putting his fists under my ribcage, he pulls up sharply, giving my lungs a sharp squeeze, the food is forcibly ejected from my throat. It flies out of my mouth and lands in a mess on the carpet. I fall to my knees, gasping the air I was briefly deprived of.

Damo turns to leave the room. He looks down at me unsympathetically, shaking his head

“Get yourself together”, he says disapprovingly, and he walks out.

I am in a heap on the floor, legs tucked under me, with one hand supporting my upper body. I am dejected and humiliated. I disgust myself. I am shamed by my feebleness; my lack of will power and restraint; my clumsiness. Why do I do these things I wonder, and why do they happen to ‘me’.

Before me, the ex-muffin soils the floor. I look down at the brown crumbs scattered there. Amongst the crumbs lies the offending object, still stuck to itself in a sort of ball. That mass of chocolaty brown that was stuck in my throat, that murderous lump. ‘It sure tasted good though’, I recall. It sure did. Maybe the nicest muffin I’ve ever known. I wonder how something so simple could give such pleasure. And I’ve already chewed most of it up. And it’s not like it was in someone else’s mouth. And it’s not like anyone would know. I scoop it up and look at it closely, pulling off a small piece of fluff that has attached itself. I look about me, and listen for steps.

‘It’d be a terrible shame to see it wasted’, I say to myself.

And then I toss the chewed-up chocolate back into my mouth, savour its loveliness for one short but-oh-so-sweet moment, and then send it straight down my gullet, and on into my belly where it belongs.

Leaves

October 17, 2009

He always goes to the same place, when he goes. We tend to let him there a while before we’d go after. Usually, one of his brothers goes to get him. And if they fail to coax him out, I go.

Behind the old library are the woods. They stand still; quiet in the sunlight. As I enter, looking up, the sky above seems to shift from blue to white. But, as I go deeper, the sky itself gets lost; pushed aside by ancient branches, blacked out by a sea of leaves. It is neither night nor day here. A few minutes in, lies a long-fallen oak, around which have grown bushes and brambles, which seem to be consuming it. It is here where I find him.

I walk around it to where he hides. Even though, I cannot hear him, I know he is there. I can picture him, trying to be silent. I speak to him softly. He doesn’t answer. I try again, and he tells me to go away. But of course I do not leave. I move to find him. I part the briars which dangle down over the log and see him sitting within. Only his face breaks the dark. He looks up at me, but does not return my smile. And we stay like this a while, mainly in silence; me, outside crouching; him, inside with his knees to his chin.

And, so I edge in further, lifting the thorns carefully, stooping my way through, and sitting down beside him. The brambles form a kind of roof. Last year’s leaves carpet the ground. It is cosy: his den. I like it here. And I can see a bit of me in him. I can see why he likes it in here. I almost wish I’d found this place first. We sit here in silence for a time; I don’t know how long. This place is without time. It may be afternoon outside, but in here, there is no day; the leaves having extracted the light.

Eventually, he speaks. “Anthony McBride stood on my train set and crushed it”, he tells me; his tone betraying no anger, only sadness.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to”, I assure him.

But, no, he tells me how Anthony had explained what he was going to do, before, while, and after he did it, and I feel cheap for doubting my boy. That train set didn’t cost much, but I know what it meant to him.

I turn to him and thumb his cheek, clearing the dirt, which always seems to make its way towards young boys’ faces. I tell him that he is better than guys like Anthony McBride, and tell him how good he is, and how strong, and lowering my eyebrows, leaning closer, I tell him conspiratorially how we are going to show him. He turns his head and catches my eyes.

And then, bottom lip quivering, eyes welling up with tears on the verge of escape, he adds, “And Mary Jo says my ears look like a rabbit’s.” As though, somehow, this was worse.