Fingers spread, the width of a wingspan, all the while readying for descent. The vista over the city is terrible, smokestacks and factories pushing rancid fumes into the world. On the desk there’s a deal of paperwork waiting for scribbled words and signatures. Days of helpless disruption. Mine. Not mine. Yours. Not yours. Ours. Hours. Clock hands whiling away the time, the wound cords, amber beads buried beneath the skin. Modification. Pages to be grasped, or not. This intellectual pursuit is a fool’s errand. Grimy windows spoil the view to the farther hill. A dying man, reaching for salvation, across the wooden boards. Fingernails catch and tear. The moss on the stone hides the evidence. Code. A break every so many characters. Parts. Eight. Symmetrical. Rhyme or reason. Neither to be found. On the crucifix of telephone pole outside the house are three woodpeckers. Each committed some nondescript crime. Today, they beat tattoos of guilt, sending their sins out onto the nearby rooftops. Move too fast for the human eye to catch. Yellow. The print is black. Stacked pages, Handwritten gibberish. Penultimate. Rock for weight. Air passage closed. Gasp. Gasp. The key is in the tin can. Aluminum. Rusting tines. All those turns are calculated risks. Pockets of moisture provide hiding spots for tiny frogs. The animal kingdom encroaches all about us. A broken meringue of tissue paper mops up the deceit of the written word.
Dark outside. Birds sing, but it’s the toddler’s sound machine. One hundred pages of edits on the floor. One hundred and sixty more to go. July. Humid. Overcast. Avocados to pick. Son to figure out. Life to decode. Silence on the home front back in Ireland. The Mother has settled into her new home. Assisted living. Assisted dying. The catastrophe of my office is mirrored by that of our garage. Not to mention the filthy cars in need of detailing. There’s no time. Books to blurb. On top of that. Reviews to write; less so. Better to say no in future. No money changes hands. Plenty of reviews for other books. Might be wiser to spend time soliciting reviews for my own book. The cars go by in twos or threes. Stop sign outside is less function and more fashion. The owls are nearby. Silent-winged. Mysteries surround me in the night. There are days when the weight is tremendous, the pull of the earth’s core almost too much. Resistance is pointless. Cups of tea to sustain the editing. Barry’s Red Label. Used tea-bags are dead soldiers in the assault on completion. Somewhere out there stories are being told. Lights in the window. Time for sleep.
Cups of coffee: 3
Days to new school year: 35
Copies of Riverside Shakespeare on floor: 1
Books mailed: 1
Pages to edit: 195
Ants on desk: 15
Sand dollars on altar: 5
Tennis balls found: 1
Stinging Fly Subscriptions taken out: 1
Song of the Day: John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery
I lay on the bed for three days and waited for the swelling to subside. My left eye wouldn’t open and the world through my right one was a sunburst, even through the closed drapes and the wet towel that covered by bruised face. We’d been at the neighbor’s house, for a “session.” Fiddle. Bodhrán. Tin Whistle. Bushmills. Guinness Extra-stout. They were Northerners. From Derry. Provo’s my father said. Sympathizers. Sotto voce. They sang and clapped and stomped shod feet on hardwood floor, the smell of man sweat and bomb making thick as perfume.
When it came to the end, and they played “The Fields of Athenry,” the players roared the chorus, “Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly/Did they sound the dead march as they lowered you down/Did the band play the last post and/Did the pipes play ‘The Flowers of the Forest.’” They raised glasses, and the singer cried, “I…I… IRA, fuck the queen and the UDA.” as everyone drained their drinks. I said something about how the queen didn’t seem so bad and my father bristled.
Fuchsia bushes, a monkey puzzle tree, and my mother’s prize roses the only witnesses. My head hit the railings again and again. Blood fizzed and ran down my face, a warm stream, and he said, “Never defend that bitch again. Never. Do you hear me?” The earth spun as he dragged me to the front door. She screamed when she say the state of me. “Leave him alone. Bloody Royalist,” he said. She helped me to the bedroom and brought ice and whiskey for the pain.
The first time my father tried to kill me, I was swaddled between both my parents and couldn’t stop crying. The curtains were pulled shut, the room black as my mother’s insides. He kept muttering, “Aw, for Jesus’ sake, can’t you quiet that babby?” She tried. Soother. Gripe water. Rocking. The lot. I cried on into the small hours. She must have fallen asleep from exhaustion, and he placed his hand over my mouth and nose and pressed down. Only the 5AM milk delivery cart and its rattling bottles saved me. She woke to the tinkle of glass on glass, and he pulled his hand away like a bad schoolboy trying to steal a few sweets from a jar of Bullseye’s.
The second time he tried to kill me we were in the waves at Brittas Bay. I was dogpaddling, looking for sea creatures in the clear ocean. Mam was smoking a fag in the shelter of the windbreak—the striped one with wooden stakes—and she couldn’t see us from her vantage point. “Would you swim properly,” he said, pulling at my arms and trying to show me how to move them over my head, the way Johnny Weissmuller did in the Tarzan films. I sank, my lungs full of water, his foot on my back, holding me under. Maybe when my arms stopped twitching he got nervous, because next thing I knew, I was on the sand, lying on my back, and him pushing on my belly until the saltwater spumed skyward and I turned blue to white and gulped air.
Pages of MS edited; 264
Cups of coffee: 3
Farmers Markets worked: 1
Books mailed: 1
Books received in mail: 1
Large envelopes in office: 2
Coffee beans in house: 0
Pens run out of ink: 1
Song of day: The Ramones–I Wanna be Sedated
Cups of coffee: 3
Miles driven: 375
Pages edited: 169/264
Stories written for Pure Slush Year in Stories 2014: 2
Bins of avocados picked: 2
Giant beetles found: 1
Unsolicited emails from publicists of other writers: 14
Badges on desk: 1
Books received in mail: 2
Cash in pocket: $12
Publisher’s met: 1
Song of the day: Kentish Town Waltz by Imelda May
This is my city, the one with the iron railings and the narrow lanes, the red-bricked houses and the slated roofs, the one with the green postboxes that used to be red, Rule Britannia, and the one with the statues facing inwards so as to preserve justice only for the rulers. My city with its gardens of rhododendrons and monkey puzzle trees, gardens of carnations and roses and hydrangeas, and wasps’ nests stuck in the corners of rickety garden sheds. My city where I lied and stole and cheated my way through adolescence, where I kissed a girl for the first time and waited years before doing it again. This city where I pedaled my bicycle through puddles and rainstorms, past closed shops at midnight, through deserted parks where mallards slept in groups for safety. This city where I was singled out and labeled from early on, condemned to follow some proscribed path chosen by the rule-makers, a city where I struggled to find my true voice, once at nineteen reading a terrible imitation of a fantasy novel to a group of friends in a nondescript coffee shop. This city where I stood by and watched the world go by without me, where the entire population upped sticks and hoofed it to the Phoenix Park to see the Pope, and I stayed home with my invalid father, more concerned he might die while we were out than I was at seeing the head of the Holy Roman Church. My city of slow-running streams and horse chestnut trees, of canal locks and murdered swans. This city of writers whose names are as recognized as the rainclouds that gather over the Dublin Mountains, a city whose skin I shed long ago, but whose bricks and mortar and smoky pubs and sharp-tongued humor make up the greater, better part of me. Tonight, I miss my city and the house I grew up in, now inhabited by others, and my own mother unsure of everything, but safe in the care of nursing home staff in the new world she inhabits and in which she will surely die. Oh, clement. Oh, loving. Streets of cobbled stones and grated cellars where the barrels of porter and beer disappear and the stories are told to listeners eager for a wise word and a good laugh.
Pizzas made last night: 3
Cups of coffee: 2
Loads of laundry on: 2
Boxes of avocados picked: 2
Books mailed out this week: 2
Pages edited in novel: 104
Reviews to write: 2
Cash in pocket: $12
Hours of Wimbledon watched: 0
Checks on desk: 5
The rooms of our house are guarded by effigies of the saints. Anthony of Padua and the Virgin Mary greet any visitors I try to sneak in under cover of darkness. For added security, St. Francis of Assisi perches on the dresser with a kestrel on his wrist. Under the covers we sail free, fueled by alcohol and desperation, the pair of us anticipating the whistling call of the hunting bird. Her name is Gemma, blond, with prominent teeth and an overeager way about her. She plays the piano with skill, she tells me. In the taxi from Annabel’s Nightclub we neck in the cloud of cigarette smoke created by the driver, who listens to Big Tom and the Mainliners and casts a backward eye in the rear-view mirror every now and then, to see if he can catch a glimpse of her bare legs, or more. At two in the morning the house is quiet, the ma and da fast asleep, but their ears attuned to the unfamiliar tread of feet on the stairs. They could wake at any moment and I’ll be caught red-handed.
Soft-shoed on carpet so well worn by the years you can almost see your reflection in its fibers, we creep up to my bedroom. I make her wait by the door as I pull dirty socks over the watchful saints. What if she sneezes, or cries out from delight? Neither option is something I consider after asking her if she wants to come home with me. We could have gone to Gemma’s place, but her mother has a new baby and will be awake every hour for to stick its mouth to her tit, she said. From the cottages behind the Irishtown gasworks, she is. A working-class girl, her old man works in Guinness’s unloading hops and malt day after day. We kiss and fumble in the dark, in front of the blindfolded saints, every now and then uttering whispered prayers of blasphemy: Oh, God! Oh, my Jesus! God Almighty!
In the early morning light I trace the tracks of her bra, whiter than the rest of her skin. Next door the mother stirs to make the old man’s breakfast, and her footsteps on the landing have the pair of us in fits of giggles. She taps on the door and sticks a head in. “What in the name of God are your socks doing on the sacred statues?”
Beneath the eiderdown I can feel Gemma tremble, ready to burst into laughter.
“Sorry, Mam, I wasn’t thinking.” She shakes a head, sniffs the musty air, and says, “We’ll be off to ten o’clock Mass if you’ve a mind to go.”
Nod of the head, and I say, “I think I’ll sleep in and go to twelve o’clock.” Down she goes to stoke the embers in the Aga, the wool pulled over her eyes, at least for the moment.
“I have to get home,” Gemma says, her hair wild, her mouth crusted with sleep. “Wait until they head off to Mass,” I say. A taxi, she tells me, her hand reaching beneath my underpants. “I can’t walk the miles to Irishtown in those shoes,” she says pointing to the white stiletto poking out from under the wardrobe. I don’t know how the mother missed it, what with her beady eyes noticing the shrouded saints immediately. I kiss sourness, her teeth rimed with cigarettes and rum and cokes, and we disappear under the billowing sails again.
Whilst the ma makes breakfast and the da uses the toilet, I fish a tenner from his trousers, the Sacred Heart of Jesus imploring me to reconsider my thieving ways. Whistling from the bathroom, then the slapping of the belly, means I have to leg it back to the young one hiding in my bedroom. At 9:45 footfalls echo on the pavement as the Sunday faithful walk to prayer. Our front door-knocker rattles as the ma and da join the procession. Curtains shut, she dresses in dimness, her plump behind a reminder of mortal sin. From under their hoods the saints scream indignant, and I go downstairs and phone her a taxi. “Pick her up at the Protestant School on Rathgar Avenue,” I tell the man. And at quarter after ten the unnamed girl does the walk of shame, out the front door, down the avenue to the corner, and right for the waiting taxi. When she’s gone I remove the socks from the prisoners’eyes and in the soft light of my bedroom say a decade of the Rosary for the salvation of my soul.
Friday night at the Old Wesley dance, and “Stand By Me,” plays as we move slow circles in the cigarette smoke. As we turn in narrower and narrower spirals I try for a kiss and her warm mouth locks on mine. She tastes of Juicy Fruit gum, all sweet and sugary, and I hope she doesn’t notice my excitement.
Next thing I know, I’m on the flat of my back in the center of the dance-floor, my nose tingling, and someone laying the boot into me. Bouncers appear from the smoke and pull the guy off me, dragging him by the legs off towards the exit. “You bastard,” he yells at me. “You’re a dead man. I don’t know what Gemma’s doing with you.”
The girl I was dancing with has fled to the safety of her friends and I’m left to wipe my bloody nose and worry about Gemma’s friend jumping me on the way home. I don’t know what his problem is, I mean, We’re not even boyfriend and girlfriend, really. In the toilet I check my nose to make sure it’s not broken. The blood is all over my white cotton shirt and if my ma sees it she’ll throw a wobbler. I try to sponge the blood out with warm water and tissue paper, but all that does is create a giant pink circle on the shirt. Some lads taking a slash at the urinal are laughing at me, and shout at me, “Was she on the rag, then?” I don’t say anything, the last thing I need is another punch in the snot.
All the way home I look over my shoulder every few minutes. When I get to our road I go around the back and climb over the wall, shin up the drainpipe onto the roof of the shed, crack my bedroom window open and slip inside, praying the parents won’t hear me.
The fruit of thy womb, the shrapnel embedded in her belly, the damage done, the Lord have mercy. Seagulls throw themselves against the North wind, again and again, a perpetual motion of disappointment. We are on Sandymount Strand, the tide so far out it looks as if the water is gone forever. Dog owners walk the ribbed sand as their pets sniff kelp and cock legs to answer the call of nature. “I might be pregnant.” Her hands blue in the cold, her cheeks acne-scarred, the look in her eyes as faraway as the distant waves.
“Jaysus. Are you sure? Is your period late?” My questions are as useless as the soft drizzle falling on the wet sand.
In tears, she bites a lip, blinks mascara-ed eyes, and says, “Yeah. Two weeks. What’ll I do if I am? Me ma and da will kill me, and they’ll murder you.”
“Maybe you’re only late, and you’ll get it at the weekend?” I offer. “Are you sure it’s mine?”
She gives me a look that answers my question. “I can’t believe you’d even ask me that.” Her eyes are filled, ready to pour. I mumble an apology and rub her shoulder.
“I want to go and light a candle in the church across the road,” she says. “Will you come with me?”
“’Course I will,” I say, shitting bricks. I lead her by the hand to the steps that go up to the road. We cross Beach Road and walk up Leahy’s Terrace to the church grounds.
In flickering light we kneel on hard wood and endure the stare of the blue-cloaked Blessed Virgin and the baby Jesus. she feeds pennies through the narrow slot, the coins dully clinking on the prayers of others in dire circumstances.
Outside, the gray sky muted can barely match our mood as we take the narrow footpath back to her neighborhood. The squat red-bricked houses of Irishtown are like our own house in Rathgar, but smaller, only one-story, and tighter, and the curtains in the windows more yellowed and threadbare. We stop at the corner of Philomena Terrace and Rosary Terrace, and she kisses my cheek and says, “Will you call me tonight?” I nod, and head off towards the bus stop for town. I don’t want to call her tonight, nor any other night, not if she’s up the pole, not if she’s going to have our baby. I don’t even know her, really. The night out at Annabel’s was our second time out together, and the sex, the first time. Beginner’s luck.
I don’t know what matters any more. Thirty-three minutes left on the calling card. A Dr. Hook song spins through my head, “as the operator says, ‘Forty cents more for the next three minutes…’”
- Five thousand: miles from home.
- Forty minutes: the drive from my mother’s house to the nursing home she’s moved into.
- Ten weeks: the time left to edit a novel and write half a novella.
Numbers. Order from chaos. Four paintings unhung line our mantel. The washing machine is thrumming along as the toddler cries out for “Mommy,” unable to nap, overheated and agitated. Doors open and close in the house. Wind. A paper white butterfly flits by the window and a red-tail hawk whistles in the next orchard over. These are the quiet moments in this busy life. Across the continents in a large room with an orthopedic bed my mother is perhaps falling to sleep, dreaming of her own childhood in a watery town where the river flows still and the memories she holds onto are dissolving by the day. Fear. No. More. At least she recognizes my voice when I call through to her room. This gives me comfort. My cup of Barry’s tea stews on the counter and the house quietens, the cries of the toddler simmer to a low snore, and the dog twitches in her sleep, chasing imaginary squirrels in a wide meadow. A woman told me she bumped into an old friend at the market today and how she’d been avoiding calling him because he had cancer. “I didn’t know what to say” she told me. She spoke of her own cancer, not deadly, at least not yet, she went on. “I’m sorry I didn’t call him. What could I say?” She seemed lost. “All you can do is be present,” I said. “There’s no need to say a word. Bear witness. Be present.” I might do well to take my own advice.