Here’s another little story
Here’s a little story that I wrote a few years ago, and since we are flying through the month in question, I’ve decided to share it here. This story was originally published by the wonderful ‘Silver Apples Magazine’ in June 2015.
Here’s a link to their website; https://silver-apples.squarespace.com/about-1/
The Heart of March
In the past, she had always believed that things fall into and out of place just as they are meant to. Her husband, Paul, had softly encouraged her to go through the rest of the items, and package them away. He believed that they could both grieve for their son and move on a little easier, if all reminders were neatly entombed in the attic. She had been putting it off.
The task itself began as a surprise to her. Almost organically, she had entered the room while sweeping the wooden floor of the landing, unbeknown to herself. She hesitated briefly but continued and swept away the final traces of his hair and dead skin onto the plastic dustpan. On the wardrobe mirror, she streaked a line in the dust with a finger and wondered as she gazed at the filth if there was any trace of him still in it. The film of dirt distorted the room’s reflection, compelling her to clean it.
Paul had told her that happiness was a choice she needed to make. He made it sound easy, like the flick of a switch, but she knew he meant well. She had already noticed herself laugh in the last few weeks. Television shows and witty comments she heard on the radio were creeping back into her awareness. The sound of her own joy had made her squirm at first, but she was growing accustomed to it again. Her husband’s steady return to the world had become the standard by which she forged her own.
Paul had stripped the bed of the Fireman Sam duvet set, six weeks after their son had gone. She wanted to wait, as if by some miracle, he could return and sleep the sleep of the living again. A faint smell of him still hung in the air here. Three years of baby lotion, bottled milk and dreams had manifested in the very fibre of the place, unsure of its own power. Toys were neatly aligned on shelves behind closed closet doors, stifled by a perpetual lack of attention.
Spiders had been busy spinning mottled webs across the window pane, trapping his memory in here, lest it should dissipate to the ether beyond. Their bodies now lay upside down on the sill, desiccated by a sun that continued in his duty, in spite of the world’s pain. Her eye caught the tiniest flash of colour in the back of the garden. The yellow rose had survived the frosts after all, though from the kitchen window downstairs it had appeared withered in the March light.
The downstairs rooms had gradually lost all trace of his existence. There were no ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ toys to be found underfoot, no soft toys squeezed under the couch or discarded bottles of juice left in corners. His high chair had been folded up, disinfected and removed to the attic almost immediately after the accident.
When Paul came home from work that evening he bellowed a greeting to his wife, and her voice travelled down the stairs in response. He made his way up the steps and knew before he saw her that she was in the there. He stood in the doorway of their son’s bedroom and took in the welcome site. The wardrobe doors were open and the shelves emptied. Labelled boxes were stacked in the corner and the window and mirror sparkled like they had before.
“You did it love.”
“It was time,” she said.
On the mattress sat a pair of tiny navy shoes, his first walking pair. The sides were scuffed and a frayed rubber dinosaur barely hung on to each one, like a yellow leaf ready to fall from an autumn tree.
“I’m keeping these in that special keepsafe box your mum gave us,” she said.
He nodded in reply and left the room, returning now with the letter she had decided she couldn’t read back in January.
“We’ll put this in there too,” he said.
She noticed that the envelope had been opened with surgical precision, as she took out the letter. She knew its contents but now the words were before her in perfect black and white. The recipient was recovering well and the little heart had been a perfect match. Names were never given to the donor families, but they wanted them to know that the girl and her family were forever grateful for the gift they had waited for so long to receive.
And so, the small rectangular shrine to his first steps and parting gift was born, and laid to rest.
I know, I know. The dreaded C word. But it is approaching, and the shoebox appeal is relevant at this particular time of year.
The shoeboxes for the Hope appeal need to be ready by November 11th, so there’s not much time to waste.
Each year, I help Lillian put together a box of gifts to send to a child somewhere in the world who has very little, or nothing.
The premise is simple; add something to WASH, WEAR, WRITE and to WOW.
We go to discount stores and can fill a box up for less than €20.
Here’s the link to the Hope appeal, but other charities have their own versions of this idea too. In fact, last year i spotted an animal rescue site looking for shoeboxes with dogs and cats in mind (toys, treats, collars etc.).
I came upon this list yesterday and let’s just say I lost a few hours of my morning to it.
If you’re a horror freak like me, and love to inflict mortal fear upon yourself, have a look and watch these short movies. Most are really, really good. Perhaps the beauty of these is that like a short story versus a novel, the action is present right from the start and never loses it’s focus for the duration.
Strangely, the shortest and longest were my own favourites; Bedfellows (2.31 minutes) and Skuld/Guilt (28.23 minutes).
Lights Out is first on this list, and is truly terrifying. I watched this in bed one night and screamed so loud the dog started howling downstairs in response. The following day, my loving husband was kind enough to take a screen shot of the “face”, which he described as ‘placid’ and sent it to me on a message, which I then couldn’t figure out how to delete from the thread. That’s what horror is all about, this ability to terrify, long after you’ve finished watching (or reading); the flashback of the evil face when you’re just about to fall asleep, the sound you thought you heard behind as you walk down a lonely path through the woods, the hairs that stand up on the back of your neck for no good reason.
Anyway here’s the link…
For several years, I have been making my way through the complete works of my favourite author, and greatest literary influence, Hilary Mantel. I have reached the second last book on the list, The Giant O’ Brien. I am halfway through it. The book that I have kept for last is A Place of Greater Safety. This may be something to do with the sheer size of the thing; 872 pages of a story set in the French Revolution. I’m keeping it for when Winter really sets in.
In the public consciousness, authors often become associated with just one of their most successful works. For Hilary Mantel, this is undoubtedly the Thomas Cromwell series of novels. Even those who have not read the epic tomes may have watched some of the televised version of Wolf Hall (2009), or noticed the theatrical productions. The first two novels both won a Man Booker prize and we are patiently waiting for the third instalment. In 2014, between the publication of the second and third books, we were treated to a collection of ten short stories entitled The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher from the author. I grabbed it with both hands, devouring it within a day, this little fix to keep me going. The collection is a reminder that great novelists can also be prolific creators of short fiction also. It happily coincides with this current period of resurgence for the short story form in general, particularly in Ireland and the UK. It is so much more than a distraction from the long wait for The Mirror and the Light (who knows?), the final part of the Cromwell trilogy.
The title story, for me, is the weakest in this otherwise splendid collection. The author once spotted Margaret Thatcher from her apartment and this is where the idea sprung from, apparently. She began writing it in 1983 but it first appeared publicly here in 2014. The antagonist, middle aged female apartment owner and the protagonist, the would be killer she has unwittingly let inside said apartment, are two sides of a stereotypical coin. Both British citizens of Irish descent lamenting drunken uncles and their republican ballads, and even throwing Bobby Sands into conversation for good measure. Assassin and apartment owner conspire over tea to shoot the milk-snatcher once she emerges from the private hospital. Then the iron lady toddles into view, and I’m looking out that window with them, and I know I really should be willing him to pull the trigger but I worry about controversy for controversy’s sake. ‘Despite myself, I giggle.’ (page 241).
The narrative arc of fiction and real events collude in the corners to present themselves as short stories at times. In fact, the first piece ‘Sorry to Disturb’, set in Jeddah, was first published as a short memoir, and in true Mantel style has broken off to live a new life as the first short story in this collection. The block of four flats it features was also part of the oppressive narrative setting of her novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988). In this enigmatic setting, furniture moves about of its own volition and also dismantles itself with the author crediting ‘simple force of will, or the force of simple will’ (Giving Up the Ghost, 2003, page 230). It is a rare achievement to find an idea which transcends three genres.
These alternative, parallel creatures become physical bodies on the page and present the savage truth of the world they are forced to inhabit, so that the characters also become versions of ourselves. In ‘Winter Break’, we are tossed into the fetid core of its dilemma. What are we to do about the incident as we discover it? We deserve this holiday, and we may have possibly been mistaken in what we saw, so why make a fuss? It shouldn’t have been there anyway. We move on. We turn the page, have a cocktail.
‘Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal.’ This is a quote from Mantel’s essay Royal Bodies [(2013)’. London Review of Books. Volume 35. No.4. pages 3-7] from which the plastic princess/Kate Middleton controversy arose. It is also a trope running through ‘‘Comma’. I am intrigued yet disgusted by Kitty and Mary as they stalk the unfortunate Comma creature but still I am dying to see it in my mind’s eye. I’m devouring the text as the face is sparingly revealed. The comma in this story, for me, is a sweeping metaphor for the obsessive nature of the author also, and a sort of middle finger to those who have questioned her literary style. Her use of punctuation, pronouns and dialogue attribution have been criticised since the success of Wolf Hall (2009). The comma is wrapped up and cosseted in a manner inexplicable to all but the woman who cares for it in the story. Enough said.
Further childhood trauma dressed up as mirth pervades in ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’. Eleven-year-old Lola compares her older sister, Morna, to a dog when a layer of downy fur forms on her back. It is hilarious because Morna is dying of anorexia. While commenting on her infertility as a result of Endometriosis, Mantel claimed flippancy as her own ‘weapon’. The following quote from her memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003, page 231) being a perfect example; ‘it’s a good thing I never had children, because I’d be putting them outside the door while I finished a paragraph.’ Every time I chase my only child from my writing desk, this line comes to mind. I cringe.
You don’t have to be a psychic medium like Alison in Mantel’s novel Beyond Black to see ghosts. You don’t even need to commit to a novel. You can be Lola seeing your dead sister Morna through the bedroom window, in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. You can be minding your own business on a train and spot your dead father, avoiding you in a carriage on a parallel track, just as happens in ‘Terminus’. You don’t need any preternatural gifts to see a diabolical manifestation in your own childhood garden. You could be Hilary Mantel, sharing your early life experience in your memoir; ‘Something intangible has come for me, to try its luck: some formless, borderless evil, that came to make me despair.’ (Giving Up the Ghost (2003), page 107). Let’s hope you’re spared that.
The beauty of Mantel’s fiction in any form is its ability to take its leave from the page just at the point where judgement of the characters (and hence the writer) should occur. This is all very well for her, but spare a thought for those of us left to clean up the splinters of these shattered fictional worlds. It’s not easy to put them back together when what is read, cannot be unread.
Here’s a story that I wrote earlier this year, and had the pleasure of reading at the West Cork Literary Festival also.
It’s essentially a story about appreciating what we have in the present moment, instead of wishing our lives away on what-ifs.
The dishwasher has stopped working. It can’t function. It wants to, but cannot. You see, the dirty water refuses to drain. This sludge that usually slips away down the waste-pipe with very little fuss refuses to budge. No, this time, it is too filthy, too incriminating. It is loaded with the waste of too many things. Dishwasher never complained at being packed to full capacity every day, but now, it is too late.
The dishwasher has always worried too much that the plates were not shiny enough, that the cutlery holder has a great gaping hole it the base and at times, sharp knifes slip through and clatter down on to the floor tiles. Dishwasher doesn’t want to be making a racket like that, doesn’t want to be drawing attention to these embarrassments. The little drawer where the tablet goes shut itself up long ago. Since that point, chemical tablets have been thrown casually into the base, melting once the hot water filled the space. But now, dishwasher can’t fill, can’t melt. There are stacks of dirty dishes loitering by the sink now, for everyone to see.
All that was once taken for granted has become impossible, everyday tasks seem insurmountable. A small green warning light flashes helplessly on dishwasher’s control panel.
We unplug the thing so we can’t see the cry for help