Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
In an act of supreme generosity Eddie Stack has sent me 22 short stories to post for Irish Short Story Month. I offer him my great thanks for this. I intend to share all of these short stories with my readers. He is a master story teller with a deep understanding of Ireland.
Press comments on his work
Press comments on his work
Praise for Eddie Stack’s writing
"Mr. Stack's fiction is versatile and engaging...a vivid, compassionate, authentic voice...securing (him) a place in the celebrated tradition of his country's storytelling.”
New York Times Book Review
“This second collection of short stories by Eddie Stack has a wonderful sense of unreality, of weirdness among Irish characters and of downright fun.”
“Eddie Stack’s stories jet back and forth across the Atlantic, contrasting small town Ireland and big city US. Every time they land, the author seems to test the borderline of what might and might not be possible in downtown bars, crumbling dance halls and drizzly farms. The result is a remarkably consistent collection of short stories.
Ian Wild, Southword
One summer's evening, just as the sun sank behind the roof-tops, Aggie Lally scurried across the street and disappeared into Hogan's Drapery.
Mariah hadn't noticed and poked her permed head out the door. Up and down the town, bunches of townsfolk stood around shops and corners; more criss-crossed the road to each other's houses, often meeting halfway. The town buzzed.
“What's happening?” Aggie asked urgently.
“God, I don't know,” whispered Mariah.
Aggie tilted her head, sniffed the air like a fox and said,
“But 'tis very odd isn't it? Even peculiar. I wonder if the lads across the street know anything about it?”
Bold as a sparrow, she flitted over to Coleman's Corner where Paddy Logan held court with James Dillon and Coyne the Butcher.
“How're ye men-what's happenin' at all? Is there some big shot comin' to town or what?”
They shrugged and Coyne spat into the gutter.
“God but 'tis very strange, isn't it? Hah?” said Dillon, squinting up Church Street at a few groups scattered outside pubs. Now a crowd gathered around the post office.
“An' there's no funeral from America that we don't know about?” pressed Aggie.
Coyne pursed his lips and shook his head, he hated to be in the dark.
“I'll take a stroll down the street,” he muttered, “I'll see ye again in a while.”
He wondered what the crowd at Hartigan's Corner were chattering about and headed their way. They gazed across the street at Hanlon's Radio and Bicycle Shop. Years closed and shuttered, it had gone unnoticed until now; even Coyne had forgotten about it. Coming closer, he got excited and shouted that he saw flames leaping through the roof. No, the gazers said, it was only the setting sun dancing off the skylight. 'Another smart man fooled,' someone muttered and they stamped their feet and doubled up laughing.
“Fuck ye!” the butcher grunted and slunk around the corner to Clare Street. He threw back his shoulders, straightened the peak of his cap and marched up to the police barracks.
“Malone will know what's happening,” he muttered and clenched his fists at the thought of going back to the corner blaggards with the news.
He rapped urgently on the barracks door. Hollow as a tomb. No reply. He knocked again, louder this time, and called,
“Sergeant! Con Coyne here.”
“Empty box!” a woman yelled from the far side of the street: Gretta Green, the mad woman from Frowhell.
“Empty box! He's gone to the races,” she shouted, “Ridin' mad. The whole country's ridin' mad. What d'you want 'im for? Hah?”
Coyne ignored her, but she kept shouting, turning heads, attracting attention to the butcher who stood facing the barracks like a brooding bull.
Gretta was getting louder, coming closer, ragging him. Coyne's blood was on the boil and he wanted to bawl at her and wring her neck like he did with chickens and turkeys.
“He won't be back till Saturday,” she rattled, “don't you see the notice in the window?”
Coyne's fists twitched but he checked them,
“Gretta,” he said gruffly, “why don't you fuck off home like a good girl?”
“Fuck off yourself, you ram you. The law is gone. There's no law in town. D'you hear me? Ridin'. He's gone ridin'.”
At that very moment the street below erupted in cheers and the butcher jolted with confusion, wondering if he was the root of the joke. But the cheers were for Roddy's red lorry, rumbling into town with a gang of road-swept county council workers. Before the wagon stopped in the square, hundreds swarmed around it, scouring for news. Oddly, the oil-skinned workers had none and said nothing was happening up the country. All was quiet on the western front. Roddy stuck his bullet head out of the cab and said he overheard one of the road engineers say there was trouble in China.
“Would that have anything to do with it?” Mariah asked Aggie Lally.
“China?” chirped Aggie, “China? Is that where Father Murphy is with the foreign missions?”
Mariah shook her head and blurted,
“I don't know...but Jesus Mary 'n Joseph...Aggie, is that Harry Fine the Chemist that I see?”
Aggie blessed herself and clutched Mariah by the elbow.
“Sweet Heart of Jesus,” she muttered, “I can't believe my eyes.”
Across the street, Mr. Fine the reclusive chemist stood at the hall door of his green shuttered shop, in white tennis clothes and boater hat. Nobody had seen him for years, though they heard him play the violin every once in a while. Now children flocked around him and grown-ups shook his hand and asked how he was. Fine, he said, just fine. He praised the weather and said it was just like the summer evenings of long, long ago when Morgan Dunphy and himself played tennis on the grass court behind Riverview Lodge.
“Crikey,” he said, stepping out on the footpath a few feet “but it's great to be alive.”
Mr. Fine looked up to heaven,
“Listen to the birds below in the wood,” he urged quietly, and his well-wishers did. Blackbirds, thrushes, linnets and finches of every strain sang their hearts out and nobody missed Mr. Fine until he re-appeared at an upstairs window, violin in hand, tenderly crooning,
“The gay flowers are shining, gilt o'er by the sun,
But the fairest of all is my own Molly Dunne.”
Mariah Hogan thought it was the most moving verse she had heard in years and wanted to throw flowers at the singer, the eccentric man she had long ago fallen in and out of love with. And nobody knew. Not even Mr. Fine, who could never remember her name no matter how many times she came to his Medical Hall with aches and pains for the curing.
When Mariah sighed back to the present, the town teemed with children of all ages, some spinning timber tops, others rolling bicycle wheels up the middle of the road, more played colored glass marbles on the footpath. In the space of a few minutes it seemed they had popped out of the ground like daisies. In all her life Mariah had never seen so many children, sporting and playing and running rings around grown-ups.
By twilight a troop of young ruffians had gathered turf and timber, tires and other things burnable, and set about building a huge bonfire in the square. Coyne the butcher was on hand to lend advice and called on everyone to give more fuel.
“Pile it on,” he shouted, “the more the merrier.”
Aggie Lally clutched Mariah, raised her eyes to heaven and whispered,
“Has the bloody butcher gone soft in the head?”
Mariah said he'd been bats for years, and told her a story she had never uttered to another soul, about a love letter the butcher once wrote her. It was straight out of dirty book, she said and quoted it at length.
“Jesus Christ,” panted Aggie, “I'll never be able to look at another piece of meat again, after hearing that.”
The bonfire grew and grew from the ground like a big cone and Mattie Kelly, by now drunk as a lord, announced it was going to be the biggest and brightest blaze the town had ever seen, and it had seen many. Waving a box of matches and a bottle of stout, he followed Coyne around the pyre as the butcher doused turf, tires and timber with oil and kerosene. A few troublemakers urged Mattie to put a match to the pile.
“Torch it Mattie! Torch it!” they shouted.
Then the question arose amongst the crowd about who should set the bonfire alight and names of this one and that floated about: Mr. Fine the reclusive chemist; The Cowboy Clancy; Jango Ryan. The butcher ignored the suggestions and twisted a long taper from a sheet of newspaper. He asked Mattie for the matches and bent low for shelter to light the fuse. Match after match cracked but none sparked. Coyne swore at Mattie and shouted for another box of matches. The crowd mooed and the butcher grew restless.
“Matches!” he shouted clicking his fingers, “Matches! Matches! Quick for fuck's sake!”
Too late. He smelled smoke, oily smoke, and then a gush of flame rushed around the bonfire, chased by Gretta Greene, his nightmare. Coyne went wild and swore like a man possessed by demons. He swore at Gretta, swore at Mattie Kelly and swore at the crowd until he was hoarse and demented. When he began frothing at the mouth, demanding fight and punching his fists at thin air, Paddy Hogan grabbed him by the elbow and led him home. The crowd rumbled and shook their heads. Gretta Greene raced around them and rattled,
“He ate too much mate. Botta-botta. Red mate. Botta-botta.”
Soon the fire was crackling and sparks and smoke funnelled high into the night. Mattie Kelly staggered around the blaze clapping his hands and shouting,
“Music! Music! Where's the music!?!”
And then above the noise of the fire came strains of violin music and Mr. Fine, pale as a ghost strolled from the smokey shadows crooning,
“Oft in the stilly night...”
It was chillingly beautiful and became more so when Angie Kelly, the church organist harmonized in the chorus. Aggie and Mariah whimpered along and soon the town hummed. It was a musical fit for Broadway: Mr. Fine strolling slowly, crooning softly, stroking his violin; Angie Kelly singing harmonies and everyone else humming like Hollywood extras, swaying with the blaze. It was a beautiful night, tranquil as the first Christmas.
Everything was heavenly and harmonious until about halfway through the song, when Gretta Green threw herself to the ground. She pulled her skirt up over her head and screamed that she had seen angels dancing in the flames of the bonfire. The singing faltered. Then Nora Flanagan noticed them, three angels with long golden wings and small harps, twirling in the flames like a carousel. Nora slumped to her knees, hands joined in prayer. And then Mattie Kelly gasped,
“Oh Holy mother of Jesus.”
He saw them too, and collapsed in a bundle.
The music stopped and the three angels vanished. A couple of men helped Nora and Gretta to their feet and Strike Hogan gave them cigarettes. Mattie was revived but refused to go home, he raved about the angels and wept over their beauty. Nora nodded. She had never seen such handsome creatures, sensuous and sacred. Seeing them smile was worth all the tea in China. Gretta was in deep shock. Speechless. Trembling. The word went around, quick as lightening-
“They're after seeing an apparition.”
To hold the vision, Angie Kelly burst into a hymn and those who knew it joined in. The crowd gathered closer to the fire, scanning the flames for the angels and throwing anxious glances at Nora, Gretta and Mattie. Dead pan faces. No angels. Wrong song, Mattie whispered.
Lala Lynch tried “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and everyone sang along, eyes on the flames, eyes on the watchers. No angels. “South of the Border” was rendered next by Dilly Gillespie and her brother Tom the Albino. Still no angels. It was all in their minds, the crowd began to murmur. And then Mr. Fine played a haunting air on the violin and began to croon,
“My Love is a Red, Red Rose...”
Angie Kelly joined in the chorus, breasts heaving, and when the song built up steam, Gretta saw the angels again and Nora did too. Mattie Kelly burst into tears and moaned,
“Oh dear Jesus, there they are...three of them.”
A few more saw the angels and people craned their necks and squinted at the flames. Henry Hennesy fainted when he spotted them and so did his wife Dodo. The Gallagher sisters saw them too, as did Martin Mack and Mary, Nan Lang, Aggie and Mariah.
As more and more saw the vision, there was a ripple of hysteria and Jack Webster, the retired policeman, ran to his car and booted up the hill to inform Father White.
The priest was alarmed. An apparition below in the square? Three angels dancing in the flames of the bonfire? Are you sure they're angels Jack? Who saw them? Anyone else, Jack?
“Henry Hennesy and Dodo.”
“Oh my God!”
Father White grabbed his kit and Jack briefed him in the car en-route.
At the square, the priest was flabbergasted by the antic of his flock.
“Dear God,” he whispered and Jack nodded.
It was disturbing. Pagan. The crowd were singing, those who weren't praying or crying or hugging each other. Paddy Keane, a pillar of both church and society, prayed hysterically to the flames, hands outstretched like Jesus. Even the unmarried mother with the two little brats who lived in the flat over the bakery was on her knees, head bowed in holy devotion.
Father White gaped at the fire but saw no angels. He walked around it, squinting from different places. No angels. The town is in a trance, he thought and his skin tightened when he noticed some lunatic distributing candles. Hundreds of tiny flames quivered to light and the square began to look like a U2 concert. Father White sweated and waved his hands,
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” he yelled, “Stop this idolatry!”
But nobody listened to him, not even Larry Prise nor Mary Getty, Paddy Foley or Biddy Bailey-the most faithful of the Faithful. Not even his own church organist, Angie Kelly. Jack Webster was at his side-right hand man. Webster saw no angels either and muttered,
“It's something they drank. They're all gaga.”
Father White nodded rapidly, “They're hallucinating,” he blurted, “I see it in their eyes.”
Mr. Fine, who Fr. White had never seen before, strolled amongst the idolators with a smile as big as a horseshoe, playing a medley of waltzes on the violin. Jack Webster nudged the priest,
“He's a chemist, I bet he has something to do with it.”
The priest jerked his head like a dog spotting a cat. A chemist playing the devil's instrument! He waded through the crowd after the violinist, calling,
“Hello! Excuse me!”
He gained on Mr. Fine, tapped him on the shoulder and when the chemist turned around, Father White grabbed his fiddle and pitched it at the bonfire. It was a long, slow throw and the fiddle somersaulted head over heel, higher and higher above the fire. It hovered there for a minute or two, and then tumbled, majestic as a high diver, into the smoke and the sparks and the orangey-blue tongues of flame. Time stood still, everyone stood still, watching entranced as the fiddle fell slower than a snowflake, into the fire where minutes before, the angels had been. And then Gretta Green screamed. She saw a face in the flames. It was Mr. Fine. The square screamed. The chemist was in the belly of the fire.
Cool as a breeze, Harry Fine plucked his fiddle from its fall and walked out of the fire unscathed. His tennis gear was virgin white, not even a smut stain on his boater hat. People gathered around him in awe, touching the hem of his clothes. Father White grabbed him by the shoulders, and suddenly recoiled ten feet or more, like he had received a high voltage shock.
“Are you alright Father?” asked Jack Webster, rushing to his side.
“I've just seen an angel,” panted Father White, “s-s-s-sitting on Fine's hat.”
“I hate to tell you this,” said Jack, through the corner of his mouth, “But there's another one sitting on your shoulder.”
End of Guest Post
On behalf of all those who love a great short story I thank Mr. Stack for his tremendous support of Irish Short Story Month.
On behalf of all those who love a great short story I thank Mr. Stack for his tremendous support of Irish Short Story Month.