March 1 to April 14
Today I am publishing the first of two short stories that Cherry Smyth has honored me by allowing me to publish. Both of the stories are protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.
Official Author Bio
Cherry Smyth is an Irish poet, born in Ballymoney, County Antrim and raised
in Portstewart. She has written two collections of poetry, a poetry pamphlet as
well as a book, essays and reviews on contemporary visual arts. She has also
published short fiction. Her debut poetry collection, 'When the Lights Go Up'
was published by Lagan Press, 2001. Her anthology of women prisoners'
writing, 'A Strong Voice in a Small Space', Cherry Picking Press, 2002, won
the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Award in 2003. A poetry
pamphlet, 'The Future of Something Delicate' was published by
Smith/Doorstop, 2005. A second collection called 'One Wanted Thing' (Lagan
Press) appeared in 2006.
Her poems have been published in 'Breaking the Skin', an anthology of Irish
poets, Black Mountain Press, 2002, the Apples and Snakes Anthology,
'Velocity', 2003, 'Magnetic North', The Verbal Arts Centre, 2006. New poems
have been published in various magazines including 'The North', '
We hauled the badly folded heap of cracking rubber into the yard. It was the same every summer. Dad would make us look forward to it, from Easter onwards. He’d watch the evening falling and say, ‘The days are getting longer. The sun is setting down further to the West.’ It was April and the sun was a waxy blob behind the block of flats opposite our house. In full summer it would disappear behind The Tarmon, the pub on the corner. His voice was sweet when he watched the sunset. We used to watch it too, hoping that the more of us who witnessed its power, the longer it would last.
Or he would talk about repairing the dinghy to take on the trip and get Angus and I to fetch it from the garage. Each time we would already be rowing out to Inishboffin or Inishowen with our Dad, fishing rods at our feet, a bucket of squirming maggots under the prow. If our hearts were jumping, we made sure to not let a flicker show. If he caught even the tiniest glimpse of it, Dad would pounce.
‘Lift that thing like men. What kind of eejits are ye all? Did no-one think of the pump? You have to think ahead in this life. Jennifer, go you and find the pump.’
Dad stood with the tin of patches and glue in his hand, his old brown cardigan over his work shirt. Angus started working the foot pump, his knee jerking up a rhythm like someone getting into a piece of jazz.
‘Give James a go. He needs to build up them chicken legs. Don’t you son?’ He ruffled my hair, then clipped my ear lightly. I juked out of the way, laughing but holding back so it came out like a whinny.
The dinghy twitched and expanded into life like a slo-mo film of a big yellow flower opening. I was slower than Angus and in trying to speed up, my foot slipped. I didn’t stop, didn’t look at Dad. Sweat broke across the middle of my back, sending a chill up it. I put my hands on my hips to steady my stand.
‘Would you look at him? Angus? God help us.’ I didn’t see the first clout coming. ‘The bloody bathing belle.’ I fell to the side, my elbow grazing the concrete. Then I scrambled up before he started to kick me and began to run. The rodeo had begun.
‘Come here, you lily-livered wee shite. You’ve got to learn to take it, for crying out loud.’
He chased and kicked at me. I scuttled round the yard, my hands trying to deflect his foot. I held back my cries then yelped, my voice scraping, ‘Sorry Daddy, I’m sorry.’
‘Give a proper howl, you great nit.’
I howled and kept running, buffeted by his boot. Then I stumbled, my face and t-shirt a mess of shot and tears. I buried my head.
‘Get up, you useless worm.’ Dad pulled at the neck of my shirt and the seat of my trousers and lifted me off the ground. He circled the yard with me like a sack of coal. Angus and Jennifer watched. Jennifer was crying. ‘Don’t Daddy. Please.’ Angus’s face was tight. I was all extended and rigid with fright like some creature that needs to curl up but can’t. Then I went limp, trailed my feet. He dropped me and went inside.
Angus came over and stood beside me. ‘Alright Jimmy?’ he said. I ran my sleeve across my nose.
Jennifer did her nurse thing, knelt, took my head onto her knee and stroked it. ‘You’ve been at the Front, sonny Jim, but you’re safe now. We’ll fix you up.’ She took my pulse with her thin purple fingers, put her imaginary stethoscope in her ears and listened to my heartbeat. I still had the after-shudders.
‘You’ll be as right as rain,’ she said.
I was trying to learn what it was that had set him off, promising myself to go limp earlier, let the blows rain on me even though every instinct said not to. The toes of my Clarke’s sandals, the new navy ones that were to do all summer, were scuffed. Mum would have my guts for garters.
We all knew to look sharpish when we loaded the boot, struggling under the weight of boxes and suitcases
without showing any sign of it. Mum was pregnant and sat in the front, her hands on her lap, her horses and
hounds headscarf tied under her chin. Dad was securing the bikes to the roof rack with a long piece of white rope.
‘Here, Jimmy. Put your finger there.’ He pointed to a cross made in the rope. I wiped my hands on my shorts.
I wanted to do it right. I looked around for Angus. The whole family and the holiday in Donegal depended on this one gesture, my index finger pressing hard and long enough. He threaded one end of the rope under the rack, then looped and tightened the knot with an abrupt tug. I swiped out my finger in the nick of time. The knot held fast.
‘Good man,’ he said.
I was alive with giggles, giggles I meant to keep in my heart but they travelled down and danced out through the fingers that had done a good job. It was the feeling I got on winter evenings when Dad was in a good mood and he’d roll me onto his knee after tea and play the piano on my front. ‘Ladies and Gents, I’d like to present, Noel Baker, brother of the great Chet Baker. Please put your hands together….’ He’d sing a da-da dah, da-da dah jazz tune and plunge his hands up and down my torso, tickling me, playing the scales of my ribs till I laughed and cried and begged him to stop. Spittle bubbled at the edges of his lips when he sang, but I didn’t care because at the corners of his eyes tears formed and they were real and proved Dad did have a human heart and not the heart of a wolf.
We were off, the worn map of Ireland stretched out over Mum’s knee, a crease opening into a crack across the Sperrins. I always waited for the bend in the road near Derry, when the car entered a canopy of trees and the sunlight flickered like shallow water on golden coins. Then I began to taste Donegal. If we got over the border without a row over the directions or a peep out of us in the back, we were going to make it. We played travel scrabble, or Happy Families or the Misfits, nothing out loud like ‘I Spy’ or animals beginning with ‘A’, plants beginning with ‘B’ etcetera, which would rouse Dad’s despair about how long it took us to guess the right answer or how little we knew about the natural world. He was a big fan of the natural world. He often would spend a whole evening watching programmes like ‘The World Beneath Our Feet’ or Jacques Cousteau’s underwater discoveries. We could watch too if we didn’t speak. Dad would lounge in his leather winged-back chair, his feet on a pouffe, and we’d crowd in under Mum’s arms on the sofa, her warm smell of wool and hair lacquer ringing a lair around us.
‘God that cub’s a wee fighter. Did you see that, boys?’ He’d punch towards the TV. ‘That’s gumption for ye.’ And we’d watch as the lone wolf cub would straggle behind the pack, be stranded on a treeless ridge against the African gloaming and eventually get eaten by coyotes.
‘The poor mother,’ my Mum would say.
‘The poor mother, my eye. She couldn’t be doing with a runt.’ His tone was still jolly. Then it swung. ‘Do I smell a smell?’ He leered, as if the sofa was a thing in the room he hadn’t noticed.
‘No, Daddy,’ we said.
‘It wasn’t me,’ Jennifer said.
‘Someone has let off a bad smell,’ he said, rising out of the chair. ‘No excuse me, nothing. Who was it?’
We cowered into Mum.
‘Now Noel – ’
‘Hush woman! Who was it, I want to know. All of yous up.’
Anger made him sound like Barney, the man who came to fix things. Jennifer drew up her feet. Angus folded his arms. I couldn’t move.
‘Are yous all deaf?’
‘It was only an accident, Noel. An accident of nature –’
‘Hold your tongue, Ann. I won’t have it in my house.’
He grabbed me by the hair and hoisted me up. I shrieked and kicked.
‘You foul wee article. The shed’s where you belong. With them rats.’
‘It was me, Daddy.’ Angus’s voice was round and loud, his throat clear. He stood up. He must have only been twelve or thirteen at the time but he looked tall, his shoulders broad. I felt holiness rise in me. My soul popped. I now know it’s called beatitude. I loved my brother in that moment more than I’ve ever loved anyone again.
Dad seemed to stick to the carpet.
‘I said it was me. I apologise.’
I skited back into Mum’s arms, set things in motion again. Dad undid his belt and then seemed to lose heat. His arms fell to his sides.
‘I’ve had it with the lot of you. Another nice evening ruined. Get out of me sight.’
We walked out in single file like Indians being released from Fort Knox at the end of a long Western.
We missed the turn-off to Murvagh and ended up in Ballyshannon. Dad pulled over and took the map with a huff.
‘I could get some messages here,’ Mum said, keen to invent a silver lining.
‘More food? The car’s full of food. We’ve spent enough as it is.’
‘Just some fresh eggs and a pint of milk. I thought it would sour on the road.’
He handed her twenty pounds to show how we were bleeding him dry starting with this very note.
‘That’s too much, dear.’
He waved his hand as if batting off a fly.
She knew to leave, meekly shutting the car-door, giving us a little wave. For a minute I thought that she wouldn’t come back and as I watched her blue and green dress, her bare calves disappear down the street, my hand shot to the door handle. Angus knew what I was thinking and slid down the knob so I couldn’t get out.
‘It’s your go.’ He held up a fan of cards.
‘Did I ever tell you the story of Leda and the Swan?’ Dad said.
Indeed he had. He loved telling Greek and Roman myths. The Rape of the Sabine women. The sacrifice of Iphigenia. The murder of Agamemnon. He really got into it. Made them so alive and contemporary it was as if, had we happened to look out the window, we’d see the sirens half-walking, half-flying down the main street, the bloodstained heroes, all lean-loined, charging after them, swords flashing over their noble heads.
I didn’t listen. I went to Nana’s garden where I often went when he began a big lecture in his big proper voice. In Nana’s garden were rows of lilac and pink lupins, strung up in rows, which she would walk you through, like walking down scented avenues in a French watercolour. Her lovely soft voice could tell you things about people that you wouldn’t take in till later when the words set like fruit in jelly.
‘Your father, James,’ she told me once, ‘was a delicate child. We almost lost him. Chest and lungs. He was in an incubator for the first fortnight of his life, the hardest fortnight of mine. We made a great fuss of him. Cosseted by all his aunts, but no-one could touch him. If you’d heard the screams of him. Your papa called him Bird. He hopped out of reach as soon as he could walk.’
Nothing could align the image of a young bird with my father. A squab. Still needing to be fed.
Back in Dad’s story, Helen was born and had grown up to be too beautiful, the cause of the downfall of a great city, the start of a tremendous war the likes of which no-one had ever seen.
I caught sight of Mum’s dress first. Then saw her clipping walk towards us, her handbag in the crook of her elbow. She must have spent a penny in the Ladies at the foot of the hill because I noticed that she’d renewed her lipstick. I loved watching her without us around her, how she moved through the world not as a mother, a wife, but as a woman who didn’t know what lay ahead and she was up for it, her heart fresh and open. I’d imagine that I didn’t know her, gauge her figure, her looks as a stranger would. She was tall with a handsome face and dark eyebrows. She seemed unconcerned at first but as she drew closer, I could see the tension around her eyes and her mouth as though she’d been pecked at and had had to duck out of the way. I realised then that it was only when she talked to my father, her head took on a slight twitch as if all the nerves in her mind were too tightly wound.
It was dusk by the time we drove down the long drive of the country house where we had rented a cottage. All along one side was a flat shapeless lake, where a couple of trees stood as though on islands in a Chinese print. Their reflections floated upside down in the still surface. Then we spotted a statue of a nymph, rising out of the water, and another, a bust on a half-submerged plinth. It was like driving into the beginning of a black and white movie, where the set had been used for something else the week before and the characters hadn’t cottoned on yet.
‘It’s all flooded,’ Dad said.
‘Right enough.’ Mum peered ahead as if looking for dry land, dry sheets, aired beds.
‘It’s the spring tide,’ Dad said.
‘Fantastic!’ Angus said. ‘We could fish there, Dad.’
‘Or row a boat,’ I said.
‘Maybe it’s private,’ Mum said.
‘It will be when they see this lot coming.’
A couple were having dinner at the bay window. They were sitting at a large round table lit by a candelabra. The white tablecloth seemed to fill up the room. The man got up and answered the door. He gave Dad the keys and we heard he was German. Dad spoke in his best RP voice, calling ‘Toodleloo,’ as he strode back to the car.
‘Everywhere…’ he said as he started the ignition.
The cottage was a converted outhouse at the back of the big house. It smelt of camphor and dust and books no-one ever read. I had my own room, a little box room up its own flight of stairs in the attic. I could see the laths underneath where a patch of plaster had crumbled away. We could hear the swollen river. Mum heated up a tin of Heinz Tomato Soup. I put out glasses of milk, a plate of wheaten. We sat on unmatching chairs around the kitchen table which was covered in Fablon, with drawings of bunches of grapes and amphorae on it. We blew on our soup and watched the steam puff out. We held our spoons correctly and slid them away from us to collect up each spoonful. No-one slurped.
‘All up at six to catch the rise,’ Dad said.
‘Righto,’ Jennifer said, plucky as a pigeon in Trafalgar Square.
‘Girls scare away the fish, I’m afraid,’ Dad said. He wiped the edges of his mouth with a napkin.
‘Oh.’ Jennifer looked into the centre of her bowl where her spoon moved in smaller and smaller circles, her trout vanishing. Her bottom lip pushed its way out.
‘You stay with me and get the house ready.’ Mum squeezed Jennifer’s arm. She snatched it away, gave a tiny growl. Dad came at her face with the back of his hand, sent the soup bowl flying, scattering red ribbons across the whitewashed chimney.
‘Yes please, Mummy. Say it.’ He leant over Jennifer whose sob hadn’t caught up with the blow. Then it did. She took an enormous breath and bawled.
‘It’s alright, Noel,’ Mum said.
‘Say it, my girl or I’ll give you something to cry about.’
I held my thighs together. I was about to wet myself. Pity burnt a hole inside me but the wind that stoked it was relief that it wasn’t me. I jiggled in my chair.
‘And what d’ye think you’re smirking at?’ Dad hadn’t finished. ‘Don’t just sit there, get a dishcloth and wipe that wall, save your mother some trouble.’
I got up and went to the sink. My bladder was blown up, pressing against all my other organs. I walked funny.
‘What in God’s name’s the matter with him?’
Dad followed me walking like a duck. Everyone started to laugh. He made quacking noises, pumped his elbows. They all laughed harder. I hated them. I waited. The tension didn’t break.
‘Please Daddy…’ I started to cry, held up my forearms to shield my face.
‘I haven’t even touched him yet.’ He laughed then hit me hard. Heat ran down my legs, into my socks, my shoes and out to the floor. I sat down to hide it but the puddle spread.
‘You’re right filth, so you are. Would you look at what’s your son’s done now.’ He hit at me again and then pulled the shorts and pants off me and made me stand at the fireplace facing the wall.
‘Lick it off.’ He laughed again as if at his own brilliance.
‘Noel, that’s far enough – ’ I heard Mum’s chair scrape along the tiles as she pushed back from the table.
‘Do you want he’s getting?’ I imagined her hands cupped over her belly.
‘Lick the bloody wall. I’ll not have good food wasted in this house.’
I studied one of the drips of flung soup in front of me. A skin was beginning to pucker the surface. Don’t ask me why, but I thought of Jesus, his wounds. The piercings in his palms, his feet. I thought of the Marys weeping for him on the hill. The whitewash was the white sun of Calvary, the white stone walls of Jerusalem. I leant forward and I began to lick. I followed the line of one drip with my full tongue, lapping at the wall, tasting camphor and dust. But I didn’t care. I didn’t stop until Dad peeled me away, saw the look in my eyes and for one moment he matched it, a look of wonder and astonished love. Then he felt all the defiance of it like a wave and he lunged for me.
‘You fucking wee heathen bastard. Catch him, Angus.’
I darted round the room, high on my evil transcendent octane, slipping out of his hands like Thetis, the Nereid. I was born of the sea, as intangible as salt, and each time he caught me, I was an animal, a snake around his legs, a cheetah at his shoulders, a hummingbird about his arms, and I broke free. No mortal would entrap me. I opened the door and I ran fleet-footed out along the river bank, my bare legs thrashing, and I tore into the flooded meadow, my pace slowed by the water now, the ground mushy, but I splashed and scrambled until I reached the garden statue and I climbed up it and clung on for dear life, my arms around its cold stone form.
I give my great thanks to Cherry Smyth for the honor she bestowed on my blog by allowing me to post this story. It is under copyright to her and is her exclusive property.