March 1 to April 21
A Short Story by
Today I am very proud that Sarah Clancy has given me permission to share a second of her stories with my readers.
You can read her wonderful short story "Hold the Front Page" here
You can read her wonderful short story "Hold the Front Page" here
Sarah Clancy has been shortlisted for several poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition and the Patrick Kavanagh Award. Her first book of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and a further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her second collection of poetry 'Thanks for Nothing, Hippies' Salmon Poetry 2012 was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature last year and has been very well received Her poems have been published in The Moth Magazine, The Stinging Fly,Revival Poetry Journal, The Stony Thursday Book, The Poetry Bus, Irish Left Review and have been translated and published in Mexico and Slovenia. She was the runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series 2010 and 2011, and was the winner of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam 2011.She was an invited guest at the 2011 Vilenica Festival of Literature in Slovenia and at the Cork Spring Poetry Festival and in Spring 2012 her poem “I Crept Out” received second prize in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition.
(©Sarah Clancy 2012. This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published online or in print without the permission of the author.)
©Sarah Clancy 2012.
She spat a mix of tomatoes and masticated white bread on to the footpath and put her hand up to her mouth half choking half laughing as passers- by gave the pair a wide berth. He zipped up his fly with a satisfied gleeful grin. There was a blush of red on both of their faces; whether from the wine or the prank you couldn’t say from where I was sitting. Ridiculous that’s what I thought.
The tableside cafe was nondescript, neither swanky nor cheap but like others in Ljubljana it profited from its priceless riverside location. People ate and drank here alright but mostly they came to people-watch and were equalled in numbers by those who were there to watch them back. A middle aged man wearing a Tito T-shirt walked past handing out cheap looking black and white fliers, probably recruiting for some non-existent revolution. Slovenia had done very nicely out of communism thanks, and now it was decked out in consumer cafe-culture regalia, profiting in turn from the countries wholehearted swing towards capitalism. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose I thought to myself. Plenty of hints of where the tiny country’s prosperity came from could be spotted by any sharp-eyed observer in the multiplicity of banking logos that held court on everything from billboards to sun umbrellas. He wouldn’t be getting his revolutionaries on this street at least.
The couple had quietened now though they still erupted in laughter every so often. The man had straightened his tie and buttoned his suit jacket up again and the woman far from spewing her food on the street now had her legs crossed and was daintily holding a wine glass in one hand. They were definitely drunk though. Just moments ago, the man had pushed his chair back from the table and sat facing the street in that very male legs-spread pose, with his jacket open and with a deep red and fleshy Italian sausage at least eight inches long, protruding from his open flies. His suit was a wide- boy pale cream number and so the sausage was clearly displayed against the slightly pleated pale background of the crotch area.
I had been there since they sat down and though the pair clearly found their own antics hilarious, none of the people passing had noticed or if they had, they had remained disdainful enough not to give any sign of having seen the fleshy protrusion. Not to be daunted, the man had summonsed a waitress over in loud English and ordered two more glasses of wine, all the while promoting the sausage’s presence by looking down at it and shifting his buttocks in the chair to force it upwards. The waitress, thin and young with creamy skin and wearing those ugly skin tight stonewashed jeans favoured in seemingly all the post communist countries raised her eyebrows with a weariness that usually takes decades longer to acquire and walked off without responding, whereupon our woman spat her half eaten mouthful of bruscetta on the ground.
It was the woman that I was there to keep an eye on; the man was just some suit she’d met on the conference circuit. Knowing my girl though, he could expect to receive a generously given blow job in some only half hidden corner of the convention centre later. His antics were clearly leading that direction. I could have told him that he needn’t have bothered trying so hard, it was a sure thing.
I swallowed my coffee, slightly queasy still from having been seriously out- drunk the night before. The official conference dinner had been on and so I’d been satisfied that whatever my girl got up to, they would be restricted to the convention centre and its hotel grounds and I didn’t think she was in any danger at all at this early stage of proceedings.
Granting myself a rare night off I had gone out on a bit of a bar hop and ended up drinking toasts to Ratko Mladić in a bar with a bunch of Serbs. My current affairs knowledge was shaky about these parts but I was fairly sure that somewhere in my brain I knew Mladić was one of the bad guys. That hadn’t deterred me though, from drinking with them. I put sunglasses on against the glaring daylight, reassuring myself that here in this city everyone from children to grandmothers wear them and as a result they wouldn’t make me look ridiculously like some half- wit private eye or security detail.
Sometimes in order to shadow people, you are better off to go on ahead of them and so I paid my bill and stepped from the indoor area of the cafe and turned right on to the street so that only my back was visible to the pair and I headed on across the bridge and across the plaza to the convention centre.
They must have got up immediately after me as I had only just installed myself on the 12th story open- air terrace when I saw the two like tiny miniatures coming across the plaza towards the building. The man was walking fairly normally but my girl appeared to be progressing in some sort of hopscotch manoeuvre. From above at least, it didn’t look at all elegant; she seemed to be advancing in rough fits and starts laughing. I winced on her behalf, slightly embarrassed. ‘God can she really be such an idiot? I wondered, exasperated. I pictured myself shooting them then, like some calm, composed sniper paid to rid the world of such embarrassments. I pointed one arm out and sighted along it as I imagined you would if you had such a task in mind then I gathered myself and put my hands in my pockets. I know I’d never harm a hair on her head, never. In fact the only reason I’m here, and have been in all those other places, is because I know first-hand that she’s the type of girl that comes to harm.
I’ve been with her in bars like the one I was in last night and to be honest the way she came on to malevolent looking bruisers of men, the flotsam from Europe’s recent wars both elated and scared me. No doubt she could have got me into many a tight corner, me who's never as much as thrown a punch in my life. Whenever it got dodgy we’d leave and she’d jaunt down the pavement exhilarated. I often challenged her in that sort of excitement inducing pulse-raising way we risk the things most precious to us; ‘go on then, go with your cavemen, your bruisers’ I'd dare her but no, she’d raise some temperatures and we’d beat a hasty retreat and she’d link me as she half-danced down whatever dingy street we were on saying; ‘nope no cavemen, I like suits, I like my men in suits'.
Oh she wouldn’t agree with me about putting herself in danger but I know, for example, I could easily have strangled her within 10 minutes of us meeting. I’d been at that conference in Bonn and bored senseless, I gave a presentation I could have done in my sleep to a group of after lunch delegates who actually were asleep for the most part, except for our girl at the back, who kept catching my eye. As my allotted twenty minutes ticked down like the slowest most turgid bomb charge in the world she sat at the back and opened her blouse button by button so that every time I looked up I saw slightly more of her exposed flesh; neck, collarbone, the curve of her small breast , the darker rippled flesh of her aureoles and finally the nipples, then she just sat there staring at me and I had to concentrate hard to not inadvertently come out with one of those words whilst I went through my talk like an automaton.
I am generally a little over cautious about making certain my advances are wanted before approaching any woman, especially since that business with the student, but in fairness as invitations go that one was pretty explicitly delivered, so I knew when I saw her in the corridor afterwards that she didn’t want to ask me about the finer points of Drupal. Anyway she probably knew more than I ever would about it, she was the bee’s knees of the IT conference circuit just then and though I didn’t know it I was on the cusp of becoming one of its Bebo-like throwbacks. For example I still remember when the Palm Pilot was the hot tip and in fact I’d lost my company a pretty penny getting user’s handbooks commissioned when in fact it turned out that the army of users I’d confidently predicted never materialised and the devices became curiosities, languishing like my nieces’ old Pac-Man console, chucked in a box room somewhere gathering dust.
That day in the corridor I turned her way slightly, and made as if to keep walking and she caught my wrist in her hand. I swung back and allowed the others to pass us as they went like lemmings to a cliff towards the coffee area. Beasts with one mind conference delegates are- they get so used to being instructed on their every move that they develop a group mentality that leads them to the coffee area whenever they are in doubt about what comes next in the programme. Our girl pulled me back into the lecture theatre though and in through the door of the projection room. Without really speaking to me she pressed me back against the wall and I was a passenger then doing whatever she wanted for a delicious out of control ten or so minutes. And can I tell you? I didn’t have to sit in public a riverside cafe with a lardy sausage sticking out my flies. No. All I had to do was not object.
After that I slept with her in seven different countries; it came to a point where I checked speaker’s panels in advance and then made the case to our department heads on why it was necessary for me to attend each one. The most exotic trip was to Vietnam where she turned up late and the only thing that was blown to anyone’s satisfaction was my department’s budget. After her talk there she’d vanished, and I lost track of her and went stumbling through the weekend in a torment, an almost physical pain that hurt all the more because I knew it was ridiculous, a midlife mad swoop back to lust and youth. ‘I’m not for keeps, I’m not for keeps’ she’d breathed down at me as I lay on the bed that first night we’d shared a room back at the Madrid Expo.
In Vietnam I only finally caught up with her in the departure lounge of the airport as we waited to board the plane. I wanted to ask her, you know if we were finished, but I couldn’t and I knew no way to do it without flashing my utter desperation at her so instead I pulled her to me and wordlessly led her to the disabled bathrooms. Though this time I ignored the slight reluctance I felt from her, it seared through me and left me feeling winded so that in the quiet sterility of the cubicle all I could do was stand there and look at her. She seemed unnerved and I saw the decision land on her features before she bent to open my flies in a workmanlike fashion. I’d like to tell you I stopped her, that her lack of excitement showed me that she was only doing it to please me and that I was a bigger man than that. I didn’t though, and it hurt and soared as only desolated gratification can.
She left the cubicle and I sat on the toilet lid with my head on my hands until the flight was called. I sang a mantra to myself, a lament, the whole plane journey home; easy come easy go easy come easy go easy come easy go. It wasn’t easy though and honestly, immediately afterwards I let things slip. I don’t regret it now mind, it was a roundabout way to help me find my real purpose on this earth however hard you may find that to believe. And if I wouldn’t willingly live through that year again then so be it, it’s over and I’m here.
It was no surprise at all to me that when the cutbacks were announced that I was one of the first wave of people let go, I mean my department had been running over budget for three years and really after Vietnam I was just about going through the motions at work and at home. My wife stood by me pretty well, she was never really anything but consistent and in fact given that she was, no still is I suppose, one of the leading employment law specialists in our city the settlement I received was in the realm of a golden handshake. I have to confess that I do get the odd pang when I think of her hand on mine over an uneaten, overpriced celebratory dinner in Davitt’s directly after the meeting with the human resources department. She reassured me that I should look on it as a fresh start not an ending. Even if she was considerably less generous when we split up a few months later I felt it unfair to contest her and in any case knew it would be futile given her courtroom networks. I let her have the house and the car and even the savings accounts- to be honest I don’t need either of them anymore.
Now I spend most of my time travelling but this time it’s at my own expense. My golden handshake has dwindled quite a lot over the last year; it’s surprising how quickly money evaporates when you have to foot your own bills isn’t it? I travel on the cheap now though and I don’t really worry about how I will cope when my money is finally gone. Honestly I am too busy to worry about it; our girl has become something of a celebrity ever since she predicted the whole handheld device trend.
I know what this looks like, what you are thinking but you are wrong, it’s not that, I’m no jealous ex- lover who just won’t give up. No, I struggled for a while with jealousy I won’t tell you I didn’t, but really, when you observe someone like our girl for long enough it begins to crystallise in one’s mind that the men, ‘the suits’ are interchangeable. She swaps one for the other without blinking and she does it with a commendable lack of trauma for all involved. You can be sure that I’m not the only one or one in twenty or even one in a hundred that she has sung that ecstatic refrain of ‘I’m not for keeps, I’m not for keeps' to. She has rules and it seems to me that she follows them. If I’ve learned anything about human nature though, contrary to common belief it is men who can’t cope with casual sex, not women.
Well I suppose what I mean is that we can cope just fine so long as it’s us who are casual about it and us who get to explain to our accomplices how we don’t like being tied down. When the shoe is on the other foot though, let me tell you it could drive us to anything; murder, suicide, alcoholism anything and that’s for sure. That’s why I’m here in fact, during the break up and immediately after losing my job I became certain that our girl is going to get herself killed. I know men and I don’t mean it will be one of the bits of rough flesh she taunts out and about in the bars. It will in the typical cliché be one of the quiet ones. That’s why I am here, actually that’s why I’ve been everywhere in fact I have no plan now other than that I will watch for the danger and if it is humanly possible I will prevent it.
Here in Slovenia though I can afford to be a little relaxed, this is only her second time with this particular man so he's probably still swooning on the very thought and pulse of her- like I was, like they all were. I saw it start back in Berlin, in fact I was a little nauseated when I saw her pull this guy right in between the austere concrete slabs of the holocaust memorial and lie him down then and there. I lurked on Hannah Arendt Street until they emerged and debated whether I would have participated in that particular desecration. I would have, but don’t judge me, any of us would.
I can hear the applause now from the conference room below and the late afternoon sun is starting to prick at my scalp where my hairline is. I consult my conference programme and debate whether or not I can afford to head across the plaza to my two star hotel and take a sleep. My girl is due to speak at five; it's the main lecture of the evening and in fact I can see the media already gathering below. They are expecting an announcement and she won't disappoint them. She takes her work seriously our girl - I have to tell you that; she’s not the darling of this industry because of her blow jobs, not by a long shot. She always heads for her room an hour or two before speaking, to prepare and to freshen up; what was it they said? Know your prey? Yes, I know her. I tell myself that I can count myself off duty when I see her cross the road to the convention centre hotel's marble front and so I make my way down in the dark elevator and clutch for my sunglasses as the glare of the sharp evening sun hits my eyes and I step onto the road yawning widely.
The news bulletin flashes onto the huge flat TV screens in the conference centre lobby surprisingly quickly after the crash. Most of the conference attendees ignore it watching instead the excitement of the press conference that's just cranking up in the reception area. A couple of the older delegates, the ones heading for the bar, look up and see the scroll rolling across the screen beneath the newsreader. They catch sight of the name of their conference; ‘Emerson Handheld World’ and like people everywhere always do as if compelled; they pause to see if they are going to appear on the telly. They just catch the end of the segment as a still of the conference centre is replaced by a live shot of an ambulance and traffic on the street at the edge of the plaza. The newsreader says; ‘according to the organisers the dead man was not a registered attendee at the conference’. The bulletin moved along quickly to a piece about Poland’s membership of NATO and the old-hand delegates headed on through the swinging glass doors to the bar.
I offer my thanks to Sarah Clancy for allowing me to publish this on The Reading Life. I hope she becomes a frequent contributor to my blog.