Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Up At The Lake" - a short story by Siobhán Mannion

March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
a short story by
Siobhán Mannion


Siobhán Mannion was born in Ireland and grew up in Cambridge, England. Her family is from Clifden, Co. Galway.  

In 2011, she won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award, and last year her play ‘The Big Picture’ took the World Bronze Medal for Best Writing at the New York Festivals International Radio Awards.

Her short fiction has been published in Ireland and abroad, and she is one of 28 Irish writers included in ‘Silver Threads of Hope’, an anthology of stories edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in aid of Console.

Siobhán is currently working on a debut collection of stories, and lives in Dublin where she works as a radio producer in RTÉ.

If you would like to listen to ‘The Big Picture’ short form drama, you can find it here:


Mark squints in the late afternoon light, and when Tina comes back outside he wonders how long it has been since he was alone with his ex-wife.
“That was Bill on the phone,” she says.  “The road’s closed.  There was some kind of accident.  But he doesn’t think anyone was hurt.”  
“Is Marion okay?” says Mark.
“I’m sure she’s fine.  They weren’t anywhere near it.  She’s probably just driving him crazy with all her questions.”
Tina stirs a jug of lemonade with the handle of a fork, the metal jangling against the inside.  “Are you hungry?  Can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m fine,” he says.
She sits down, pours them each a tumbler and takes a long drink.  Then she sets down the glass, pulls up the strap of her top and looks at her watch again.
“They were only supposed to be gone an hour.  I’m sorry about this.”
“Relax, Tina.  I’m sure they’ll be back soon.”
“I know.  You’re right,” she says.  “Bill was calling from a restaurant.  At least Marion won’t be hungry when she arrives.”
“Good old Bill,” Mark says.
“Please, Mark,” she says.  “Don’t start.”  
Tina picks up a knife and begins to slice the tops off strawberries, dropping the cut fruit into a large ceramic bowl.  The air is thick with heat.  Mark leans forward to shake the back of his shirt from his skin.  Then he takes off his sandals and lifts a bare foot up onto an adjacent seat.  
“I’d forgotten what a suntrap it is up here,” he says, sitting back again.  “So, how big is this party you’re off to?”
“Just the family and a few of Bill’s parents’ friends.  But that’s big enough, I suppose.”
“I hope they like fruit salad.”  He lets his head fall to the side and smiles at her.  She is frowning into her work.  “Which anniversary is it?”
“Their fortieth.”
“Oh, yeah?”  He struggles to think of what to say next.  “Do you know them well?”
Tina glances at him.  “I know them.  They’re nice.  Anyway, tell me about you.  How are things with you?”
“Good.  Things are good.”  
Mark straightens and drinks half his lemonade in one go.  Then he picks two cut strawberries from the bowl, drops one into his own glass and fires the other into hers. It splashes and bobs back up to the surface.  Tina laughs.  Mark presses his heel into the ground, wanting to reach out and touch her arm.  She wipes her fruit-stained fingers on a tea-towel and pushes her hair away from her face.
“Marion can’t wait to see you,” she says.  “She’s talked about nothing else for days.”    
“It’s not like I don’t see her.”  
“You know what I mean.”  
“How does she feel about school starting again?” he says.
“I don’t think she minds.  I’m sure she’ll be happy to see her friends.  I think it gets a bit lonely for her up here sometimes.”
Mark nods, closes his eyes and inhales the scent of the strawberries that are dropping into the bowl with soft thuds.  The trees leading down to the lake swish in the occasional breeze.  “Have you been swimming much this year?” he asks.
“A few times.  Off the boat rather than from the shore.  Marion doesn’t like the feel of the reeds under her feet.”
“Do you remember the first time we went out?”
Tina pauses.  “That’s a long time ago, Mark.”
“Not that long, if you think about it.”
She doesn’t say anything more.  When she is finished her task, she slides the strawberry tops into her open palm and disappears inside.  He hears the running tap and after, the sound of things knocking together in the sink.

While Tina moves around the kitchen, Mark goes into the lounge to retrieve his bag.  After the bright sunshine of the terrace, the room is dark, everything blurred.  He flips through a shelf of records and runs his finger down a tall stack of movies on videotape, his eyes focusing when he comes to Leave Her To Heaven, Mildred Pierce and Now, Voyager, a birthday gift he had given Tina himself.  Alphabetical order, he thinks, and smiles.
“Give me a shout if you want a hand in there,” he calls out.  
“I’m fine,” Tina calls back.  
When he pokes his head through the kitchen doorway, she has her back to him, rinsing a chopping board at the sink.  She doesn’t see him until she walks over to the coffee machine.  
“Want some?” she says.
“No, thanks.”  
“I’ll set it up for you for the morning.  And the room is ready, if you want to bring your bag up.”  
“There’s no rush.”  He leaves his bag down on the floor.  An almost full bottle of red wine sits on the counter and he nods towards it.  
“Want some?” he says, and she laughs.
“Help yourself,” she says.
Mark takes two glasses from the cabinet.    
“None for me, thanks.”  
He shrugs, pulls out the cork and pours a glass for himself.  
“Bill might want me to drive later,” she adds.
“Thanks for the house,” he says after taking a long sip.
“Well, it made sense.”
He keeps looking at her until she makes eye contact.  She gives him a polite smile, and reaches for the empty wineglass.  
“You’re welcome,” she says, tidying the glass away.  “Why don’t you take that outside and enjoy the rest of the day?”

Back in the hall, Mark notices a photograph on the opposite wall; Tina and Marion at the end of the boat, squinting into the lens.  Light leaps off the lake around them.  Tina’s swimsuit straps are tucked under her arms, and the dark material hugs her low across the breasts.  His daughter’s hair has been cut short around her face.  Mark stares at the image, swallows more wine and re-enters the kitchen.  Tina is making a list at the table.  
“I’m leaving our numbers for you.  For the hotel and for Bill’s parents’ place.  Just in case.”  She says all of this without looking up.  He presses a hand against the door frame and feels it push back against him.  Then he grabs the wine bottle by the neck and carries it away.

Out on the back step, he follows the swoop of the birds overhead.  The breeze spins a few stray leaves and some yellow flowers nod in their pots at the patio’s edge.  When Tina comes out, she stands beside him, dishcloth in hand.
“I’ve left some pasta for you guys in the fridge.”
“It’s hard to believe she’s almost ten,” he says.
“I know.  It really is.”
Mark turns to Tina.  “Do you remember how the lights cut out the night we brought her home?”
Tina smiles.  “She had her first feeds by candlelight.”  
“There’s still a mark down the back of the couch where I knocked a candle.”
“Is there?”  Tina says this quietly, like she hasn’t said it at all.
“Uh, huh.  I showed it to her the last time she stayed.”
“Really?”  Tina checks her watch again.  “Well, I guess I’d better get back to it in here,” she says.  “Do you want a newspaper or anything?”
“No, I’m fine.  I don’t need anything,” he replies.

While Tina is inside, Mark refills his glass and wonders when his daughter will arrive.  He leans back, feeling drowsy in the heat.  At the slap of Tina’s flip-flops, he sits up straight, pressing his shoulders into the seat.
“Well, we got this place right, at least.  It’s beautiful here,” he says.
“Especially when we get the weather for it,” she replies, perching on a chair, hugging her knees.
“Why don’t we take the boat out for a while?”
She looks at him, surprised.  “I don’t think so, Mark.”
“Why not?”
“Well, I’ve a lot to do.  And they could be back any minute.”  She unfurls herself and stands up.
“So, nothing.  I just want to be ready to leave when Bill gets home.”  She pauses.  “But you go ahead, if you like.”
Mark turns away.  Light glances off the lake between the trees.  He takes another sip of his drink.  
“I’ll bring Marion out tomorrow.”
“You should.  She’ll love that.  Of course, she’ll want to do everything herself.  Just to warn you.”
“You don’t need to warn me, Tina.”
“Right,” she says softly, leaning in to pick up their lemonade glasses.  “I’m going to get changed,” she says.
“Leave those.  I can do it.”
“It’s fine.”
Leave it, I said.”
“Okay,” she says, sighing, backing away.
When she is gone, he picks up the fork and stabs at the fruit in the tumbler that is nearest.  Its flesh tears, shiny red pieces caught in the tines.
“Just walking around like every thing’s fine,” he mutters.

There is still heat in the day, the warm air hard to suck in.  When the bedroom window opens above him, Mark listens.  After a moment, the sound of the shower begins.  A bird’s caw pulls him back to the lake.  One more drink and he won’t be able to swim, he thinks, emptying the bottle and setting it down at his feet.  Sudden light moves across the terrace and he gets up and wanders after it.

On the short journey down to the lake, he veers against the slope of the ground, trying to remember why they never laid any steps.  Under the shade of the trees, there is some relief from the heat.  He steadies himself grabbing at branches, small stones bouncing ahead.  In the soft air, he can smell the earth and the leaves.  When he arrives at the shore, he watches the wind skip over the water, making creases.  The rowboat lifts and fights its rope, tied to a skinny tree.  
Mark spots the pile of rubber sandals inside the boat and hesitates before reaching for the biggest.  He bends to put them on, tightening the straps hard against his skin.  Wading through the reeds, he unties the rope and drags the boat with him.  The water is warmer than he had imagined, but then the bottom drops away, and he finds himself waist-deep in it, shorts drenched.  He swims back a little, pulling the boat, and, in the shallows, climbs in.
The hard brightness of the day has begun to fade, the surface of the lake dull between glittering streaks. He pulls hard on the oars, concentrating on each dip and whoosh, moving at a steady pace.  When sunlight hits his eyes, the world falls away.  He releases his grip, slipping down between the seats, bending his body into the narrow space.  For a time, the boat rocks and drifts.
Head back, he takes in the sky, studies the clouds.  “Don’t let’s ask for the moon,” he says out loud.  The rubber sandals squeak under his toes and he unbuckles one of them, looping a finger around its back.  When he pulls it off, it flies overboard into a deep splash.
“Shit,” he says, and laughs.  

Mark floats until dusk descends and the bugs come out.  With every scratch of his head, the lake slaps at the boat.  When Tina appears at the bedroom window, his heart jumps.  He watches her reaching to pin her hair up.  One summer night, he had set up the record player beside their bed.  For a long time they swayed at the open window, until he pulled his wife down onto the carpet, both of them giggling before they went quiet.
“Ti-na!” he calls, bringing himself to standing.  One foot dips lower than the other and the boat lists, pitching him into the cold of the lake.  In the sudden swirl, his body tries to right itself.  Mark lets himself go limp, blinking hard until the patches of greenish light are above him.  And then he breaks through the surface, coughing, fire in his nose and throat.
The boat is behind him and he lurches towards it, still spluttering.  With every stroke it seems to move away, but finally he grabs it.  He treads water, one arm out like a wing, breath juddering.  Tina calls to him from the terrace and he laughs.  His head drops under the water, stopping her voice.  When he propels himself back up, she is almost at the shore.  Her short black dress sparkles as she picks her way over the stones, one hand clutched to her middle.
“Hey, you,” he calls.  
Tina stops and shakes her head.  “You scared me, Mark.”
“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to,” he says, near her now, dragging the boat.
“Exactly when are you going to grow up?”  She turns and begins the climb towards the house.  Now and then she catches at a branch, keeping one hand low on her back.  When she pauses, he hears the telephone ring.  He glances at the house and when he looks back at her he knows.  His insides go loose, falling.
“Tina, wait!” he yells.

By the time he secures the boat and clambers out of the water, the day has drained away.  Beyond the trees, the terrace lights up making everything else look dark.  He sees Tina approaching with a towel, and watches, shivering, as she retraces her journey back.
Mark unbuttons his shirt, fingers struggling, and shakes himself free.  Tina looks away when he unzips his shorts and lets them drop around his ankles.  He takes the towel from her before peeling off his underwear, kicking it away.  Finally he sits on the stones, the towel like a skirt around him, head down.
“Are you okay?” Tina says.  “Did you hurt yourself?”
“Does Marion know?”  Mark asks.  When Tina is silent he wonders whether she has heard him.  He breathes in slowly and feels a trickle of water running down his neck.
“Not yet.  It’s a bit early to be telling anyone just yet,” Tina says.
Mark shuts his eyes and lets out his breath.

Alone by the lake, his head on his knees, Mark waits for the air to dry him.  He listens carefully to each sound, the breeze spinning the world around him.  His fingers claw at the earth, filling his nails with dirt.  And then her hand is on him, on his shoulder, and he covers it with his own.    
Her hand still in place, she kneels behind him.  She wraps her free arm around his chest, and rests her face against his back.  He inhales the scent of nail polish, and notices the grit caught in the silver on her thumb.  The cool evening air seeks out his wet skin.  Tina’s hold is tight and something in the material of her dress scratches him.  
Not yet, he thinks, not yet.
“Come on, Mark.  Come back inside.”  He feels her voice vibrating against him.  She leans in a little further and Mark follows the shadow they make on the ground.  For a brief moment everything is still, eerily quiet, until the trees sigh and pick up their rustling again.  “Bill called.  They’ve opened the road,” Tina says softly, gently pulling away.


I give my great thanks to Siobhán Mannion for allowing me to publish this very perceptive and wonderful story.

"Up At The Lake" is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.

Mel u

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