A Wide Ranging Q and A Session with Jaki McCarrick
Today I’m very happy and honoured to present to my readers a short story by Jaki MCarrick, “Night of the Frogs”. I posted upon her wonderful debut collection of short stories, The Scattering in March of 2013 during Irish Short Story Month III. Since then I have followed her work closely.
From my post on The Scattering
The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick is an amazing body of work, with shimmering incredibly entertaining stories that go deep into the heart of many of the issues facing contemporary Ireland. This book deserves tremendous success and a very wide readership.
It both confirms and rises above the common elements of the Irish short story: the weak or missing father, the presence of the stage Irishmen, the uneasiness of the relationships of men and women, the heavy reliance on alcohol, the temptation toward arrogance as a way of dealing with the humiliating consequences of colonialism, the obsession with death, and the false rebellions of posers of all sorts.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. She won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Prize for her play LEOPOLDVILLE, and her play BELFAST GIRLS, developed at the National Theatre London, was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. BELFAST GIRLS premiered in Chicago in May 2015 to much critical acclaim (Windy City Times Critics’ Pick) and has since had numerous international productions. The play opens in Australia in May 2018. Reviews: http://www.samuelfrench.co.uk/p/58614/belfast-girls
Jaki has also recently been selected for the Irish Film Board’s Talent Development Initiative to adapt BELFAST GIRLS for the screen.
Her play BOHEMIANS was read at RADA on January 18th 2017, starring Imogen Stubbs and Rob Jarvis, and is due to be staged in 2019. Another new play is soon to receive its world premiere in New York. In 2016 Jaki was shortlisted for the St. John’s College, Cambridge’s Harper-Wood Studentship for her short play TUSSY, about Eleanor Marx, a piece she is currently developing for Kibo Productions.
Jaki won the 2010 Wasafiri prize for short fiction and followed this with the publication of her debut story collection, THE SCATTERING, published by Seren Books. The book was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Formerly longlisted for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, Jaki is currently editing her first novel and a second collection of short stories (provisionally entitled NIGHT OF THE FROGS) which will include the Pushcart Prize-nominated story, Fogarty.
She has held numerous residencies including Writer-in-Residence at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris & also regularly writes arts pieces for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), The Irish Examiner and other publications.
Night of the Frogs
‘Myra Hindley, the notorious child murderer, has this evening died of respiratory failure,’ the presenter says. The news fills Mother and I with happiness, but it is also deeply and unexpectedly sad, because of Alfie, my twin.
Later, I escape Mother’s persistent sobbing by going for a walk to the docks. I walk along the back of the town, on the new path along the Ramparts River. The November evening is grey and misty and there are puddles of rain all over the roads. I stop off at Mullens’ Takeaway and buy a bag of chips, eat them outside on the street, save a few for the swans. I’ve discovered that the swans have a penchant for Mullens’ chips and it makes me smile when I think of this secret I have about them. I walk on, through Seatown. En route, I see numerous yellow-green frogs on the ground, some alive, some dead. I kick at one and it thrashes about in the wet and leaps off. I wonder if perhaps it has rained frogs as there are so many. I wonder if perhaps the frogs are some kind of sign.
When I get to the harbour, I see that it is unusually full of boats. In the middle of a long row of vessels is a cargo ship I’ve not seen before. The ship’s name, Boisterous, reflects onto the dark water, each letter fractured slightly by the current. Its cargo lies scattered in crates on the pier yet there is no sign of anyone on board. I move closer, inch over the yellow strip on the rim of the pier. There are lights on inside but no sound. To the right are three fishing trawlers, festooned in red and pewter-coloured lobster cages. These are familiar to me, and I imagine their owners in the nearby Wine Merchants’ bar, warming their hands by the fire, enjoying a drink.
I turn to see three figures outside the bar. I wonder if they’ve something to do with the scattered crates. The three are talking, animatedly. I try to listen but can’t make out what they’re saying. They speak at turns in Polish – which I recognize because of Theodore - and in another language, Russian, perhaps. One of the three is short, around Alfie’s height, a child perhaps, and another seems familiar to me, but I can’t be sure who it is in the darkness. As I study this figure, a truck, blaring Elvis, screeches into the yard. It turns by the end of the pier and stops dead outside the tannery. A man jumps out of the truck, walks towards the group. Again there are sentences I do not understand thrust loudly into the air.
Turning from this scene, I look out at the harbour. The moon is a scythe in the charcoal sky, around it a grey corona. The dim light permits no view of the mountains towards the border, allows for an outline only, a sense of there being a buttress, an end-point to the town. This quality of boundary is something I like. It makes me feel safe in a way the open moors of Saddleworth did not.
As my eyes adjust to the shadowy light, I see that further out the swans are grouped together in the centre of the river, on the long marshy island where they nest. They make no attempt to come to me. I always look forward to feeding the swans when I come to the docks but now there’s no room for them on the crowded pier, and the sadness with which I’d left the house begins to rise up again within me. I shake the cold chips into the water, watch them float out to sea. Suddenly, I see her face in my mind, smiling down from the driver’s seat at Alfie and me. I shake the image free, take a deep breath. I turn to leave the harbour but tread carefully, watching for loose grain on the pier. Within a few paces, my shoe loosens and I stop to clasp the catch. The newly prescribed shoe has been giving me corns and these put pressure on my foot when I walk. Hunkered down, I hear a cry and turn to see the three figures running after the truck as it speeds from the docks. When it’s quiet I shake grain from my trousers, walk slowly towards the bar. As I approach, I see a man on the ground. Closer, an ink-dark pool with steam rising from it. I touch the stricken man’s face: still, rubbery, cold. As I reach for the shiny object that lies beside him, the door of the Wine Merchants opens. I look up at the horrified face of the owner, Marcus Brown.
It has long been Marcus Brown’s dream to transform the docklands area of the town into a sort of Left Bank district. He’s been featured in many local newspapers stating as much, punches it out like a mantra whenever I’ve been in his bar. Says he has his eye on the tannery next door and plans to turn it into a restaurant. Therefore, I quickly grasp that the horror I see in Marcus’s eyes is due not only to the sight of the bloody corpse - and the knife in my hands – but also to the impact this situation may have on his dream. I know what the publican will ask me to do.
Theodore and I both check delivery paperwork in the former GNR Customs Clearance Depot, which was established during Partition and is now a distribution point for goods arriving from the northeastern ports. The depot sidings are a colourful, shrub-filled place where foxes roam freely, often in daylight. Behind the depot are fields, several brooks, large detached houses. Whitethorn spills from the fields to the tracks in May. In summer, the line is bordered by honeysuckle, fuchsia, montbretia. Outside, along the Ardee Road, are a couple of factories, a petrol station, a few new bungalows, a row of redbrick houses - one of which is home to Mother and I.
Theodore is a tall, elegant, slightly pocked-face man of forty. He’s popular at work, and often takes it upon himself to single-handedly check the contents of the crates that come in from the docks. He makes jokes, and once pulled a piece of Polish coal from a crate and ate it, ‘to warm my heart in a cold country,’ he had said. He boasts of a training at Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre in Krakow, and claims a degree in Classical Studies from the University Of Gdansk, though he himself hails from the banks of the Vistula, near Torún – which is the home of gingerbread, Theodore says, and Copernicus. But despite his upbeat and chatty disposition, in repose, Theodore often seems sad. It has occurred to me that perhaps he regrets coming to Ireland, where he’s found little opportunity to implement the peculiar-sounding stage practices he describes to me so passionately. ‘When I’ve saved enough money,’ Theodore says, ‘I will start the Poor Theatre right here in this town.’
The stationmaster seems not to like Theodore, however, and is dismissive of the Polish man’s humour, his clever banter, practical jokes. A burly, ashen-faced man, who likes to start each working day with a single shot of rum alone at his desk, the stationmaster is married to my cousin Arlene (who was responsible for putting me forward for the job of clerk once I’d left St. John of Gods) and, despite his controlled alcoholism, he’s a real jobsworth. Arlene often brings her husband his lunch - then stops by my and Theodore’s office to chat. She seems always to enjoy her cultured exchanges with Theodore. Sometimes, I sit in the half-gloom of the shed-like workspace he and I share and think myself the luckiest man alive to have found such a job, be in such company, partake in such good conversation. Arlene, like me, is one of the Manchester Quinlans. After many years in the North of England the Quinlans moved back to Ireland, to the same border town in which my and Arlene’s fathers were reared. Sometimes, when we are alone, we talk about Manchester, and I detect a slight tension between us, as if she blames me, or what happened to Alfie at least, for having changed the course of her life. Though, in truth, what happened to Alfie changed all the Quinlans’ lives.
A few weeks after the incident outside the Wine Merchants bar, the body of a man is found on the swan islet in the river, tangled up in samphire and bulrushes, as is the suspected murder weapon, on which, eventually, are also found my fingerprints. I am called in by the Guards to ‘help with their enquiries’. I help with their enquiries for around nine hours. When the Garda asks why I’d picked up the knife, ‘I don’t know,’ is all I can muster, because it’s the truth. At the time, memories of Saddleworth had flooded my mind. The lack of closure; all the years of not knowing, for certain, what had happened to my brother had pulled me towards that shiny object like a magnet. I recount my movements that night, all of which I remember clearly because it is the night of Hindley’s death – and the awful night of the frogs. I should not have picked up the knife, I know that. And I tell the Garda as much. The murdered man, the police inform me, had been repeatedly stabbed, and I - though it seems ridiculous given my physical weakness and placid nature - am their only suspect. Eventually, I am released. This is because, during my questioning, Marcus Brown takes it upon himself to walk into the station and inform the Guards that he moved the body - because he had not wanted it discovered on the doorstep of his pub. ‘There would have been too much negative publicity,’ he says. Marcus confirms he asked me to help and I had obliged. He apologies for his stupidity, explains how we moved the man with great care, reverence almost, over to the islet. The publican is conceited enough to think I helped him move the dead man in order to protect him. When I am let go from the station it is impressed upon me just what a serious offence it is to move a body from a crime scene. It’s not as if I don’t know this.
On the Sunday after my questioning, Theodore and I arrange to meet in a bar in town. I don’t tell him about my detainment. We discuss what we’ll do for Christmas and he reminisces about home, describes a city filled with Gothic architecture, surrounded by lakes and forests. ‘You must come with me one day to Torún, my friend,’ he says, and I beam. After a few pints of stout, we walk up the Dublin Road - to a visiting circus, at which we plan to spend the whole afternoon. Halfway there he stops. ‘You’re not yourself, Sean,’ Theodore says.
‘I’ve been thinking about my brother, Theodore, that’s all.’
‘How was your mother with the death of that woman?’
‘Never said much,’ I say.
‘You should not keep things all locked up, Sean. Let it out once in a while. The hidden things, they must surface. They will you know, whether you like it or not.’
We come then in sight of a row of red-and-white-striped tents pitched in a field. Cheery organ music fills the air. We carry on past the parked caravans, the stands selling toffee apples and candyfloss, a female tattooist, a tarot-card reader. Theodore holds my arm, guides me over the muddy path into the main marquee, towards the wooden benches in front. His touch is gentle and assured. (Sometimes, it seems to me that Theodore alone is able to break through the carapace of shyness I’ve managed to construct for myself since Alfie’s death.) A dwarf in clown’s make-up ushers us to our seats at the end of the bench. There is something familiar about the dwarf, his stance, tone. My heart sinks as I remember where I’ve seen him before. He and Theodore speak in another tongue, which I am almost sure is Russian. I look across the grassy circus floor and see my cousin Arlene waving and smiling, not at me but at a gushing Theodore.
Weeks pass, and I begin to notice how much Mother has brightened, as if Hindley's death has taken an enormous weight off her. I, on the other hand, have become far more morose. Everyone has commented on it: Theodore, the depot staff, the stationmaster, Arlene. And when the murdered man’s name is finally confirmed, it sends me deeper into my despair. I know that soon the truth will emerge. I hear the first intimation of this announced on the radio: The body of a man found recently in the Castletown River has been identified as Slavic Janecki, a Polish truck driver who had been living in the Seatown area of the town. On hearing this, I am unable to swallow my tea. My toast sticks in my gullet. I am just about able to make it to the bathroom to get sick. I hear Mother pace up and down outside, listening to me cry out to a boy who disappeared off the face of the planet forty years before.
When I had been in St. John Of Gods, recuperating from surgery on my foot, it was a lonely and bitter time. Unlike the other men in the ward, I received no visitors apart from Mother. I realised something in the four weeks I was there: I was becoming old, though in my mind I was still a boy. I considered that my life had barely moved on since the day our family had left England. I was stuck. In my memories of the moors, in a life that had barely got past childhood, and I felt suddenly annoyed with myself that I’d not made a greater effort to be in the world; to socialise, to forget. It racked me. After all, it was Alfie, and not me, who’d gotten into that car. Alfie had always been the healthy one. But he was always the one, too, to break the golden rule which Mother had drilled into each of us: don’t talk to strangers. I’d pleaded with him not to take the ride with the blonde lady with seagull eyes but Alfie hadn’t listened. Alfie was effervescent, believed in everyone and everything, while I was – and am still - cautious, overly ponderous, sensitive to the darkness in others. She had smiled at us, promised us sweets and a lift home in the front-seat from Friezland School across the stark yellow moors. Yet I knew, even at that age, that she was blackhearted, cold as hoarfrost. Still, it may as well have been me who had taken the ride for all I’d done with my days since. I resolved then to turn my life around - if only for Alfie’s sake. I promised myself (and my twin) that, henceforth, I would exit completely all my comfort zones. I would get out of the house more, find work, make friends. On my last day of physiotherapy, I walked the length of the male ward, stopped at the Thought For Today picture at the end of the corridor. The caption across the image of two young boys read:
To have a friend be a friend.
I realised in an instant that I’d been doing it all wrong.
By the time I return to work, the stationmaster has been fully informed of what had happened at the docks. I do not mention to him that there are likely to be repercussions for me - having interfered with a crime scene - nor that it was a risk I was willing to take in order to help a friend. For now, I wish to forget the whole bloody affair, return to the comfort of my daily routine at the depot, of feeling I belong. But the news of what appears to be my peripheral involvement in some kind of gangland activity on the harbour docks has traveled fast. It is news the men at the depot find too interesting to ignore. Wisecracks fly around my workplace. These are, or are versions of:
- You’re a dark horse, Sean Quinlan.
- Didn’t know you were thick with them kneecapping smuggling gangsters, Sean.
- Didn’t know they let handicaps in the Ra, Sean.
- What d’ya be doing at night be the docks with all them sailors anyways, Sean?
It occurs to me then that I have never been this popular. Though the Guards’ continued presence around the station (despite Marcus Brown’s explanations, there seems to be police on every street corner, sometimes parked right outside the depot) is unnerving: it might lose me my perfect job. And while I am haunted by the fact I’ve contributed to a delay in the trucker’s family knowing his fate, the fact of the matter is, I’ve pieced something together about that night on the docks and I cannot share it. Theodore is right, it is wrong to keep things locked up, but what can I do?
Arlene stands in the lane at the end of the sidings, by the old steam engine. From the window of the office I watch my cousin shake a stone from her shoe. As the stationmaster has gone home, I wonder why she waits outside in the wintry cold. I watch the petite buxom figure pace the stony pathway, her long hair loosened now to her waist. I notice how the silky locks catch and hold the light. I watch her break the branches of the faded honeysuckle, inhale what’s left of its perfume, then stop to stroke Blackie, the depot cat. A lapwing swoops down to the hedge and Blackie skulks into the undergrowth, ready to pounce. Arlene shoos the cat and so saves the bird. I watch Blackie turn his attention then to a yellow-green frog making its scissor-like jumps towards the roadside stream. I smile at this simple scene, my cousin engaging with the sidings’ wilderness - when Theodore emerges from one of the cargo sheds, walks towards her. I back away from the window. He turns, it seems to me, to see if he’s being watched. Arlene flings herself at Theodore, wraps her arms about him. He lifts her high into the air, causing the posy of honeysuckle to scatter onto their clothes and hair. They kiss. The sight of them like this shakes me. Though I am happy for them both, I am keenly aware of the danger they are placing themselves in. And I am jealous: Theodore is my friend, not Arlene’s. The jeopardy I have placed myself in has been all for him, all for our friendship. Has he not understood this?
Suddenly, the sound of sirens closes rapidly on the depot. I leave the office as quickly I can. In the courtyard I see two armed Guards race in through the entrance. They pounce on the couple, walk them forcibly out front. A Garda indicates to me to keep back. I watch as Theodore is handcuffed, stuffed into the back-seat of a squad car parked in the middle of the road, with Arlene bungled into another. I take a moment to breathe, get my bearings. I have feared this day might come ever since the night Myra Hindley died. But Theodore is my best friend, has dreams of making theatre in the town. Surely, I would have jeopardized those dreams had I let it be known that it was he who was the figure in the darkness that night, outside the Wine Merchants, he who had run from the scene towards the red truck? (I had long figured out that the child-like figure who’d spoken in two languages was the circus dwarf.)
As the squad cars speed off, I make a slow trek back to the office. I’ve been the best friend I could to Theodore and still I’ve lost him. The thought of this weighs heavy. The phone rings as I approach the door. I get to the desk, pick up the receiver. It is Mother. She’s at once talking and crying and yet sounds elated. ‘What is it?’ I say.
‘Are you sitting?’ she says. I want to blurt out all the events of the day, to tell her how tired I feel, that Cousin Arlene and my only friend in the world seem together to be involved in some kind of murderous scam, perhaps to do with smuggling, and that it is now likely the end of our friendship. I want to tell her how low I’ve sunk so as to protect him.
‘Yes Mother, I’m seated,’ I say, and sit down.
‘I’ve just received a call from the Greater Manchester Police,’ she says, ‘they’ve found him, Sean. They’ve found him at last.’ My wrist goes limp – it’s some kind of involuntary response. The receiver clatters to the desk. I hear Mother’s small and bristly voice continuing to explain that almost forty years after he’d gone missing, the remains of eight-year-old Alfie have been found on Saddleworth Moor. It is undeniably him. The bog has preserved items of clothing: the Friezland blazer, the grey flannel shorts, the black-rimmed spectacles. ‘Sean, Sean are you there?’ I hear her say, over and over. I pick up the phone, tell her I’ll be home soon. I sit dazedly, in silence, not fully feeling the cold of the room nor hearing the winds pick up in the fields outside. My thoughts swing from the moors - to the docks on the night of the frogs. I am aged eight and watching the white Mini-Traveller speed away with my brother inside – then I’m in a small boat with Marcus Brown bringing the trucker across the river to the swan’s nest. How white and peaceful he looks. The Polish trucker and Alfie: proof that eventually all things hidden will come to light, just as Theodore had said.
I offer my great thanks to Jaki McCarrick for allowing me to share this delightful story with my readers.
This story is the sole property of the author and is protected under international copyright laws.