Constanza Baeza Valdenegro – A young tennis player makes a decision

Constanza Baeza Valdenegro
A young tennis player makes a decision

The usual tennis rigour became incompatible with the hours of science and history at some point in his daily activities. A strict schedule controls every single moment in a tennis player’s day, and an abyss between his passion and school was rising in front of him. His grades weren’t poor but showed the figures of someone who was making early efforts in his life. Sometimes you could see him very concentrated on a book, but two hours later his desk was empty. The tennis hours started before the school duties ended. Nights were filled with homework and obsessive analysis of tennis videos, and he was dealing with the small pieces of free time in quiet resignation.
      Some of his classmates practised sports too, but none of them had reached his level of commitment. He played football and basketball in pursuit of infantile power, feeling strong and mighty with the idea of being good at many sports, but team experience wasn’t interesting and soon he went back to the solitary moments brought by the small yellow ball. His middle-class background made him question the road he was taking, but his parents never complained, and when they were told he had talent, they knew that they had to give everything to help their son chase his dreams. His poor federation and the neglected tennis courts of his country weren’t obstacles either. He used to think that all these things made him stronger and aware of the effort one makes in tennis.
      He saw many junior players falling to the pressure of tennis life. He heard many professional players saying how much they hated tennis. He saw promising players give up and study a degree, in a radical change of plans. All those stories were a reminder of the importance of having more options beyond tennis. Not every junior player becomes professional. It took him several years to admit it. He used to think that it wouldn’t happen to him. His parents had talked about the possibility of university life if he felt overwhelmed. To hear that was very irritating for him, but over the years he accepted the idea of a backup plan if tennis was too absorbing. But there was no reason to think he would choose university. He was never really focused on the subjects he had to study in school. Only history kept him interested. He enjoyed learning about his own country and the world. But he knew he wouldn’t be a historian.
      The time to make a decision had arrived. The juvenile passion was becoming a certainty, the very first certainty in his life. After a long conversation with his parents, the idea of leaving school became a solid resolution from his young will. Every day he had to deal with the heavy routine dictated by too many activities and he could see the moment when he would have to choose the road he was looking for. It was a definitive idea: he had to leave school to focus on tennis only. The trophies and medals that decorated his room with their shiny presence were the backup for his commitment to tennis. He was ready for the next step.
      His classmates threw a small party for him. There were jokes about being the world number one and winning Grand Slams. Always aware of his effort, they were supportive and helpful. They knew they had different lives. ‘I have no time’ was the usual answer when they invited him to parties and activities. It sounded like an adult language they didn’t know yet. He became a man too soon, being taller and stronger than his classmates, and everything made them think that he would choose other things in life, not the future they were waiting for. The nationwide tournaments and the first trips abroad gave him a certain degree of maturity. He could see the world with fresh eyes, the eyes of a young soul who has to grow up too fast. The skinny legs and the pimples on his boyish face were a reminder of his youth, but there was an adult spirit inside him, waiting to show the world all the dreams, all the things he could do.
      He knew they would forget him. They would follow another path, towards the graduation party, a busy university life, soporific offices. They would have yearly reunions and would talk about marriage plans, sorrows, success, parenthood. He didn’t even know if he would ever have a friend on the court, considering how solitary a tennis player is. He was on the road to the uncertainty that sports offers. But there was no way back. He had everything and nothing. He had to try and chase his dreams.
      His compromise was to keep studying the things he wouldn’t learn in school, getting the basic knowledge required and taking exams. His school would help him through online learning. There were also tutors working for the tennis centre, with the young players catching up on all the things they were skipping. But learning had a different significance for him. He learned to hit a yellow ball and run to the net before he could even read. The serve, the score, the tennis legends, that was all he knew.
      The Monday after the party he showed up on the national tennis centre with his usual walk, fast and awkward. There was nothing else in the world to do. No school, no more breakfasts in a hurry, no homework. He was ready to enjoy that breeze of freedom, but something scared him too. A strange feeling paralysed his movements with an unknown cause. Was he scared? He didn’t know where he would go, but he was ready from the very first time he held a racket. He took a deep breath and felt the fresh air of the sunny morning. The other players were warming up. They saw him and waved enthusiastically. He smiled and walked towards them. He was prepared for what was coming. There was no way back. It was too early to feel the weight of his decision. But there was no time to think about it, because the very first thing he had to do that morning was to improve his weak serve! AQ

Greg S. Johnson – Caprice

Greg S. Johnson
Caprice

The man, not yet as white-haired as most would remember him, put a hand through his unruly mop of frizzled hair and scanned the surface of Lac Léman. He could not detect a single ripple of movement all the way across to the French side; it was a mirror of the flawless blue sky. The late August sun, creeping over the tree line, warmed his cheeks. He closed his eyes.
      He sat near the end of a long stone jetty covered in gull dung, its mid-point crook skeletal and akimbo. With little effort he could still remember the first day he set foot in Geneva. Those pinching, patent leather shoes he wore and how each step down the cobblestone streets made him wince and hop as if on the coals of a firewalker. Holding the hand of his father—who must have been younger than he was now, but who seemed ageless and towering and invincible at the time—they made their way through Old Town to find a bakery. His father, looking down at him through his pince-nez, scolded him for jumping about like a monkey.
      A woman of about sixty approached and stood in front of him blocking the sun: ‘Loafing about again, I see.’
      ‘Bonjour, Professor,’ he said, opening his eyes and squinting to get a better look at her. ‘That’s all the French you’ll get from me. The whole of France shudders when I try to say even a few words. How long has it been, liebe?’
      Marie shrugged. ‘A year, perhaps more?’ She nodded toward the wooden sloop tied to the stone jetty. ‘This is yours, Professor?’
      She helped him to his feet. Her features were as stony as he remembered them: high forehead, blunt nose, lapis blue eyes that pierced falsehood like a needle through skin.
      ‘A pocket cruiser as these boating types say.’
      ‘Splendide! And the wood, what is it?’
      ‘Mahogany,’ Albert beamed.
      ‘It seems to me you are now one of these boating types yourself.’
      ‘They say there is an eternal arc to sailing, unfortunately I fear I’m a parabolic projectile launched into this strange, new world.’
      ‘And modest, non?’ she said.       ‘Alors…where do you want this?’ She pointed to a large, finely embroidered carpetbag at her feet.
      Tugging on the stern line, he brought the sloop close enough to step into; he took her carpetbag, then nearly dropped it in the water it was so heavy.
      ‘You’re building a house later?’ he asked with a wry smile.
      After stowing her bag below deck, he let his gaze fall across the lake well to the south. Toward Geneva he saw a few ripples across the still surface. He looked up at the black vane atop the mast, which gave a slight twist.
      ‘There is not much wind just now, but it’s building, bit by bit. I think we can sail toward Chateau d’Yvoire on the French side.’
      ‘I’m in your hands, Capitaine.’
      ‘And I yours,’ he said, taking her hands and pulling her toward him into the cockpit. He rubbed his thumbs over her fingers and noticed how rough they were. ‘You are smart to wear dungarees. Do you know much about this type of rigging? They call it Bermuda.’
      ‘Less than nothing, I’m afraid.’
      Marie eased herself onto one of the two parallel cockpit benches that stretched from the cabin to the stern.
      Out on the bow he grabbed a line and brought it back to the cockpit. She watched him move smartly around the mast and straighten the rigging there.
      ‘Your enthusiasm…it’s almost contagious,’ she said.
      He raised the main sail with steady hand-over-hand tugs of the halyard. Once secured, he repositioned himself at the helm and with some luck was able to catch enough of a south-southwest breeze to move them free of the jetty.
      ‘Have a go at the helm?’ he asked with a wink.
      ‘Would you like me to crash us into anything particular?’ Marie said, tilting a shoulder back to look at him. Often her face had the countenance of a statue so that when she smiled it was like sunshine peaking from under a dark cloud.
      Albert laughed. “Here, come, let me show you.”
      She slid into the helmsman’s seat, and he guided her hand onto the tiller. Her hands were large for a woman’s, but her knuckles were delicate as the nested heads of baby birds. Mottled with coppery spots and sores, they were the hands of an elderly woman.
      Albert was surprised at how the wind had jotted up since they left the jetty. With a nod to Marie, he raised the foresail and watched it ripple, cobra-like up the forestay. The stiff breeze grabbed the white sailcloth of the main and foresail with such force that he had to ease the main sheet a bit to keep from heeling too far over. The wind was building almost to ten knots, which gave him plenty of lift, and he moved out on a reach that put them on a gliding line toward the distant beach at Hermance.
      Albert leaned his back out over the water, hand once again on the tiller. He breathed in deeply, the uneven wind slapping his face then backing off, pushing then retreating. He looked around at the worn green hills and ashen cliffs that unfolded into this drowning pool of long retreated glaciers. How similar it must have looked to those early nomadic tribes, centuries ago, with their embers alight on the shores. Long before there was a Geneva. Long before those same tribes were forced to bow to Caesar.
      ‘Hungry?’ Marie asked.
      ‘I had nothing this morning. Sometimes eating is such…mühe.’
      ‘Come visit me in Paris. I’ll feed you chocolat and croissant, beef, and shellfish. You’ll shed your ambivalence.’
      Off the bow to port he saw the foresail going slack. Wiggling the tiller back and forth, he tried to bladder it, will the wind into it. He looked up to see that the main sail, too, hung like a wet sheet on a line. The bow turned slowly to starboard, into what had been the wind. They were now facing due south.
      ‘Take the helm again, bitte,’ he said, and crept out toward the bow. The drop in the wind made the boat unstable, and he had to steady himself against the side of the cabin as he went. Gaining the bow, he grabbed the jib and luffed it a few times. They had moved too close to shore, and they were trapped in a windless calm, blocked by the mountains he had been admiring.
      ‘We seem to have stopped, haven’t we?’ she said.
      Leaning out, he grabbed hold of the foresail and gave it a few shakes. Albert tried to lure a pocket of wind into it. His right foot slid out from beneath him, and he clutched the forestay just in time to keep from tumbling in.
      ‘Are you all right?’ Marie called.
      Albert struggled to get his breathing under control as he stared down into the black water. He cursed his stupidity for never learning to swim.
      ‘Here, come and eat,’ she said, hauling her violet and crimson carpetbag out from below deck. ‘It’ll do you some good.’
      From the bag she removed several pears, a few apples, some Brie, and a baguette. With an adept touch she sliced the bread and spread the cheese across several pieces.
      He ate all that was offered.
      ‘I suppose we can always use the auxiliary,’ she said, taking a bite of sweet pear. The juice dripped onto her fingers and she fluttered them over the water.
      Smoothing his bushy moustache from the center outward, he scanned the southeast shore, the lush, green hills past Chens-sur-Léman. His eyebrows coiled.
      ‘We can start the auxiliary, non?’ she asked, curious.
      ‘Perhaps not.’
      ‘Pourquoi?’
      ‘No fuel.’
      ‘Did you forget?’
      ‘No, I didn’t forget. To hell with them!’ Albert’s face turned red. ‘They are noisy… abominations! They destroy the beauty of all of this,’ he gestured with his arms to the surrounding water. ‘The peace and the solitude and the…the quiet.’
      Marie sat like a statue for a few moments and then couldn’t control it any longer. She put a sudden hand over her mouth and failed to stifle a laugh.
      ‘Funny, yes!?’
      Albert looked like a child staring into the abyss of a fractured toy.
      ‘Non…non, Je…’ she said, sitting up straighter. ‘Oh, my dear, Je suis désolé. I didn’t mean to insult you.’
      He shook his head and took a deep breath of fresh summer air. ‘It’s fine. Nichts. Nichts.’
      ‘Here, give me.’ She folded both her hands around one of his.
      With his other hand he traced one of the large, damaged circles on her hand. ‘What’s happened here?’ he asked.
      ‘Nichts.’ She dropped his hand and looked away. Somewhere deep within, she knew it was the pitchblende, the metallic rock of radium and polonium that she had worked with for so many years.
      Some swimmers bravely danced into the water at the beach in the distance and then came dancing right back out again.
      ‘Tell me, ’ he insisted.
      ‘Nothing I need to worry about. No one cares about these…ugly things.’ She turned back toward him showing her palms. Her heavy-lidded yet startling blue eyes caught him cold. ‘Certainly not you.’
      Her gnarled hands trembled.
      ‘Did I do something? Say something?’
      ‘You won’t recall,’ Marie said. She rummaged through her bag, and in a few seconds pulled free a green bottle of wine. ‘When I told my friend Jacques about my sail with you today, he recommended this Beaujolais from a nearby vineyard.’
      He looked at her in profile. Marie’s hair was a kinetic knot bunched up on the top of her head. It shielded the massive bluff of her determined forehead.
      ‘I don’t care for wine,’ he said.
      Marie continued as if his voice was a stray puff of wind. She put the bottle between her legs and worked at freeing the cork with a pocketknife. ‘Do you remember that hike we took in the Alps some years back, me with the girls and you with your son?’
      He shrugged. ‘Of course. We hiked for hours. It was a beautiful day.’
      ‘I thought so, too. But then I overheard something from a friend who was at one of your cocktail parties.’
      He closed his eyes, sniffed for a breeze. ‘Marie, it was so long ago.’
      ‘Alors, you do remember. Tell me.’
      Albert’s brown eyes sprang open, alive and furious. ‘What difference does it make!?’
      ‘You said, ‘She’s very intelligent, but has the soul of a herring.’
      ‘I did not!’ He stood up but nearly fell over backward. He grabbed the boom to steady himself.
      ‘What did you say then?’ Her lips were pursed, seething.
      ‘I couldn’t have said that.’ Albert pondered the deck of the cockpit where one of the slats was cracked. It would need to be replaced before winter came.
      ‘It makes no difference to you,’ Marie said. ‘Because you don’t have to care. How easily the conqueror embraces ambivalence.’
      ‘I’m afraid my wives have often bullied me for my temperamental tongue. It was some time ago. I’m sure I thought I was being funny at the time. You’ve always impressed me with your strength of character and your…tenacity.’
      ‘Alors…flatterie? Non?’
      ‘It’s so long past, Marie.’
      ‘Wars have been fought for less.’
      As they drifted closer to the French shore, the calls of the gulls became more distinct and defiant. The jangle of the halyards and the tiny slaps of water against the sides of the wooden sloop made the silence even more galling.
      ‘I don’t suppose you have any glassware?’ she said, nodding to the suddenly open bottle of Beaujolais between her legs.
      They both laughed.
      ‘Let me look,’ he said.
      ‘Don’t bother.’ Marie tilted the bottle back and took a healthy swig. She wiped a red bit of wine away with the back of her hand. ‘Mmmm. Demi sec. Try some.’ She held out the bottle, but he stared at it, unmoving.
      On the morning of that hike, along the trail, her daughter was continually tripping over her hiking boots, and the laces were knotted like cobwebs. Marie pulled a knife from her satchel then used it to rip through the knot and re-string her daughter’s boots. There was no head patting, no ‘there, there, child’; she was matter-of-fact, quick to the point and resolute. After all these years, that was the most prominent memory of their hike. He shook his head as if to wipe it away.
      ‘It won’t bite you, mon ami,’ Marie said, finally.
      Albert took the bottle and looked at the label, then gulped a quick shot.
      They passed the bottle back and forth and listened to the rhythmic slapping of the water below and the halyards in the mast above. The air warmed as the sun reached its apex.
      Marie finished the last of the Beaujolais and set the bottle on the deck of the cockpit. She rubbed her hands together.
      ‘Oh, Albert, we’re as stuck in ourselves as we are in this boat,’ she said.
      He moved closer and attempted to settle an arm around her.
      She tilted away.
      ‘I don’t understand you,’ he said.
      ‘What is it about men that makes them unforgiveable when they won’t see the most basic thing there is? The most…oh, sacrebleu! Forget it. Just…’ She shook her head, closed her eyes.
      Albert stared up at the top of the mast; a feeble breeze fluttered the vane there. He looked again at the sole of the cockpit. He gazed across the flat water of the lake. Without looking at her, he reached for her hands. They were clammy and cold. He massaged them. Staring across the sun-dappled water, back toward the jetty they somehow needed to reach, he stumbled over a few words. A pained expression told him he was still far off, and then, as with a breeze that can build out of the clear blue, rippling the water as it takes on momentum, he regained his balance, braced himself, swallowed hard on his pride and offered her the apology so long deferred.       AQ

Christopher Moore – Rain

Christopher Moore
Rain

It wasn’t taking time to rain. That’s how his Gran would have put it.
      Really, there shouldn’t have been anyone left in the park at all. The downpour had reached relentless levels, puddles littering the ground like shimmering mirrors, reflecting back an ashen sky that might once have been more colourful, that might once have been shades of azure or royal blue or brilliant red, or even wisps of white, but he could scarcely remember it now. Could scarcely remember a time the world hadn’t been grey.
      But, there were people left. A group of kids, playing and yelping excitedly about a hundred metres away, splashing about in little coats and boots, and sending blue paper boats on voyages across some of the larger puddles, their youthful imaginations probably able to picture the miniature lakes before them as vast expanses of ocean. Shrieking and jumping with delight, as though taking innocent pleasure from every moment of the shower.
      And then, there was him. Sitting watching them, all but pinned to the bench now with the water soaked through to his skin, the fabric of his trousers stuck to the sodden wood like glue. Every remaining bit of logic at the back of his mind screaming for him to move, to get up, to get to somewhere dry.
      But, he didn’t.
      It wasn’t taking time to rain. Yes. His Gran would have said that.
      But, the cancer had certainly taken its time. Taken more time than anyone should ever have to endure, to suffer.
      And his mind had taken its time ever since to find the will to do very much of anything at all.
      Today was no different.      AQ

Róisín Leggett Bohan – Run

Róisín Leggett Bohan
Run

‘Eat up now love, you need your nourishment.’
       She’s leaning against the cooker, arms folded, smiling at me. Mrs Crowley is at the sink washing up Brendan’s breakfast things, she always does it for him.
       ‘She’s a feckin’ eejit cleaning up after him, can’t he do it himself,’ she says, chuckling away so much I can’t help it and let a burst of a laugh out of me.
       Mrs Crowley turns in surprise, her frilly apron sopping down the front with the suds coming off the bowl she’s holding.
       ‘What are you laughing at, Sophie?’
       She’s staring at me as if I’m mad or something, the dripping bubbles landing on the floor.
       She can’t see Mam.
       I look down at my cereal.
       ‘Nothing, just remembering a joke a girl from school told me, sorry.’
       She smiles a wary smile.
       ‘All right pet, finish your breakfast so and get ready.’
 
I lift my head and nod. I want to smile back at her sometimes but she’s not my mother. She tries to be nice, she wraps my pyjamas in a hot water bottle before bed and gets rice crispies for me at the weekend but I hate the way she calls me “pet”, I’m not a dog or anything.
       I look up to see Mam, but she’s gone again.
       I stare at the cheerios, the rings like little lifebuoys swimming in milk. I wonder if I dived into the bowl could they save me from drowning. But I’m not small, I’m tall and lanky, tallest eleven year old in my class. Mrs Crowley says ‘I’m a pull through for a rifle’. I don’t know what she’s on about but the way she says it makes me think it’s not a good thing. I spoon up the last few hoops, guzzle down the last of the milk, my mouth around the edge of the bowl. I pretend I’m old Father Hegarty saying mass at St Columbus.
        ‘Body of Christ.’
       And all the old people and me say back to him,
        ‘Blood of Christ.’
       Then he gulps down the last dregs from the chalice like a mad thing. I suppose he loves Jesus so much he wants to drink his blood. You wouldn’t catch me doing it. Anyway, it’s all fake, I don’t think there’s any blood in it at all.
 
 
I asked Sister Agnes about that once and she laughed,‘Oh, you’re a sweet child, do you know that my Sophie?’ And she wasn’t making fun of me like some grown-ups do when they think they know everything and I know nothing. I love it when she laughs, it’s like her face brightens up like a buttercup opening when the sun comes out.
 
The kitchen door bangs open. He’s always noisy, it’s like he needs to be heard before he’s seen, to send out a warning or something. Brendan is Mrs Crowley’s son, much older than me, goes to college.
       ‘Going to be a lawyer someday, my lovely boy.’
       Mrs Crowley always says that, proud as anything.
       He looks at his Mam.
        ‘I’m off so.’
       She fusses over him.
        ‘Here pet, I made you lunch.’
       Hands him over a plastic bag with ham sandwiches, a bag of crisps and a carton of juice like he’s still twelve or something.
        ‘Thanks Mam.’
       He throws his eyes up to heaven. One time he told me he never eats his Mam’s lunch, gives it away or throws it in the bin, buys a bag of chips instead. Maybe that’s why he has so many spots. Too many chips. He raises his huge forehead at me and grins. He’s much taller than me and has a long face, his lips are puffy, not like a normal boy’s. He comes over and squeezes my shoulders with his huge hands, I scrunch them up and give out a squeal. He laughs. Mrs Crowley gives out to him.
       ‘Stop at her, off out, or you’ll miss your bus.’
       He turns and laughs and doesn’t even kiss his mother goodbye. I’d kiss my mother goodbye if I still had one to kiss. I touch the spot on my forehead and remember the last kiss I got from Mam before she died. I look up and she’s here in the kitchen again, her red hair flowing down her shoulders.
       ‘A right little trickster isn’t he.’ She gives me a wink.
       I wink back when Mrs Crowley isn’t looking.
 
 
Mam and me used to visit Sister Agnes every Sunday. Well it’s not like we can talk to her or anything. Mam says she’s in an enclosed order. That means she has to be silent and not touch anyone and pray a lot for the world and us. When we’re at Mass I look at the nuns behind the grille and try to spot Sister Agnes. They’re all very holy, big brown veils with white trimming covering their heads. One time the sun shone through the coloured glass of the church windows and I could see little bright shapes on Sister Agnes’s face made by the shadows of the grille. I said to Mam once it’s like a prison but Mam says Sister Agnes is happy with God. She is my Mam’s best friend. Her real name is Sarah and she and Mam were like sisters growing up. Sister Agnes said she used to mind me when I was small and that I was a very good runner even then. We get to see her face to face once a year when it’s her feast day. I love feast days. I still go to Mass at St. Columbus every Sunday, but I tell Mrs Crowley I’m going to the running track. Mrs Crowley wouldn’t mind I’d say but she might want to come with me and I wouldn’t want that. It’s my secret with Mam and Sister Agnes.
 
I am fast. Mam says I run like the wind. ‘And wild is the wind’ she’d sing, she couldn’t sing for bananas. I won all the races at school sports last summer. Mam was there, screaming from the sidelines, I wasn’t embarrassed. I got through to the county finals but Mam had to go back to hospital so I couldn’t go. Mam was a runner, the fastest in her class too. I love running, it’s like the air goes into my ears and I can’t hear anything or think anything except to move my legs faster and faster. I don’t hear Mam coughing or catching her breath or the machines beeping in the hospital.
 
My hair is long and red like Mam’s but her hair fell out. She wore a woolly hat the nuns made her. Mad colours in it and silver stars stuck on. She called it her hippy hat. I hold it to my nose at night in Mrs Crowley’s house. I used to get her smell from it but I don’t anymore. I cried for two days after Mrs Crowley washed it. At least I still have my pink pyjamas with the horses, they’ve gone all thin from the wearing and I’m too big for them now but I don’t care. I made Mrs Crowley swear she would never throw them away. They’re the last thing Mam bought for me, the very last day I saw her out of bed. They let her out of hospital to go shopping with me.
       ‘Our special day together,’ she said, ‘just you and me.’
 
 
Well it wasn’t just her and me ‘coz Mam had to promise the doctor she’d allow a nurse to come along to push the wheelchair and mind the oxygen. She begged them. The doctor said no but the important older doctor said okay so, her hazel eyes big and round worked wonders.
       ‘If you don’t let me go I’ll come back and haunt you Mr. Hardy, all respects to you.’
       She half smiled at him. The poor man couldn’t say no, you can’t say no to Mam when she looks at you like that. The oxygen tank was hooked onto the wheelchair, massive thing. I lifted it for Mam once and she let out a shriek.
       ‘Jesus Sophie, don’t, you’ll break your back.’
       I think about that special day all the time.
       ‘Oh look at the horses on those pyjamas Sophie, they’re galloping like you.’
       She treated me to chips and nuggets and a blue slushie. She wouldn’t eat a chip though, not even a sip of her coffee. Mam used to love her coffee.
 
I’m strong, I know I’m strong ‘coz Mam always told me. It’s what she told me that day in the bed with the tubes coming out of her arm and the beeping of the machines too loud.
       ‘You know darling, when I’m gone you’ll be strong won’t you.’
       ‘I started to cry but then I stopped myself ‘coz I could see her eyes go sad.
       ‘Listen love, it will be hard at the start but it will get better, Mrs Crowley is doing a good job looking after you and the social worker says she’s such a nice lady and her house is near the running track and Sister Agnes.’
       ‘Love.’ The spaces between her breaths were really short, like she was drowning.
       ‘Listen, you’re a strong girl, and I don’t just mean those running legs of yours, I mean your spirit, the thing that’s inside you, your heart, your heart is strong. And when I’m gone….’
       I tried my bestest not to cry, I could feel a knot in my throat but I swallowed instead. She took another big breath of the oxygen.
       ‘When I’m not around anymore I’ll always be here inside you.’
       ‘She put her hand on my chest.
       ‘And here,’
       Her hand on my head.
       ‘And here.’
       Then she chuckled and touched the tip of my nose. I felt better that she was messing with me and I giggled back and tickled her neck.
       Oh, you’re a saucy one aren’t you, come here.’
       I fell into her arms and I could feel wetness on her chest from tears, I didn’t know if it was laughing tears or crying tears or even my tears.
 
 
The week before Christmas and Mrs Crowley’s friend is at the front door. They’re off to the bridge club Christmas party. I’m supposed to be asleep but I’m gazing out the window. It’s snowing and I wish Mam was here to see it.
       Mrs Crowley calls,‘Brendan, make sure you leave the landing light on for Sophie.’
       ‘Alright Mam,’ Brendan answers from his bedroom.
       ‘And study, remember, exams tomorrow.’
 
       ‘Yeah, Mam.’ Brendan calls back but this time he sounds annoyed. The front door closes.
       Their voices dwindle off into the night.
 
A few minutes later there’s a knock on my door. I scramble into bed.
       ‘Sophie, you awake?’
       He doesn’t wait for an answer, just walks in.
       I sit up.
       ‘There you are,’ he says as if he’s surprised or something. ‘I wanted to show you something, come on.’
       Nods his head sideways to show me to follow him.
       I grab Mam’s hat from under my pillow, I don’t know why.
 
‘Just sit here Sophie, have a look at this.’ He pats the bed and gets his laptop.
       His room is full of huge books about law and smells of half dry clothes and rotten socks. I don’t like this room, don’t like the way his voice sounds.
       ‘Look at what?’
       I sit beside him but not too close.
       He presses “play”.
       The video is people’s bodies doing animal things, making awful noises.
       He’s watching me watching
       Goes for his pants’ zipper.
        ‘I don’t want to look at it,’ I say and go to stand up but he pulls me down on the bed.
       ‘If you don’t I’ll have to tell my mother and she won’t believe you, you’ll have nowhere to live.’
       He grabs my hair and pulls my head down to his lap.
       I feel my stomach turning, vomit all over his pants.
       ‘What the fuck!’
       He jumps up, knocks me in the eye so hard I fall down.
       ‘You bitch, I’m going to call the social on you,’ he screams, all the while trying to clean my sick off his pants.
       I see Mam in the corner of the room, she’s fuming.
       ‘Get the fecker Sophie, hit him where it hurts. Quick, go on, you can do it.’
       Something inside me falls apart and goes crazy at the same time. I grab a book called Criminal Law in Ireland, clatter him on the side of the head, then bash the book into the zipper of his pants.
       He curls up like a hairy centipede and lies on the floor screaming.
       I run down the stairs, out the door.
 
 
Running through the snow. One slipper on, the other fallen off. My eye stings. Snowflakes fall on it. My heart pounding in my eardrums and I’m soaked. I feel like a wild horse breaking free, galloping like the ones on my pyjamas.
       I sprint across the road, dodge the cars beeping their horns. Outside the shopping centre a Santa Claus is ringing a bell.
       ‘You alright love?’ he shouts.
       I don’t stop. I keep running.
       I think of Mam running alongside me, she’s not out of breath and she’s smiling.
       ‘You’re alright, Sophie. Remember you’re strong, just run love, run.’
       My tears feel like icicles on my face, I wipe them away, then I see I’m still holding Mam’s hippy hat. I put it on.
       I don’t know how long it takes to get to the convent but all I remember is that I’m banging mad on the door. An old nun opens the slat and squints out at me. I recognize her from Mass. She opens the door. And talks to me nice and soft.
 
 
‘Come in child. Where are your clothes? Why are you in your pyjamas?’
       I don’t know what to say, I can’t tell her about Brendan and the awful video and him unzipping his pants. My whole body is shivering something terrible and I can’t stop. My teeth are chattering but I get the words out.
       ‘Sister Agnes, Sister Agnes please.’
       The nun knows my face from the Sundays, she wraps her shawl around me.
       ‘Wait here, child.’
 
I’m waiting in the tiny room, Holy Mary is in a picture on the wall, she’s looking up and her hand is on her heart. I think she’s sadder than me. Sister Agnes hurries in, all calm and her skin so white. She stands before me and looks at me. She takes my hands in hers. A tear catches the edge of her mouth.
       ‘You’re the head off your mother,’ she whispers.
       She wraps her arms around me and the rosary beads hanging from her belt push into me but it’s the best hug I’ve had since Mam died.
       I open my eyes and see Mam standing under the picture of Holy Mary. She winks at me and I wink back.              AQ

Susan E. Lloy – Flipside

Susan E. Lloy
Flipside

She had a system. It had proved to be a useful tool throughout her life, which is near the closer end of finish. She had kept the same mundane job, which bored her to death, yet stuck to it because it had a skimpy pension plan. She settled in the same crap rental for countless years in order to harvest affordable living increases, even though the neighbours came and went, and with them her nerves. Continually adjusting to new inhabitants with their noises and particularities. Often, she felt like packing herself up in a box and mailing it off to some unknown exciting location.
           Now things will change. She is heading back east. A place she hasn’t lived for forty years. Sure, she has visited countless times; nevertheless she is wary of her homecoming. Hell, she doesn’t even know anyone there anymore. However, the sea beckons her.
           If one is from these parts the blue is hard-wired. Something that calls you back, something you can’t resist. Something so full of desire one can never resist its briny wet kiss. Now she’s left a place she has lived for most of her adult life and from years of hoarding, has been able to buy a humble abode in a place she has never been. The price was good and it has a sea view, but conveniences are far away.
           She was accustomed to have all that is necessary within walking distance. Great speciality shops, pharmacy, hardware to name a few. Now she is solitary amongst fog and multi-coloured Lupins, a large rambling yard that she knows will be too much upkeep and a lengthy driveway that will prove laborious with dense snowfall. She has put herself in surroundings that go against all before.
 
She doesn’t know a soul here and there isn’t even a shop to post a note for a handyman. She looks online, but small towns are far away. She is fussy when it comes to atmosphere and likes her things placed in aesthetically pleasing fashions. Still, things must be installed. She gets out her electric drill and begins organizing fifteen wooden shelves to be mounted on one white wall.
           They must be mathematically calculated so that they will be even and symmetrical. She grabs a few screw fasteners while standing on a stool and starts from the highest point. Each time she attempts to install a fastener, the old wall crumbles as if riddled by machine gun fire.
           Framed glass-encased photographs that she obsessively rearranges in order of history, sentiment and lost youth are strewn across the floor. These recordings of time make her feel less isolated as if she is enveloped amongst old lovers and friends. She eyeballs the frames and marks the wall with a thin pencil point, however once installed they are entirely uneven and another wall has been peppered with small nail holes.
           She lets out a slow moan looking in the antique mirror resting upon her great grandmother’s Mahogany bureau. Fuck, Izzy. What was in your head? Why did you come back here? But she has moved here and must make the best of it. All order blown away as if taken by the North Atlantic’s ornery winds and it is beginning to feel as if a bad omen has descended on her modest seaside home.
           Izzy never drove, but has maintained her licence by paying the yearly fee. She had been too nervous to drive in Montreal with its angry, aggressive drivers, but here she needs a car and hit Kijiji, buying one quickly. She naively took the word of the seller that it is, in fact, a good car. He was simply selling because he required a larger vehicle.
           The mileage is reasonable and he provided invoices of recent brake work and oiling. Even a set of winter tires, were part of the deal. She drives home taking the back roads to get comfortable with the car and, although she hears strange sounds from the engine, Izzy feels free, perhaps for the first time, in her life.
 
Winter comes early. November swooped in with all its gloomy might and with it—snow. At least twelve centimetres have fallen and no end in sight when Izzy looks out from her kitchen window. She hasn’t bothered to buy a shovel yet, and curses herself for procrastination. Her car is close to the house and she will need to sweep and grab a dustpan to be able to access the road, which will likely take hours. By the time Izzy has cleared the drive she is close to collapse. Totally surprised that she hasn’t dropped dead on the spot from a coronary. Imagining that someone would discover her in the spring half-eaten by maggots. A sad little tale that will stick to these shoreline folk like a starfish to a rock.
           She shakes the idea from her head and looks up at her house with its blue shingles and white vinyl siding melting into the snowy backdrop. She feels lonely here with only the wind nipping at her face. Her feet half frozen to the ground. Smoke from the woodstove rises above the darkened clouds as if trying to escape to an uncharted solar system. With her cold feet, she returns to her home realizing that the steppingstones she has journeyed were unsound. Isolating herself in this companionless part of the world.
           The home was to have been her haven, but it is a mess with tools, shelves and frames scattered across the rooms. She can’t even watch television or Netflix, as it will be another week before the Internet is connected. Never imagining in a thousand lifetimes this scenario when she was living in a city, far away. There isn’t one yummy morsel to eat. As she stands before her living room window she looks to the sea, ominous and unforgiving.
 
The following day Izzy drives to the nearest town to buy groceries, wine, beer, and a carton of cigarettes. On the return trip she hears grinding and clicking reminiscent of her father’s workshop with its drills and planers. Jointers and table saw. Lathe. Envisioning all the machines working in a furry as she drives along the coastline. Without a doubt, there is a major problem with the car and she curses the seller – wishing him erectile dysfunction and anal warts!
           She hasn’t been to the beach yet. Locals say it is the most beautiful beach in Nova Scotia. Izzy loves a beach, but then who doesn’t? She is especially drawn to the deserted ones at this time of the year with limited light and a sombre tone. She hopes the solitude will centre her. She wishes to touch her seclusion. Taste it. Try to decode her reasoning for immersing herself in these surroundings. Inhabiting a house full of messes and failed handywoman executions.
 
If she were in the city what would she be doing? Sitting on the sofa drinking one-too-many Coronas. Feeling her bloated belly jingle each trip to the fridge. Wasting her time flipping stations and fuming that HBO has become repetitive and boring and still expensive. Annoyed by the noises of her neighbours, their vacuums, televisions, music and sexual moans.
           Perhaps, she would have ventured out for takeout Thai to escape them or strolled the streets. Gazing in the windows of others. Imagining their conversations and decrypting body language. Questioning, why do I need to live here? Rereading The Andy Warhol Diaries before bed, which make her feel like a loser with her near non-social life. All the while, Andy and his consorts are whipping it up at The Factory or Studio 54 with one party after the next.
           She makes a grilled cheese sandwich and sits before the living room window watching the grey sky. She thinks back to her childhood that she spent with her parents, cousins, aunt and uncle. Swimming in lakes at summer cottages and before that, camping each summer. How she was always in trouble for mischievous behaviour.
           Izzy remembers running from a lake to the campground ahead of her cousins and telling her aunt, who was eight months pregnant, that her cousin, Lily, had drowned in the lake and her other cousin didn’t know what to do, so he was just looking at her body floating in the still water with a halo of reeds circling her head.
           Izzy thought this quite hilarious, though then she was very young. She upset everyone. So much, in fact, that her aunt, uncle, cousins and her parents packed up their tents and headed off to their respective homes. Izzy got seriously scolded and remembered a Wild Canary hit their windshield and died on the way home. Now, all her kin have passed and there is no one left to relive these yarns.
 
Izzy cranks the engine and hears an awful clamour from under the hood. Undaunted she turns the beast around the drive and heads to the main road, which leads her to the beach. The road in is plowed to a gate, but from then onwards she must walk. She pulls onto the flattened snow and parks. The engine rattles and protests until it finally quiets and stills. She takes the long path with mounds of snow softly rising on each side. As she approaches there are wisps of sea grass stretching towards the sky. Others are trodden down by damp snow. Along the shoreline, where the waves break the edge, a few seagulls peck the sand. There is a loon bobbing not far from shore and its lonely call seeps deep within her.
           She has brought a thermos of tea and a blanket to sit on. The wind is light, but there is good surf off a point at the far left section of beach. A rock outcrop, about a quarter mile, stretches beyond the last stretch of sand and to her surprise she spies a figure on a surfboard patiently awaiting a decent wave in the dark swell. The figure occupies all of her concentration as she watches, what she assumes is a man, riding wave upon wave. Izzy sits there until her tea is long gone and her feet feel frozen to the ground.
 
The surfer has vanished too. She picks up a few beach treasures along the shoreline before heading back to her car, yet when she arrives the engine won’t start. She curses her ignorance of motors or the inner workings of mechanics and Izzy begins to cry. She is raw and shudders at the mere thought of walking to the main road. The blanket she has brought is damp and stiff and has begun to freeze. She thinks to herself, Fuck, I can’t even call an Uber.
           As Izzy pounds the car with her fist and kicks the wheels with her near frostbitten feet she hears footsteps in the snow. A figure wearing a black wetsuit emerges from the path carrying a surfboard under his arm. He is covered in frost and a series of tiny icicles hang from his facial stubble.
            ‘What’s the trouble? Are you alright?’
           Izzy cries so hard she finds it difficult to stop shaking.
            ‘It won’t start.’
            ‘Oh, that’s nothing to be so upset about, now.’
            ‘You, don’t know the half of it. Everything here is shit.’
            ‘Come on, it can’t be that bad. Why don’t you come with me and get warmed up. I live very near to the beach. In fact, just up from the left side of the shore. I’ll give you something to warm your bones.’
           Izzy gulps back her tears and agrees to follow.
            ‘I never felt this cold in my life.’
            ‘I’m Bob, by the way.’
            ‘Hello. Izzy.’
           This is untrue, as she has felt miserably cold many times in Montreal with its horribly frigid, endless winters. She follows behind him on the narrow path. Up ahead stands a trailer with smoke rising from a narrow chimney pipe. She can smell the fired wood hanging in the twilight air. The sky is a deep teal and the stars have joined the night.
           There is an old battered sign mounted to a post in the ground, which reads
            ‘Barrels Or Bust’ on the entrance to the property and a broken-down-four wheeler with two flats parked to one side. A handsome fire pit made of beach stones rests just short of the trailer and one can catch a good view of the sea. Three surfboards are piled up against an outbuilding.
           As Izzy enters the door she feels at ease. Perchance it’s merely the warmth of the inside air from the wood stove providing instant comfort, like a tight long-felt bear hug.
            “Make yourself at home, Izzy. I’ll just get this surf garb off.’ Bob motions for her to sit at a table and pours a generous neat whiskey. He goes into some darkened passageway and draws a curtain. She hears snaps and assumes the quick stretch of rubber, then a shower running in the back.
           The trailer is rundown, but there is a homey atmosphere about it. Seashells and surf books align the living area. Pots hang from a hook on the ceiling. Bob reappears soon after with a flannel shirt and corduroy pants. He is of similar age and unquestionably attractive.
           ‘So Izzy, are you feeling your toes again?’
           ‘Sort of, I mean yes. The fire and whiskey help.’ He smiles at her. She notices many framed photographs of a surfer hanging on the wall and resting on a shelf. She sees an article Nova Scotia surfer ‘Surfer Bob’ wins again, in a framed clipping from a newspaper, and next to it, a photograph of a surfer gunning the barrel of a giant wave.
           ‘You surf! I watched you the entire afternoon. I’m amazed that you can tolerate the cold, especially at this time of the year. I grew up in Nova Scotia and even in summer its unbearable.’
           ‘One must love it and dress accordingly. I’ve surfed these waters since I was a boy. Can imagine no other place I’d rather be. This spot is serene and there aren’t many folk around, which suits me fine. Have you ever been on a board?’
           ‘No. No. Not me. When I think of it, I envision warmer waters.’ Bob pours Izzy another drink and tells her a little about himself.
            ‘We’ll look at your car tomorrow morning. I’m pretty good with engines. You can take the spare bed in the back.
           As she looks up into the darkness through the old skylight, flurries begin to fall. They drift slowly down joining her thoughts that have settled on this stretch of shore.     AQ

Nathan Alling Long – The Still Lake of the Night

Nathan Alling Long
The Still Lake of the Night

The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. A windup clock ticked forward the seconds, as though trying, laboriously, to prove the existence of time. Otherwise, the night seemed to move neither backwards or forwards, but felt to Ariel a kind of dark pool in which she sank her whole body. The blankets pulled up to her chin felt like to be the waterline, and she lay there feeling like a creature cocooned, waiting to be born.
             Her body was calm but she was not sleepy, and the cool air kept her alert. But there was nothing to take in. She blinked in the darkness to see if any light might appear, but nothing did. Without light, without being able to watch something in the light, even something as small as the second hand of the old metal clock, she had a hard time believing that the night was moving forward, that it would ever cease.
             She was in this cabin just for one night, a place offered to her by a neighbor back home in Rochester, who came up here to Maine to vacation in the summers. It was now early autumn, and she was on her way back from Nova Scotia, where she had visited her girlfriend, Holly, who had moved there to be a school teacher for the year.
             The visit had not gone well, and though they did not fight, except once, and did not talk of breaking up, she knew by the end of her stay that it would happen, in the months ahead, at the latest, by Christmas.
             There was a quality in their voices when they both said goodbye and I love you that suggested fatigue, a waning light. On the car ride down to this cabin, she’d thought about Holly, about their lives, their three years together, and the start of this year with them apart. She’d seen how it seemed simply a long slow moving away from each other from almost the moment they’d met, a bright flash of fire from the match that had dimmed as it burned up the stick, until there was nothing left to hold, no fuel left to burn.
             She’d gotten to the cabin an hour before dusk, and after putting away the groceries, she’d sat on the screened in porch and watched the sunset over the trees, a glimpse of light reflected off the pond at the bottom of the hill.
             Then she’d got up and went inside, turned on the lights and started to cook, a salmon she’d bought at the local store, potatoes, and a salad of greens and tomato.
             She found ingredients for a dressing in the cupboards and a half empty bottle of white wine in the fridge, which she sipped while waiting for the potatoes to roast. Given these tasks, she was kept busy and did not think of Holly, of her trip up there, of their future.
             But after eating and washing the dishes, after a quick shower and reading a short while in bed, after the setting down of the book, the clicking off the light and laying the pillow flat, these thoughts returned, there in the still pool of the night.
             She was thirty-five, had had several relationships before this one, with years of being single as well. She was not too old to find someone new, not so young as to think Holly was the only one. She had worried about the future enough times in the past to know that it did no good, but here she was again, on the brink of uncertainty, and as she grew older, each time it felt more ominous, more uncertain.
             A spot on her forehead itched but she kept her hands still beside her body and let the feeling gnaw at her a while, a pinprick of irritation that seemed to bloom by thinking about it. But to feel something so certain, with such clear parameters, was somehow a comfort. It was a discomfort she could endure, and so she did.
             But this other thing, larger, more nebulous, foreboding, it hovered at the edge of the pond, like a giant bear, waiting for her to return to land. She could share these thoughts with Holly, ask to talk about it all, though she knew her new job was challenging, stressful. To talk of the relationship would be more stress. To express her fears–that they were drifting apart–would be in some way, bringing them into the light, making them real in a way they were not if they were never spoken.
             Was it that there was no way to save what they had? Was it that they were a stick that had burned out its course? Say what you will to a match, but it will not last longer than it can.
             Was it best to just call and end it swiftly, move on, as they say, as swiftly as she would from this cabin, once dawn came, if dawn ever came? To tidy up and leave behind the beauty and comfort and darkness of this place where she had dwelled?
             Against all this, the clock ticked on. It must be a battery operated, she thought, as a wind up clock would have wound down by now, a month after her neighbor was last at the cabin. Unless someone else was here and wound it up, she thought and panicked.
             What if someone were there now, in the cabin, waiting all this time, hiding in a closet or in the basement—if there was even a basement? Why hadn’t she checked before going to bed?
             But no, these are just your fears, she told herself, fears of the dark. The road to the cabin was long and there had been no cars. There would be no reason someone would go down here, and if they had, no reason to hide without a trace just before she appeared.
             Yet, there was the half-finished bottle of wine. Why would her neighbor leave such a thing? She recalled her saying something about returning before the frost, to shut down the cabin for good. Or had Ariel just made that up?
             Ariel wished now that Holly was with her, that she could have driven with her half way back at least, then taken a bus back to her new home. How nice to get a weekend, or a half weekend away together. She could have driven Holly to a bus station in the morning. If she were here, they would talk, she would be free of the stress of her work, they might find one another again, as they say, there in the pitch dark of that cabin in Maine.
             Talking was not the answer so much as just being together, even lying silently in the night, the cool air brushing in from the window. Then time would feel like it were moving forward. Then the morning would come to soon and it would be the goodbye-ing all over again, but this time sweet and tender and I love you would mean something, with both of them regretting their long journey alone.
             Even the sound of the clock would be a pleasure, an annoying joke they would share. And perhaps Holly would get up and muffle the thing or take it downstairs to silence it. Or perhaps she would, feeling confident to get out of the safety of her bed and walk through the dark, strange new house. But here alone, she did not dare. The sheets, the still complete dark and silent night was the only thing that seemed to protect her, the only thing that seemed certain. If she rose from the bed, if she disturbed the night with her footsteps and stumblings, who knew what might choose to disturb her in return?
             Ariel tried to imagine the sound of the clock as tiny waves lapping slowly against the shore—the shore of what, she did not know. In this way, for a while, she imagined swaying slightly to the rocking of the waves suggested in the sound of the clock. What time was it? It was only a quarter to nine when she went to bed. What if she fell asleep and woke still to darkness? There was nothing worse than not even having sleep to look forward to.
             And all this worry, all this fretting and imagining, had exhausted her a bit. Or was it the wine, the warmth of the blankets, the weight of the dark on her eyelids and consciousness?
             But then she wondered what it would be like, if she fell asleep in an endless night, if she had an endless sleep. What if these were her last conscious moments in life, if she were to die here in this cabin, alone, or worse, slip into an endless coma?
             A spike of fear startled her. Sleep now seemed the worst thing, the enemy which had almost enticed her to be a friend. The clock seemed now to be laughing slowly at her, ha…ha…ha… as though it had known the joke all along.
             She thought of last night, of holding Holly as she slept, how it was both a comfort and an uncertainty, a warm body that belonged to someone she both knew and didn’t know. She’d thought of waking Holly and asking her just to kiss her, once, but she was too afraid that Holly would be annoyed, that she wouldn’t understand her need, and so she just lay there with her face close to the back of her neck and kissed Holly lightly along the spine, as though Holly’s vertebrae were her lips, as though she were kissing back.
             What she had really wanted was for Holly to say her name, there in the night, in that other new place that was completely Holly’s and not Ariel’s at all. She wanted that now as well, to hear her name spoken in the dark, against the dark. She wanted Holly to say it, but since she was not there, she decided to say it herself. Yet instead, she ended up saying her girlfriend’s name, “Holly,” as though she were there, as though she were awakening her.
             The clock ticked on, sounding now as though it were the snoring breath of someone asleep. It was not laughing at her and it was not out to get her, it was simply trudging through the days and nights, doing what it did, moving its hands in a mechanical motion it did not even understand. But wasn’t that what she feared most about the future, not the being alone, but the passing of her life mechanically and unaware?
              ‘Holly,’ she said again, as though she were trying to wake her from a giant dream, a sleep that she had endured for years. ‘Wake up,’ she pleaded, and began to cry.
             It was a comfort to hear a human voice in the still lake of the night, and she cried for a while before returning to the silence.
             It was not long after that she fell asleep.                          AQ

David Butler – Judgement

David Butler
Judgement

It was the awarding of ‘costs against’ that finished the old man. That the case might finally be lost was a prospect he’d gradually come to accept, as he’d once come to accept that mother’s illness was terminal. As the appeal drew near, Finley, the family lawyer, began to warn with increasing frequency and alarm; had advised again, on the very steps, to settle out of court, even though it would mean conceding the bloody point. My father was not the man for turning.

The case of ‘Cafolla versus Grogan’ began in the most trivial way imaginable. At the bottom of our drive stood a magnolia. This tree was mother’s pride, transplanted the very month they’d moved into the place. Ever since the chemotherapy had meant she’d had to quit being an English teacher, she’d become devoted to the garden. Gardening, and also bird-watching; these, she’d say, were her consolations now, because although she continued to write occasional poetry, the Muse seemed to operate increasingly at the whim of her noxious treatment.

At first the Grogans were sympathetic. The Grogans were builders, which is to say, Paddy Grogan was a builder, as his father had been. Indeed he’d built our place, all those years before, when there was nothing about but fields. I’d just turned two, so have no first-hand memories of how it was back then. I’ve seen the photos though, the rough field planted with improbably tiny shrubs and my mum and dad with their improbably long hair. Good fences, they say, make good neighbours, and sure enough, no sooner had he laid the foundations of our house than Paddy Grogan had had planted a row of leylandii on his side of the wire fence. The last point is not without its significance. The row of trees was on his land, not on ours. Also significant, that our property, which we held on a hundred year lease, lay to the north-east of that line of sombre monsters.

The years went by. The leylandii topped twenty foot, thirty. I entered secondary school. Then came mother’s dark diagnosis. I say dark, because of a poem she penned after her treatment began. She’d wanted it to be her epitaph, but for once father put his foot down. Alright, just so you don’t give my headstone any of your Cafolla photographs! ‘Malignant’, she titled the piece. I can still recite the punchline, which describes the dull ache abutting her ribcage: ‘an eyeless tuber grubbing the dark earth / to give birth to what Lilith?’ I never really got poetry, still don’t. Especially my mum’s. To my ear, it sounded like when she’d put on her telephone voice. I doubt my father got it either, any more than he ever really understood his Irish wife. But that one has stayed with me, down the years. Quitting her job was tough, but then, my mother was one tough lady, and before long the acre upon which our house stood became not merely her world, but a living sculpture.

She’d been on chemo about a year when one day one of Grogan’s trucks – they were forever going in and out of his place on weekends – took a few branches off the magnolia. Now as said, relations were still pretty amicable between the two families. They weren’t unsympathetic people, just so long as you didn’t cross them. Yes, there had been a spat about the tom that was continually fouling our beds and whose caterwauling on moonlit nights was the wail of a demonic infant. Several times, coming across a garland of feathers on the lawn, my mother had cursed the malicious beast. But he’d disappeared months since. I won’t say that my dad was directly involved; I will say he’d throw me a sly wink on any occasion the subject had been broached by Maureen Grogan.

But the magnolia was another matter. The affair caught Paddy Grogan at a bad time. There was all that business with the Riverside estate: the flooding and the backed up sewerage. And then, my father was never the most subtle of men, certainly not when it came to wording. As much as on her frail body, chemotherapy had wrought havoc on my mother’s nerves, made her prone to mood swings and fits of temper as though to make up for the long hours of lethargy and listlessness. Usually, she vented it on my hapless father. The morning she discovered the mutilated branches, she was coldly furious: pure fecklessness had devastated the great plant whose arms, she’d always said, stood like candelabra each March. I seem to remember a poem in which she compared it precisely to a candelabrum in the hand of Persephone, thrust up from the gloomy underworld to herald her return. Why, then, she entrusted the letter to my inarticulate father is anyone’s guess. I’m being unfair. I’ve no doubt he was articulate in Italian, or whatever dialect of Italian they speak around Palermo. After twenty years in Ireland he still spoke with a thick accent. But then, he was a computer programmer, and I guess interpersonal skills were not exactly at a premium in his workplace.

I never got to see the note he penned (and actually posted!) to our neighbour. Whatever it contained, it must’ve put the builder’s nose right out of joint. A couple of weeks went by, and then one morning a registered letter arrived from the firm of Bradley and McCoy, solicitors. There was some sort of a deposition; or a professional opinion (I was only fourteen at the time, and have never been entirely au fait with the legal shenanigans). In any case, an opinion was expressed, on National Road Authority paper, that the magnolia had become something of a hazard – both of our driveways gave onto a bend – and that it needed to be either removed or drastically cut back. The councillor who’d signed the letter was Grogan’s brother-in-law. Needless to say, mother was livid. Father, too. Something in his Sicilian blood must have been roused by the blatant chicanery of the move.

His first instinct was to go to law. Two can play at that game, he said (he had the love of cliché and saying of the imperfect speaker). Mother prevailed. She’d have a word with Maureen Grogan, first. They could take her tree after she was gone. Would it kill them, to wait? After all, she’d remind her, when the Grogans were looking for planning permission to put in that extension with the picture-window into their roof and the Farrellys had objected, which side had they supported? ‘But dear, we object was too high,’ shrugged my father. ‘Well it was too high! But we didn’t object outright. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we had’ve objected outright with the Farrellys, there’d be no picture window now for them to look out of. That’s the point, Fabrizio. It’s as well to remind them.’ If that tack didn’t work, then we might try a countermeasure. In proportion as the leylandii had grown, so too had their shadows. By this time half of the garden was in perpetual shade, the lawn mossy and threadbare. ‘Go you,’ she instructed, ‘and have a word with Fergal Finley. Tell him what the situation is. If they so much as touch my magnolia, I’ll have them take down their precious leylandii so I will. We have a law in this country called daylight saving.’

At this time, as said, the Riverside estate was weighing heavily on Paddy Grogan’s mind. To that extent, as my old man repeated with glee, we had him over a barrel; the last thing he wanted was another lawsuit on the books from another disgruntled plaintiff. The upshot was, without any recourse to Finley, not only was the magnolia left intact; the builder even agreed to have the leylandii trimmed. But he wasn’t altogether the eejit. ‘I don’t mind doing it, Fabrizio, if it gives your missus a bit of pleasure. The only thing is, I think you’ll agree it’s only fair we go halves on the expense. Now, how does that suit you?’ My dad held the other man’s gaze, behind each of their eyes an entire ancestry of cunning. He too could be magnanimous. ‘And we forget about magnolia?’ ‘That’s what I’m saying to you. Have we a deal?’ They had, they spat, and they shook on it.

It took two full days to trim that hedge. Special machinery had to be brought in; a cherry-picker, two workers, a truck to take away the branches. A week later, the bill arrived. ‘The guts of three grand, are you mad?! Well the cheek of the man! He’s charging us for the hire of his own machinery, look it Fabrizio!’ Examining the invoice, this was certainly the case; even the two workers (on overtime) were employees of Grogan & Son plc. ‘You’re not thinking of paying this, I hope.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ declared my father. ‘You think I’m born yesterday?’ And that was when he was allowed follow his first instinct, to the law.

Fergal Finley had been the Regan family lawyer from time immemorial. Never mind the present house, it was Finley had signed the contracts on my maternal grandmother’s house, up in the village. It was Finley who’d drawn up, and seen executed, three generations of the Regans’ wills (a taxonomy of cancers had played havoc with my mother’s side of the family tree). But he was semi-retired now, all his life had been a small-town lawyer, whereas Bradley and McCoy were city solicitors. ‘Am I correct in saying there was no actual contract drawn up between you? The trees, d’you see, are entirely on his side of the boundary.’ He and my father were pacing the bald lawn to our side of the mutilated hedge. ‘No, is wrong. We shake on it.’ ‘Yes but Fabrizio, the point in law is that there is nothing in writing.’ They paused at the magnolia by the gate as Finley sized up his client. ‘Was there a witness, itself?’ ‘My son. He witnessed.’ Under wild eyebrows the lawyer eyed me. I shrugged, as much as to say, what do you want, that’s my old man for you! He’d have to find a tack more sensitive to Sicilian notions of honour.

The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It was round one to the Grogans. To be fair to Paddy, he’d tried to reason with us. ’Do yourselves a favour. It goes to court it’ll end up costing you ten times as much. There’s no one wins from these situations only the lawyers and with your poor missus the way she is, well…! Look, you can pay me back in instalments if you’d find that easier…’ He may as well have spat on Fabrizio Cafolla as add that last suggestion about paying by instalments. Perhaps that was why he said it; because as we were to find, that man had a vicious, vindictive streak in him. But then, as he was to find, where my father’s sense of honour was concerned, reason could take a back seat.

Still, things might have blown over if fate hadn’t intervened. A full year had passed since the affair of the damaged magnolia. Mother’s condition had deteriorated, and that week she’d been admitted to Castlebar for observation. She was due back out on the Saturday. It was early May, the month where promiscuous country roads have their hedges massacred, so that I wasn’t surprised to overtake a leaf-eating tractor as I cycled home from school on the Thursday. But the council truck pulled up at the foot of our drive was another matter entirely. I immediately phoned my dad, but by the time his car pulled up the damage was done. Mother’s splendid magnolia was no more. I followed the train of dark Sicilian curses to the Grogans’ front door. Now, it may well be that Paddy Grogan had forgotten all about the affair, as Maureen insisted. In all likelihood he had, for he had far bigger fish to fry. The downturn had left his business with a mass of debts and lawsuits. That’s as may be Mrs Grogan, the point was, from the moment he’d involved his brother-in-law, the councillor, he’d set in motion a process that had led to this crime. Yes, crime! And he must pay.
 
 
In proportion as mother’s condition worsened, father became more intractable. Perhaps it was his way of feeling he was fighting her disease; perhaps his way of not thinking about it too closely. One way or another, the less time my mother was able to spend in her garden, the more my father fought over every square inch and every legal scruple. I’m sure there’s an irony in that, but if there is, for my money it’s an admirable irony. Now, one unforeseen consequence of chopping twenty feet off the giant leylandii was that our house was now overlooked by the Grogans’ box window. Worse, it overlooked the patio, which was south-facing, and so was where mother liked to sit out, on her good days. ‘We should never have allowed them to build that monstrosity,’ she sighed one weary morning. And whether that was the germ that infected my father, or whether it was a campaign over which he was already sitting in brood, from that day he began to show up at work less and less, and to be seen more and more in the offices of Fergal Finley and of Castlebar Town Council.

Mother died that August. It did nothing to dampen his agitation. If anything, it poured fuel on it. The kitchen table was taken over by plans and blueprints. A land surveyor was called in, and for several days, our garden was host to all manner of tapes and tripods. Grogan looked on with sarcasm and derision. He’d fought his own losing battle with the banks, but he’d be damned if a crackpot Italian was about to get the better of him in his own back yard. And what it all came down to, in the end, was a matter of six inches. (I’ve endeavoured to be as accurate as I can in this, but Finley is an old man now, and from my father, of course, there can be no hope of accurate information.) At the time of the proposed extension, unlike the Farrellys who had lodged their objections in the strongest terms, our family had objected only to the scale of the affair. The plans had been modified, the extension completed in record time. All that was old history. The Farrellys had sold up years since. If it was out of scale, the window had never been an issue between our families. But, meticulous measurements were now revealing that, all along, the bould Paddy Grogan had flouted the new plans by a matter of three inches. ‘We have him!’ cried my father, his fist pounding the table. Finley wasn’t so sure, but they went to court on it.

It was thrown out. The judge, a woman, was not impressed. Fabrizio Cafolla was not impressed by the judge. By this time he was no longer an employee of Horizon Computing, and could devote all his energies to the niceties of the law. Finley he cajoled, bullied and begged, and between them they drew up an appeal. Justice Deirdre Brennan had ruled that the breach was trivial. That in itself was scandalous! No breach of regulation could be deemed trivial. There was a point of law to be ruled on. But then, added to that, my father had brought in a civil engineer, an expert on soil mechanics. He could demonstrate that, over the eleven years since the monstrous room had been added, there’d been a subsidence of a minimum of three inches. That meant that that the original breach, the original flouting of the law, was a matter not of three but of six inches. Six inches, minimum! ‘We will see that in this country there is justice!’ cried my father. This time, it was not on the table that his defiant fist came down. This time, it was on the headstone of my mother’s grave.

The appeal was dismissed, in even rounder terms. The old man still held out the hope that, in the matter of costs, the judge would be a Solomon. Surely he must understand that a point of principle was at stake. Finley shook his head, and the gravel voice of the law berated my father for wasting the court’s time with such trivial nonsense. Costs, in their entirety, were awarded against, and Bradley and McCoy, solicitors, did not come cheap.

The costs were ruinous. We would be forced to sell up. But that in itself wasn’t the worst of it. Two days after the Judgement, catching sight of Grogan’s smug countenance peeping through the leylandii, my father seized up a garden shears. He made it two-thirds the way across the lawn before a stroke felled him. It was the first in a series. These days he sits, hour after hour, in the nursing home, one side of his body stupefied with paralysis, his mouth depressed, his eye indignant. There are times, few enough, when I have succeeded in raising a spark in it. When I told him that the Grogans, too, had had to sell up, for instance. Or the time I told him that his father had died. Thanks to the small inheritance, I would after all be in a position to do a law degree.

Pat Seman – The wind

Pat Seman
The wind

The wind comes knocking. It comes from the sea. I remember the taste of it, salt on my lips, as together we walked the cliff path, I and Dimitris. How it would tear its fingers through my hair. I won’t let it in. It catches hold of the shutters, slams them against the wall, they bang and bang until my head aches. I close the shutters tight. My room is cool and dark and silent like a cave under the sea. But the wind is sly, it comes back at night. Skittering across the roof, fretting and pulling at the tiles, it finds cracks. First the dust seeps through, falling like fine rain. Then the mouths come, stuffed with scorpions, swarming whispers that sting. And I can’t sleep for the pain of it.

My mother is there every morning sweeping up the carcasses. They are hollow and light and when the breeze lifts them they rustle across the courtyard. With her stiff broom she flails the flagstones, harrowing leaves, fallen petals, the tiny shells of insects, driving them into a corner with the dust, where the wind cannot find them.

I watch;

as my mother carries the broom across the churchyard. Keeper of the church. She has the keys. She cleans the churchyard every morning. Begins by the sea wall, sweeps up the ice cream wrappers, the empty crisp and cigarette packets, stoops to pick up tins, drops them into a plastic bag. Sometimes she’ll pause to greet someone. Tiny, determined to hold their gaze, she looks up into the deceitful faces. Old Nikos slowly taking the steps up from the harbour, leaning on his stick; Michaelis on his way to the taverna, hair slicked back, just married, impatient, keys jangling in his pocket; the children running, bags bumping against their shoulders, late for school. They never look up, they don’t even sneak a glance at the shutters. They’ll be thinking their thoughts no matter how closed their faces, they’ll know I’m watching them, feel my eyes on their backs burning.

When I walk through the village the bodies part like a wave. I wear black; a silk blouse I bought in Athens, the kind you can see through, with an open back, straps crossing. My shoulders are bare. I try to hold them straight, to walk in a straight line, not to falter, as I turn into the full sun, into the square. I don’t look to either side of me, but I know what they’ll be doing. The men in the shade of the mulberry tree outside the cafenion, grouped around two tables, sticks propped against the chairs. A lull in the conversation as I appear, their heads turning to follow my passing, and then, folding their newspapers, they’ll be clustered over their coffee, intent now, the talk charged with drugs, black arts and couplings and each one offering exact and salacious knowledge of when and where, as if I were one of their goats being mounted, over and over. The women, cardigans draped over their shoulders, clustered on the steps of the post office, faces hardening as I approach, they turn their backs. I pass my father’s grocery shop, the windows plastered with old newspaper, the paint peeling and cracked. This morning my mother screamed, ‘Your father’s better off where he is now, safe in his grave. The shame would have destroyed him’ Now the butcher’s shop. He’s hauling a lamb’s carcass off its hook, head drooping, the eyes glazed. His sharp cleaver descends fracturing the bone, slices through flesh.

Flesh and blood of Dimitris. Neither by birth, nor by way of consecration in the village church. Our bond greater than anything this tight community could contain. The moment his head hit the rock, blood oozing through his thick, black hair – our flight arrested, dreams shattered – I became all they’d imagined, ever wanted me to be: seductress, whore, murderer. I am no longer one of them, Every tie severed. They are butchers all of them.

They have taken his body, imprisoned it in the family tomb; with their sanctimonious scrawl on the marble headstone have claimed him back as their own ‘for eternity’. But for the dead of this village, there is no sleep. The wind is on the prowl always. It sweeps in from the sea, ticks upon the windows that shelter the fading photographs, the flickering flames. Fingers probing, it loosens the glass panes. A continuous tick, tick, like the click of bones.

I feel its breath through the slats of the shutters, gentle now, whispering of that wild, open space within sight and sound of the sea, its vast horizon, where I stood so often with Dimitris.

I close my eyes and am back there on the high cliff, close to the cry of seagulls. Only now I’m alone. At the very edge. A dizzying drop to the black huddle of rocks, the restless sea below. I look down, sway, lose my balance. The wind comes, rushing over the bare highland, scoops me up, thrusts me forward.

I’m flying. Free.

Susan Lloy – End of Rapture

Susan Lloy
End of Rapture

The gold-painted angel fell today. His ceramic limbs splayed all around. She should feel saddened by this, as it was given to her in a time of love when she lived in the Dutch capital. Handed to her by her former lover who had ripped it off the exterior of an Italian villa when he was playing there in a travelling quartet.

It has made her bitter. Staring at it year after year for more than thirty. She has many objects from Amsterdam strategically placed in her flat. Often a guest will inquire, ‘Oh, how lovely, where did you get it?’ ‘Amsterdam,’ she replied.

 
For many years she had boasted that she had lived there feeling like she had an edge up for the experience. She kept her Dutch language books on deck ready to brush up before travelling back more than twenty times, rolling her G’s and toning her tongue to Nederland standards. She constantly thought of her former lovers who became good friends, but of late, had wandered far from her.

 
Tourists always irked the Dutch. When she had inhabited its tiny streets more than three decades ago, they had annoyed them then. Yet, she had been able to blend in like an Amsterdammer. She remembered travellers that came for smack holidays. Seeing many a folk retching on cobbled streets. One doesn’t witness this now. On her last visit it made her nervous. Crowds tightly packed like little fish in a can. Tourists are more loathed now. Pouring into the small cafés, cluttering the squares. Boisterous Brits on bachelor stags.

When she had lived among the locals she had tried to absorb their mirth. Listening to them sing while riding their bicycles along the canals. Now bikes are full of danger. With cyclists roaring along texting, not a single eye on the road.

 
She felt a pride that she had retained her Dutch. And for the most part, Amsterdammers are happy to spar with her broken words. Still, during her last trip, when she sat at a small theatre café and left a decent tip, she had overheard the bartender turn the name, tourist, around like it was a cancer.

She has many framed photographs of her former lovers, but it pains her to hang them on the walls. They sit, hidden, in an old armoire waiting to be dismantled. Yet, she can never bring herself to complete this task. She immortalized them in print during their shared time in Amsterdam, but they never stole a peek.

So, when she looks around at hints of her Dutch past it is as if a knife sears her heart. She can’t imagine strolling the streets, sitting on a sidewalk terrace, seeing the ghosts of her past. And besides, she would be just another tourist in Amsterdam. AQ

Lianne O’Hara – En route

Lianne O’Hara
En route

Another car must have turned unexpectedly, as I was nearly catapulted all the way to the front window when the bus came to a sudden halt.

‘Alright love,’ the driver yelled without looking. I politely told him I was fine and refrained from asking any more questions; this would only trigger a monologue about his wife’s absence, his daughter asking him for money but no longer for advice, she had outgrown that, but money they never outgrow! and endless variations of similar topics of conversation. For now, however, the bus was empty, and I was thoroughly enjoying the silence, supported by the soft humming of the motor, and the sound of raindrops ticking against the window in a neatly patterned sequence.

‘I see you’ve brought an umbrella.’

I looked up, and in the seat opposite from mine a man had taken up position, folded newspaper in hand, ready to attack. In a desperate attempt not to be too obvious I looked around the bus, but it was still empty, save for the one seat opposite from where I was sitting. I couldn’t get up to sit somewhere else, it would be rude, but I could also not ignore him, since evidently he had been talking to me, as there were no other passengers on the bus. I did have an umbrella, parked against the aisle seat left from mine, so as to avoid anyone sitting down there and striking up conversation.

‘Yes, I have,’ I told him, and turned my face to look out the window again.

‘Will you believe,’ he said, ‘that I once owned an umbrella just like yours.’

From the corner of my eye I checked my umbrella, thinking of something to say, but what was there to say really about a fairly generic black umbrella? I told the man, who introduced himself as Rey, with an E not an A, that I did believe him. ‘Umbrellas like these must have been around for a good few centuries now.’

He frowned, and said I must have misunderstood. ‘When I said just like yours,’ he continued, ‘I meant there is a greater similarity between your umbrella and mine than between any of these other generic, as you called it, umbrellas floating around town.’

‘Floating,’ I said.

Rey looked as if he wanted to sigh, but instead he sat up a little straighter and continued. ‘In Amsterdam, in 1974, I met a woman. Her name was Sheila, or Sharon, one of the two anyway, and she was the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Maybe her name was Shannon, come to think of it. In any case,’ he said, ‘she was beautiful. Not only beautiful, she was also highly intelligent, and was one of the nominees for the 1974 Miss Mind Awards. She didn’t win the prize, in the end, but it didn’t matter. For me, she’d always be the best candidate.’ Rey smiled a little when he said this. He had a small mouth, with very wet lips, which he occasionally licked in the intervals between sentences, where most people pause to breathe. His hair, which was quite thin so I was given a good view of his scalp, was tied back in a ponytail. I could see flecks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket, which was a little tight around the waist. His most remarkable feature, however, was his nose. It was a large, Roman nose, proudly sprouting thick grey hairs in all directions. Balanced on its bridge, there was a pair of glasses, held together by a thin golden frame, which Rey pushed a little further up multiple times, almost in sync with the licking of his lips. ‘Where was I,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, Sylvia.’

‘Sheila,’ I said.

‘Whatever,’ Rey said, and pushed his glasses up a little. ‘Sylvia and I met, as I told you, in Amsterdam in 1974. It was the beginning of, let’s say, a little more than a beautiful friendship. We adored each other. See, in my younger days, I was quite the catch. Some, of course, still think I am’ – he gave me a little wink – ‘but I won’t deny age has left its mark. Round here, mostly!’ He grabbed his stomach with two hands and shook it in my direction.

‘Right,’ I said, and wished I had taken an earlier bus.

‘It was a warm summer’s day,’ Rey continued, ‘and we stared at each other for a good few seconds before she came over. Why, she asked me, on a delicious summer’s day like this, are you walking around with an umbrella? See, if I had known she was right on her way to leaving me after having emptied my pockets, my bank account, and whatever I kept stored in the boot of the car, I would have never answered that question, of course. But I didn’t know that, and she was, as I’ve told you, incredibly beautiful. I took her hands in mine and I said darling, beautiful delicious darling, this umbrella is to shield you from harm, come hell or high water. I will fend off any interlopers, no one but Rey shall elope with you, my love!’ As he said this, Rey threw his hands up in the air dramatically. He was an animated talker, and once had been, he told me, a very successful actor.

‘So then,’ he continued, ‘naturally, she went home with me. I was quite the charmer, back then in Amsterdam in 1974. Three beautiful weeks we spent together, wining, dining, dancing, the lot. And then, one day, she was gone.’ She’d phoned him once after from a pay phone, to ask if he could wire some money to Berlin. Berlin, he had said, have you lost your mind? She’d called him a sad old miser, and hung up the phone.

Rey had stopped licking his lips, and kept them pressed together very tightly for a while. ‘You see,’ he went on, ‘she even took the umbrella. The money was replaceable, that wasn’t the problem, but I had carried around that umbrella for nine years.’ Admittedly, he had used it to charm women before, it seemed to lend itself very well for these occasions. ‘But she didn’t know that,’ he said and glanced at my umbrella, which was still leaning against the seat adjacent to mine. ‘If you don’t mind,’ Rey said, ‘perhaps you could lend me your umbrella for a week or two?’ AQ