HOME – Warsan Shire
HOME – Warsan Shire
These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland as though nothing matters – Linda Norton, Patterns for Arans
When I discovered I was pregnant — as much a surprise to me as to the doctor who told me a few months previously that I would never be — I realized that there would be some time when journalism would not be possible. I wasn’t worried, I’d write fiction.
Not that I had ever written fiction or was reading it regularly in any respectful or attentive way. But what I had in mind cheap mysteries and cheap romance. How are hard could that be?
Hard enough. Even Harlequin and Mills and Boon eluded me. The fiction I like to write, even my cheap fiction (I have four historical romantic suspense novels finished in rough draft and one imitation Nora Roberts in something I thought was final draft but which has never sold) is dark.
However I did discover that I enjoyed writing, and almost could write, quick and somewhat simple women’s magazine fiction, the kind that used to appear in publications like Take a Break. Unfortunately, I made this discovery this just as that market largely dried up.
I have just read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and under the influence of his advising, urging, and hectoring to get your imperfections out there I am posting a women’s magazine story that failed to find its niche. It was written because of time I spent on the Aran Islands working on a travel piece (which did find someone who loved it, the Financial Times Magazine of all things), but the islands I had in mind are the San Juans off the west coast of Washington state and Canada.
“It seems to me,” my mother said, looking down at the tiny creature wrapped in baby blankets by the fire, “that you don’t even like people very much.”
“Why?” I asked and smiled. Smiling was something I was sure she didn’t want me to do when she is in the mood to scold. But a smile turnth away wrath, or something, and with my mother, I am never sure what she does want.
“It’s obvious, Diana.” She sighed and I could see her shoulders rise with the intake of breath as she got ready to tell me. “All the animals of course.”
The blankets stirred. I picked up a baby bottle, tested the temperature on my wrist, got the puppy from under the blankets and started to feed it. It is usually wild things I try to save, but some summer people had abandoned a litter of puppies and this was the only one still alive by the time someone found them. “They aren’t mutually exclusive you know, people and animals, that is.” I thought I had her there. She herself had had four dogs to my certain knowledge; the last one lived on cooked-to-order free range chicken until it died at the ripe old age of seventeen. I had only three dogs and three cats and whatever creature I was nursing at the moment. Okay, all at once, but not such a difference.
“If things are kept in proportion. However,” she continued and I knew what was coming, so, I must admit, I turned off and beamed at the puppy. Its progress from certain death to milk gulping life had impressed even the vet. I barely heard my mother’s list of complaints, I knew them all: where I lived — on an island; how I lived — by myself; how I kept house — a disaster; how I looked — like I was about to dig in the garden, which usually I was. She would end with: why couldn’t I be more like my sister, — a barrister, beautiful and married. But this time my mother switched tracks “and the way you are behaving about that Jeremy Browne, Diana, is really unfair. One would think you would cultivate someone like that.”
My attention snapped back. Getting me into trouble with my mother would be added to the long list of reasons I did not like Jeremy Browne. But I hadn’t expected my mother, on an infrequent visit, to know about any of that. Without missing a beat she added “I’m friends with his mother, didn’t you know ?” and got up to put on the kettle for a cup of tea.
The puppy fell asleep and I put it back under the blankets. It was a good thing I had been reminded of Jeremy Browne early in the day; tonight I planned to sink him altogether. I dug through the piles of papers on my desk– my mother was right on that count, I was messy — until I found Jeremy Browne’s proposal, slick, professionally printed and delivered to every house on the island. ‘Ecology based tourism’, it blared, ‘the answer to the island’s dreams’. Less than a year on the island and he already thought he knew how we dreamed. He had come from the city and some high-powered media career. To write a novel, he said, but he was so occupied ‘improving’ things it was difficult to see when he took time to write. He’d organised the committee that got the new pier and perhaps a new ferry, and had been instrumental in adding the extra room on the schoolhouse. The room, I should add, where everyone was meeting tonight.
I was in love with the way the island had been since I was a child and my father had made it our special place. Wild and isolated, it was his refuge from a marriage that didn’t work, and a place he could treat me like the son he didn’t have.
Jeremy Browne proposed boats for whale watching, trails for bird watching, lookouts for otter watching and who knew what else. I’d lived on the island since my father died five years ago and was sure that the islanders wouldn’t want the visitors, strangers and all the they changes they would bring. I’d point this out, his plan would lose, and Jeremy Browne would go look for some place else to ‘write’ or to ‘improve’ as the case may be.
I had to admit as I walked up the path that the new room on the school had been a good idea, but it was enough. Jeremy Browne was already on the platform going over his brochure with a stranger, who with his jacket, tie and shining shoes was definitely a city solicitor type. I studied Jeremy’s face as I waited for the meeting to begin. Good looking if you wanted to call it that, with lines that could have come from laughter around his eyes. In different circumstances I might have liked him.
But not now and not ever when he started to speak and heads around the room nodded in agreement. He repeated the argument of his brochure: things needed to change so they could stay the same; tourism based on the island’s beauty and wildlife was the best chance for jobs; and jobs would give the island’s young people the choice to stay if they wanted to and to preserve island life. Shinny shoes and half a dozen people around the room chimed in in agreement. I had lost even before I said my piece, but I would probably have managed to keep my temper if he hadn’t waited outside afterwards to compliment me on my contribution.
“You spoke well,” he said, stepping out of the shadows and holding out his hand. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s someone who is magnanimous in victory. I said thank you but didn’t take his hand.
He started to walk beside me. “I agree with you about the island, it is unique and precious. But unless islanders can make decent livings here, not just fishing and the small farms, young people will leave. The cottages will be bought by outsiders, most of them will sit empty fifty weeks a year. You and I may live here all year but we’re not island born. We’re the wave of that future unless things changes.”
It wasn’t his lecturing that made me angry, although I didn’t understand why for some reason it was important to him I understood what he was trying to do. What fueled my anger was that he was right. We were intruders, blow-ins. I stopped walking. “You know why I came here? Because of people like you.” I heard myself, but didn’t stop. “You’re the brightest and the best and say you’re helping when you go around changing things to suit yourself, ‘it’s for their own good’ you say. But really its your good. You’ll probably make lots of money out of this island, you and your shiny- shoed friend.”
It was dark around us and I heard, more than saw, him laugh, “I told him he was overdressed. He comes from another island, Diana, where they are trying the same thing.”
Of course being wrong made me angrier and I turned away from him. He caught at my arm. “Diana wait…”
But I was too quick. “Just leave things alone” I shouted and ran.
My must have face given me away, because as soon as I walked through the door my mother put down her book and poured me a glass of wine. I sat on the couch, hugging my knees up to my chin. My mother sat next to me. I told her about the meeting and about afterwards. “He’s going to ruin Daddy’s and my island, ruin it.” To my surprise I felt the heat of tears. I never cry.
My mother was quiet. The puppy made a sleepy movement. She bent and tucked the blanket more firmly around it. “Perhaps it’s time for me to be a little more honest with you.” She sighed, more sadness than exasperation. “I’ve always thought of you as the one thing I got right for your father.” She put her arm around me. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. “When I first met your father he thought I was brave and full of life. Like you. I was quiet and shy, but I loved him very much and I let him think I was something else because I thought I could make him happy.”
I put my head on her shoulder.
“I didn’t. So in a way you were my gift to him and I didn’t interfere with the way you were brought up.” She pushed away from me a little so that she could look into my eyes. Tears began to run down my cheeks. She took the wine glass out of my hand and pulled my head back to her shoulder. “Your father was wonderful in many ways, and he could have done things for what he cared about , like this island. But he preferred to live in a fantasy world.”
Her voice changed, I was sure she was smiling. “I know I nag, I’m making up for lost time. You’re a marvel and I love you.” She kissed the top of my head. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that either.
She was right about my father, I recognised his faults and adored him anyway. But somewhere in the cold chasm between my parents, I had lost sight that I also loved my mother — and needed her. I cuddled against her, but my mother was never one to lose an opportunity.
“You know Jeremy is right. Work with him. Don’t be like your father and live in a pretend world of things as you wish they were. Jeremy’s not doing this for money. His mother says he’s set up a trust that puts very penny back into the island. Wash your face now and go apologise to him.”
I stayed in the circle of her arm, not wanting to move, not wanting the magical found-my-mother moment to end .
She sat up straight. “Now, ” she said.
In the bathroom I scrubbed my face and hands and took my hair out of its normal pony tail, hoping a different hair style might distract Jeremy Browne from the dirt stains I couldn’t get off my fingers. My mother was giving the puppy its bottle as I left.
His cottage was on the ridge above mine and I could see that there was a light on. I knocked and waited, listening to the wind blowing around me. It seemed an age until he opened the door
“How nice to see you,” he said as though I had not stormed away from him an hour before. “Come in out of the wind.”
I stepped in and stood there feeling lumpish and awkward and not knowing how to begin.
“Can I do something for you?” he asked.
I shook my head no, then the words tumbled out. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. It’s a good plan, I’d like to help. ” I held out my hand.
He smiled and took it, but didn’t shake hands as I had expected. Instead he raised it slowly. I knew he could feel how rough my skin was and see the lines where the stains wouldn’t wash away. I tried to pull my hand out of his, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, ever so softly, he kissed my fingers. “Of course,” he said.
I think it was at this moment, dear reader, I fell in love.
These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland
as if nothing matters.
A year and a half into cleaning up my mothers things I have come to the conclusion that the venerable tradition of burying a person’s possessions with them — a horse to ride, a sword to fight, a wife to serve, gold to appease an angry god — may have as much to do with aiding the living as smoothing a journey through the afterlife.
I have ordered the random: pennies put aside in case one was worth hundreds rather than a cent, 1940s on; a tin push toy with wings possibly Mexico, possibly 1945; a Christmas list with who got what and how much it cost, 1954; a once red paper flower labelled as from an Oud maker in Bagdad, 1973; records of building a garden fence, 1976. I have sorted the voluminous evidence of her professional life: folders for festivals; songs lists for gigs; fan letters; milage records for the Farm Security Administration, diagrams of ship parts from World War II. Twenty four boxes, shelved and labeled.
It is the things more precious to my mother that defeat me. She liked pictures of herself — photographs and drawings. She liked the things that people she liked gave her. Once she liked spoons and bones to play and was somewhat a fetishist when it came to jaw harps. In the closet are lace up boots from the 1930s, moccasins with real Indian Head nickel buttons, summer clothes made out out of rice sacks from Southeast Asia. Without her, these things, always visible in her everyday life or carefully folded in everyday drawers, are forlorn, of no more significance than the pennies. What to do? To throw them away is to be complicit in my mother’s exit from the world. I can’t do that. They languish in limbo— large plastic boxes under the eaves. At some point I will redeem the letters from Pete Seeger and the others: Utah Philips, Gordon Bok, Kate Wolf, Malvina Reynolds.
I talk to a friend. She also had a difficult mother, one given to physical outrage. She too keeps as much as she can transporting it from the East Coast to the West. Members of our sisterhood, of our fraternity, she says, practice an archeology of self. What happened to us? Why? When? We excavate.
My found artifacts: letters my mother wrote and letters she received, notes to herself, photographs, short stories she wrote, poems she copied, books she saved.
Before my mother became ‘Faith Petric, the Fort Knox of Folk Music’ — much loved as such, much needed, important — when she was still the person born in a log cabin in the mountains of Idaho making her way to the big city, she had a plan to sail to China. Among the papers I find is a 1940s application for that passport and her picture. She has full cheeks and a white lace collar.
Seattle life — work in a bookstore, friendship with the painters of the Northwest School — and San Francisco life — the Black Cat bar, Chinatown, sailing on the Bay — held her instead. I like her then. She was adventurous. She had the intimacy of friends who read books in the French original and painted and sculpted and wrote funny letters and took photographs, who ran the San Francisco Labour School and went to Paul Robeson concerts, and to anti-lynching parties and wanted justice even as the FBI was breathing down their necks. From what was sent and received they seemed to have loved each other, been angry, disappointed, forgave and loved again. Relationships of equals.
Sometimes in old age my mother would say she was looking for a friend. Not that she didn’t have wonderful friends: Estelle who is making a film about her now, Bonnie who did so much to keep her at home, Morgan the saw player. But once she became the Fort Knox of Folk Music, the head of the San Francisco Folk Music Club, the recipient of the Noam Chomsky Peace Prize these were not quite relationships of equals. And power can corrupt.
I also like the earlier mother for selfish reasons. Shortly after she died I found a note she had written to herself. I was visiting with my daughter who was young. My mother was having a hard time with that visit. For comfort, she listed the qualities she liked about about me and those she didn’t. The didn’t like list had a dozen items. The like list had four – none substantial Do I wish it had been buried with her? I don’t know. I think not.
In that earlier time, when I am ten and she is not yet a folk star, she writes a letter to a man she loved giving news of her life. This one is the gold. “Carol is lovely,” she says.
What My Father Left Behind — Chris Forhan
Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,
hammer he nailed our address to a stump with,
balsa wood steamship, half-finished—
is that him, waving from the stern? Well, good luck to him.
Slur of sunlight filling the backyard, August’s high wattage,
white blossoming, it’s a curve, it comes back. My mother
in a patio chair, leaning forward, squinting, threading
her needle again, her eye lifts to the roof, to my brother,
who stands and jerks his arm upward—he might be
insulting the sky, but he’s only letting go
a bit of green, a moulded plastic soldier
tied to a parachute, thin as a bread bag, it rises, it arcs
against the blue—good luck to it—my sister and I below,
heads tilted back as we stand in the grass, good
luck to all of us, still here, still in love with it.
Ever peripatetic, I land in Dallas, Texas. Throughout the airport are strategically placed volunteers ready to direct in-comers through the confusion of corridors. The volunteers wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots and smiles. I don’t expect to like them, but I do. How can I not? They are ripe with humour and good will.
After two glorious months in Dublin, I am back in the United States to deal again with my unfortunate choice in tenants.
Even before I arrive in San Francisco, I find myself greeted by the question that shadowed me as I left: what part do I have of this country, whose people I like so much and whose government treats them so often with disregard and contempt?
Life in San Francisco is seductive: the expanse of ocean, the Mission where people are kind enough to understand my Spanish, the great roll of fog through the Gate, sunset among the decorous wine drinkers on Tank Hill, more affordable restaurants than I could ever eat my way through, North Beach and it’s memories, the vegetable markets of Clement Street, the free box at Green Apple Books, and, a glory and a prophylactic against my final surrender, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
The library — light filled, book filled, talk sponsoring, exhibit hosting — rises with Beaux Arts grandeur on the edge of the city of the damned. In the morning, people who’ve slept rough roll up their bedding on the grass that runs between the library and the gilded dome of San Francisco City Hall.
Up a block is the Tenderloin, euphemistically referred to as an area of single room occupancy hotels and apartment houses, also referred to as an area of drug dealing, prostitution, history, poverty, and despair. Midday finds long lines for a free meal.
In the afternoons on the library steps and in the shade of the trees across the street, the homeless sit. They are identifiable by the mounds of personal belongings that sit beside them. At times there is someone on a corner or leaning against a lamp post or at the bus stop or in the street who can’t take it any more, who is gesturing, mumbling, waving, yelling or weaving among the cars.
Without the library and its environs, I would become inured, seduced and captured by the American cornucopia.
Strung across the library’s lobby is a banner proclaiming. “Anyone can get a library card.” Anyone can roll in with their possessions and anyone does. Anyone can sit at the internet computers. Anyone can fill the desks with books. Anyone can use the bathrooms. Anyone can charge a phone. Researchers, browsers, aspiring novelists (me), students, use the library alongside the library’s neighbours, people with nowhere else to go.
The library, vestige of a vanishing communality, a place in which we are all briefly equal, provides a balm for the rawness I feel at my comparative privilege — given to me by education, skin colour, and luck.
It is a self serving comfort and of no use. It is not nearly as helpful as the small cheques my mother wrote every few months to antipoverty campaigns, women’s rights groups, environmental warriors, cheques so small that their value was probably used up in the regular snail mailings of free calendars, petitions, address labels, membership cards, and appeals for more money such donation’s attract.
Recently, leaving the library, I see a figure on the on the street at the foot of the Pioneers Monument that stands, its Eureka rampant, between the library and the Asian Art Museum.
I and two homeless men go over. It is a girl in a foetal curl. Her black trousers are pulled down slightly, exposing her lower back. The trousers are worn and have the patina of street. I can see a tattoo, an edge of breast, the very short hair on the back of her head. A mobile phone is held tightly to her ear. She is alive, she is conscious. The two men and I stand a while considering what we can do. In the end we do nothing.
It seems to me the perfect cypher for me in America. I’m here, I know there is a problem and I don’t know what to do.
The 52 week short story project has been bobbing ineffectually on the sea of daily life ever since I received the court papers informing me that my former tenant is suing me — accusing me of having destroyed or stolen something close to nine thousand dollars worth of his personal possessions. The claim has, for the past three months, successfully swamped anything I could write.
As we approach the trial date, and with my case prepared, I am again sighting if not a whole continent at least an island on which to stand. Hence the story posted below along with hopes that I am back to a regular schedule.
It was supposed to be a dark, unfortunately it is not.
On Monday the teacher asks why I ran away. Now, I’m not sure you can call it running away when your mother comes with you, but what I say is “It’s a long story.”
“Tell me ,” she says.
It started just before dinner. I was doing my homework at the kitchen table. The sun was making everything golden and my mom was standing by the sink holding up a glass in the light. She had to do that because my stepfather didn’t like it if there were spots or fingerprints on them. The week before he got really mad and waved a glass in her face. “What do I let you stay at home all day for?” he yelled.
I have to tell you I didn’t like that one bit.
Anyway, my mom was holding up this glass and it was making rainbows all over the walls. I guess it was a crystal glass because someone told me that crystal makes the best rainbows and my stepfather always says he likes to give himself the very best. I don’t think he likes crystal because it makes the best rainbows, but because it costs a lot of money. He’s like that.
My mom saw me looking at the rainbows. She looked really pretty and her eyes had little sparkles in them and I smiled at her. I don’t know what my mother was thinking while I was smiling at her, but when she heard the key in the front door, she jumped. It was a big old house, with a big old door and a big old lock and you could hear things rattle and creak and hit each other every time someone opened the door. Crash went the glass.
The rainbows did this crazy dance down the wall. They were beautiful.
We knew my stepfather would be coming down the hall to the kitchen to get a glass of wine like he always did before he went to sit in front of the TV to watch the news and he’d be really mad about the broken glass, it being crystal and all, but we just kept looking at the glass on the floor like we were playing Statues or something. It was the first time I was ever glad it was such a big house. Usually I didn’t like it because it has lots of empty rooms and things that never get opened. Once my stepfather told me that when his family bought the house about a hundred years ago, they found a little child’s skeleton in a cupboard. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not because afterwards he laughed.
Just when my stepfather got to the other side of the kitchen door, my mother bent down and scooped up the pieces of glass with her hands and dumped them in washing machine. No way my stepfather, Brian was his name, was ever going to open the washing machine. She got the pieces in there just as he came through the door.
Smart, but sneaky.
He walked in and kind of brushed my mom’s cheek with his. You could already see whiskers on his cheeks. Close up they look like little black bits like thorns and he always had them by dinner time. When they got engaged I told my mother I would never marry a man who had whiskers like that, but she said she kind of liked them. I don’t think she liked them anymore, because she pulled her cheek away. Just a little. You had to be really looking to notice.
I was so busy hoping my stepfather wouldn’t figure out about the glass, that I didn’t see Stuart come into the room at first. Stuart is Brian’s son. Now I really like Stuart. Most boys my age are pretty bad. My mom says I’ll like them when I get older and anyway they change. Stuart’s different. I think it is because he was born with something wrong with his legs and he wear braces. He says when he first went to school kids teased him because he couldn’t run around and play like everybody else. He says it made him learn to be nice, so they wanted to be his friend anyway. And he is too.
When he changed to my school there were these kids and they started to bully him. They always pick on somebody, but they were worse with him. He told his mum. His mom told him to tell the teacher. We did, but it didn’t do any good. I guess teachers can’t watch everybody all the time. The bullying made him really unhappy and he started to stay in the classroom when everyone else was outside fooling around at breaks. He got even more unhappy being inside, but I think the teachers thought they’d get in trouble if they made him go outside because of him having trouble walking and all. When my mother realized what was going on, she was really good. She had this long talk with Stuart. She told him that she thought bullies were really afraid. “If you show how strong you are, they’ll stop.”
My mom can be really convincing when she wants to be.
Stuart started to go outside again no matter what they said to him. He was getting happier being with the other kids and the bullies were getting madder. One day they grabbed one of his crutches and wouldn’t tell where it was. I wanted to tell the teacher, but Stuart said no. At the end of break time, he used the one he had left and the walls to get back to the classroom. It took him a long time, but when he got there the other kids all smiled and the teacher didn’t even get mad. The bullies stopped after that. Stuart got to be kind of a hero. Molly, my friend who lives across the road, she’s very popular, told me that she had a crush on him.
Way to go Stuart.
Anyway that evening Stuart came into the kitchen and raised an eyebrow at me. He thinks it looks cool. Sometimes I tell him it looks stupid, but this time I was just worried there was a piece of glass on the floor or something. I looked down but I didn’t see anything. Stuart nodded in the direction of the washing machine and I saw that there was a big red mark on the door. My mom must’ve cut herself on the glass. My stepfather didn’t notice because he was holding up another glass before he poured his wine into it. Stuart went over to the washing machine and stood in front of it, casual like. My stepfather poured wine into the glass, grunted down at Stuart that he’d better get his homework done and went out. My mom smiled a thank you smile and wiped off the washing machine.
That was it till we sat down for dinner.
The glasses sparkled and the food smelled really good. My mom looked pretty. The sun caught her hair and made little orange flames in it. But it was the worst dinner we ever had. When they first got married my step father would tell stories at dinner time and make my mother laugh. I thought maybe that’s why she married him. Because he made her laugh. But when you listened long enough you noticed there was something wrong with everyone in his stories but him. They were funny, but they were mean. My mother must’ve noticed it too, because she stopped laughing so much and when my stepfather noticed that she wasn’t laughing anymore he stopped telling his stories.
He started to complain instead. At first it was just about people who worked for him. But lately it was about us too. My mother didn’t keep the house clean enough; I made too much noise; Stuart thought he was so smart. My stepfather would complain, my mother would try to change the subject and me and Stuart — when he was there — would try to eat fast so we could leave the table. But this evening m stepfather only opened his mouth to put the food in. At first I was relieved. But after a few minutes I got really uncomfortable. It was like there was this thunder cloud over him and we were just waiting for the lightening. I started wishing he would go back to complaining. He put another bottle of wine on the table and didn’t even offer any to my mother. He kept his eyes on his plate except when he put more wine in his glass.
Believe me I was getting worried.
Stuart looked at me hard. I knew he wanted to know if they’d had another fight. Stuart always asks me because he lives with his mom and never sleeps over. I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t heard anything, but really, you never know. Stuart raised an eyebrow. I think he was asking me what was wrong then. I didn’t have any idea. So I mouthed “I don’t know.” But my stepfather looked up just then to pour himself some more wine and he saw me. “I won’t have whispering at the table.”
That wasn’t fair. “I wasn’t whispering,” I said.
I thought it would be right to stand up for myself. I knew it was rude to whisper. But that made my stepfather mad. He leaned right across the table and for a minute I thought he was going to hit me, even though he’s never done that before.
I guess my mother thought the same thing because she reached over to try to grab him. I saw her do it and I saw her knock over the bottle of wine. It spilled all over the table and all over my step father. It was a nice shade of red. Well my stepfather jumped back from the table so at least I wasn’t in danger of getting hit. Even if he’d never done it before he still scared me. “You stupid, clumsy git,” he yelled. Only he was looking at Stuart. I don’t know why he thought that Stuart had spilled the wine but he did. “You get down there and wipe that up.”
Now Brian knew and my mother knew and I knew that there was no way Stuart could crawl around on the floor wiping up the wine. Stuart was staring straight ahead. Which meant that he was looking straight at my mother. I guess that’s why he didn’t say anything about who really spilled the wine. My mother looked like she was going to cry.
My stepfather got madder. He was so mad it was almost like he was jumping up and down. And he had this big wet spot on the front of his pants, like he’d wet himself or something, so he looked silly. It would make you laugh if you weren’t worried about what he would do next. And what he did next was grab Stuart by the arm and pull him up from the table and bend over really close to him. “You can’t even say sorry, can you?” Then he let go so that Stuart fell back into the chair.
It must’ve hurt.
My stepfather stepped back. “I’ll teach you. You come with me. ”
He walked back to the kitchen. Stuart got up on his crutches. Stuart followed Brian out without saying a word. He was slow. I looked at my mother. I wanted her to tell Stuart not to go. But she wouldn’t look at me. She had put the bottle of wine back up and trying to mop up the spill with napkins. I wanted to yell at her that it didn’t matter, but then I saw that her hand was shaking so hard she couldn’t even get it to the table. I took my napkin and helped my mother wipe up the wine, all the time trying to listen for what was going on in the kitchen. I couldn’t hear anything. I guessed that meant he wasn’t hitting Stuart or anything.
After a few minutes my stepfather came back into the room and sat down at the table. He didn’t say anything but he put this key next to his plate It was one of those big old keys like they had in that house and I recognised it because it had a curly top. It belonged to the cupboard where my stepfather said they had found the child’s skeleton. He was going to keep Stuart in there forever. I reached for the key, but my stepfather slapped his hand over it really fast. “Don’t even think about it,” he said with a kind of a smile, but not a nice one.
He kept his hand on the key and started to eat again. He was shoving food into his mouth. I guess he wanted to show us that he wasn’t bothered, but it looked pretty disgusting, little bits of mashed potato were sticking to his face and he had this look like he was enjoying himself, like the bullies at school.
I looked at my mother. Her hands were on the table, but they weren’t shaking any more. Maybe it was the white bits sticking in his whiskers and the corners of Brian’s mouth made him look stupid.
“Where is he?” she asked. Her voice was really quiet. I knew when she talked like that things were really serious. Maybe you had to know her really, really well to see that; maybe my stepfather didn’t really know her so well after all because he just said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
I wondered if my mom thought he looked like a bully, because she was so good on bullies. She didn’t say anything, just sat there really quiet. To tell you the truth I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking about that cupboard and worrying about if Stuart could breathe all right and stuff and how Stuart wasn’t even the one that spilled the wine. Now I know you’re not supposed to shout in the house and you’re not supposed to shout at grown-ups. But really she had to do something. So I shouted. “Don’t you see Mom, he’s being a bully.”
My mom looked at me. Not like she was mad at me for shouting or anything, she just looked and then she smiled. She pushed back her chair and got up. She went around the table to where my stepfather was sitting and held out her hand. She didn’t say anything. She just stood there with her hand out. I was scared of what my stepfather might do, but I was proud too. She was standing up to the bully, only my stepfather was a lot bigger than the bullies at school. My stepfather wouldn’t look at her. So my mother reached down, moved his hand and picked up the key and handed it to me.
I don’t know what I expected when I opened the door. Gasping Stuart, crying Stuart. I don’t know. But he was just sitting there, cool like. He said “thank you” when I got him his crutches and first thing he did was go over to where my mother kept her purse and take out the car keys. Then he went to the coat rack and got my mom’s coat, and his coat and my coat and handed them to me.
We went back to the dining room. My mother was still standing there looking down at my stepfather. He wasn’t looking at her; he just kept fiddling with the knife and fork on his plate, changing their places over and over again.
Stuart handed my mother her bag and the car keys. I handed her her coat. She smiled at my step father. That surprised me, but there were no sparkles in her eyes. “Good bye.” she said and we left.
Outside the sun was just below the top of the hills and the sky was all orange and pink. We drove toward the hills to take Stuart home, like in some old move, off into the sunset. We didn’t go back.
The teacher is waiting. “It was beautiful,” I tell her.
I have fallen behind badly on the write-a-short-story-a-week-52-short-stories-can’t-be-all-bad project. More tenant trouble. But there is light at the end of that particular tunnel and I am again struggling with fiercer and more important battles. I am hoping to go back to the 52 story project with a Sunday/Monday deadline. We shall see.
This week’s story is based on an event following the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, noted at the time of his death as much for his Spiritualist beliefs as he was for Sherlock Holmes. Five days after he died a memorial was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in which believers expected Conan Doyle to appear. At least six thousand people attended and many accounts exist of the proceedings. It took a long time for the medium to say the words “He is here…” and I’ve always felt the time lag suspect and strange that the message was for his elder daughter that he had done so much to reject.
For far better descriptions of what it might be like to be a medium I recommend Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. Masterful and terrifying.
I used an Irish turn of phrase in the lead because Conan Doyle himself came from Irish Catholic stock, although he certainly was not (when I did my degree) celebrated among the Irish/ Anglo Irish writing canon.
The Empty Chair
You’d think death would put manners on them. But no. When you start it’s like a small room with everyone trying to get your attention, jumping up and down, waving their hands, shouting, calling each other names. Sometimes you can’t hear for the noise. It makes you want to cover your ears, not that it would do any good. You learn to carry on.
He’s introducing me.
A spirit sensitive, he says. That’s for certain. A street sweeper is hovering somewhere near my left eyebrow, demanding his share of the time. I try to wave him away. He comes back on the other side. See it as a gift my mother said. It’s made me a living. Hard enough, yes, but easier than scrubbing floors.
Tonight an experiment never before tried. You’d think he was serving up a sideshow at a fun fair. All my working life I’ve tried to stay away from the fakes. Keep away from the tricks, be honest, people trust you. You want that.
The last bit’s all right. Respected, Sir Arthur’s personal choice.
They sing another hymn and I move forward. In front of me rows and rows of white faces fading toward the back. Royal Albert Hall is full to the rafters, well wishers and scoffers alike. It is an opportunity for those of us who believe to show the truth. An opportunity for me as well. I would not be honest if I didn’t admit that, to be the first person through whom he speaks will be an honour that will not soon be forgotten.
The family is on the stage behind me. I can catch them from the corner of my eye. The widow in dove grey. With her are the two sons and the two daughters, only one of the daughters hers. You’d know there was a difference even if you didn’t. They keep a little apart from her. She has her eyes down. She’s from the first wife, named Mary, after his mother. She wanted to be singer, but the new wife didn’t like that. He left her a pittance, the fortune went to the others.
The widow sits to the left of an empty chair. On the chair is a piece of cardboard with his name on it. I can read the Conan Doyle from the corner of my eye. Cardboard. He was a good man. He did what he thought was right. Yes, a little foolish over the fairy business, but brave and truthful as he saw it. They gave him two full minutes of silence, not a sound in the house. You’d think they’d have put his name on brass engraved in best Copperplate hand. That would be more fitting.
Maybe Lady Doyle wrote it out herself. Maybe she thought it would summon him. She was young, a beauty. She gave him her youth. He was smitten. It’s hard to see the beauty in the matron. The corners of her mouth turn down. She waited ten years for him to marry her. That’s what it took the first wife to die. What kind of woman would do that? She has a will you’d give her that; you might obey too if she summoned you.
I start with the audience, the voices in your head are quieter once you begin and I’m listening among them for a soft Scottish burr. I don’t hear it. With the audience it’s the usual: a young man in Khaki, twenty four, with a message for his Uncle Fred. He knows its difficult times; he’s doing his best to help. A daughter and her father near the front. The father and the mother are together again. There is a sister there too. The street sweeper is hoovering, demanding his time, but there is no one here for him and he’s started to bang on my head.
Lady Doyle looks at me. Her head tilts just enough for me to see it. I shake my head ‘no’. The corners of her mouth push further down, her eyes black as jet. Does she blame me?
The woman killed almost twenty years ago by King’s horse at the Epsom Derby greets her friend, but some in the audience are growing restive. There are feet scrapings in the second row, a cough in the first tier. I wish the street sweeper would shut up. I take a breath and look around. No sign of Sir Arthur.
One of the sons said his father’s death was no more than if he had gone to Australia. If he only knew. Australia or whatever you want to call it, I wonder what’s delaying him. Maybe something on the other side. That happens. The first wife it is sometimes. They can be sitting around a table hands clasped, waiting for the dear departed with the soft cooing of love and what I hear is a row, voices crowding each other out with anger. You promised. No I didn’t. How could you? How could you? And of course you can’t tell the waiting family that. You move on, leave it. Try for something better next time. But I can’t do that here. Lady Doyle’s eyes feel like knives. The daughter from the first marriage catches that look. She looks at me, gives a little smile. She runs his Psychic Bookshop, she understands these things.
There is some grumbling by the spirits who have been left out, others are thanking me for me work, but the Scottish gentleman, dear, honest Arthur Conan Doyle is not among them.
A few people in the audience are leaving. Lady Conan Doyle is tapping her foot, both the sons are scowling.
The street sweeper is a few feet a front of me like a small grey cloud. I can hear his voice. He has an Irish accent. Come on now he says. Do what she wants and get it over with. No that’s not right. The faces in front of me weave and wave. My mouth is dry. I open it. “He’s here,” I say. The fun fair sideshow after all.
The Orchestra is tuning up. Lady Jean relaxes and smiles. I move over to her. He says, I lean over her and speak into her ear, tell Mary…. Lady Doyle looks startled, ….tell Mary that he’s sorry. Very sorry.
The music starts.
A story every ten days, doesn’t have the same zing. However that seems to be closer to the truth. This is another story that I have never gotten quite right and am trying again. The gas tank explosion and, of course, the 1985 earthquake are real events, although the time line has been collapsed slightly.
Exile: A love story.
She felt the earth move and opened her eyes. No, that was before. This was the jolt of an unexpected waking, cup against cup, a voice too loud. Here the wall were rock steady. Joke. Rocks had moved, bounced around like children’s balls. This was a haven, hospital: blankets institutional green, sheets stiff and clean, a bouquet of roses, dark heads drooping, a square of pale Northern sun on the polished floor.
It wasn’t the convulsions of the earth that had brought her here. Of her life? Perhaps. Better heart. Although how that particular organ came to be a metaphor for love she wasn’t sure. Once, somewhere, it had been liver. She liked the idea of liver, messier, more like the real thing.
Aren’t you tough?
They sat on her couch. ‘Cold’ he called her, while she was screaming inside. “You can’t do this to me,” he said.
“I’m not doing it to you, I doing it.”
Later when she’d told him — more times than she could count — that she was going to have the baby, he laid his head on her shoulder, hot shot photographer slipping away at last. “I’m confused, give me time. I need time.”
Pressing into him, arms around his neck. I’ll give you anything, but not the baby.
Time hadn’t healed. There were a ew more magic nights in the big bed that she used to think of as floating above the city and above the gritty day-to-day about which they could never agree. Magical and improbable as the tiny garden beneath the window where birds sang her awake, a miracle in the chaotic heart (that word again) of the city slowly sinking into the Aztec mud. She put his sleeping hand over where she thought the baby was. This child will have been touched by its father. She lay in the morning memorising his face. Eyes closed, lips, the shape of his ears, ran her hand over his skin trying to carry its smoothness so that she would know it again if she met it in their child.
He curled around her in the bed. “I’ve decided if you’re going through we should get married.”
Her heart, if that’s what it was, leapt, then danced.
“You’ll be a bohemian, unfit mother. I must be there to watch things.”
It got worse. Outside some expensive Mexico City restaurant, his idea of a special treat, never mind that nothing stayed in her stomach, never mind it was midnight. Never mind the man in the shadows, his matches, his single cigarette for sale still spread carefully in front of him on the pavement. Someone else going home on an empty stomach.
Miguel turned toward her, streetlight outlining his face, his beautiful, ancient-mask face. She reached up her hand. “Suppose I don’t marry you? Suppose I don’t live with you?” Her fingers traced his cheek. “You’re not offering love, you know.”
He bent, she could feel the warmth of his breath. “Then I’ll take the baby.”
Her hand dropped, stepping back was a long silent fall. She wanted to echo him “you can’t do this to me,” but he could. Here children belonged to their fathers. De Valle Narrate, Colonia Roma, Zona Rosa, like someone singing a corridor of exile, full of longings for home.
All night she lay curled on the couch, staring into the blackness that was her garden. The shock came as the sky turned pink, a roll of thunder that travelled through the earth. Silence, then a cacophony of sirens heading north.
Her press card moved her through police lies. Fireman, ambulance workers, police worked in a desert of dust, the round gas tanks hanging above them like full moons except for the jagged curve of the one that had exploded raining hell on the hand-built houses of the centurion de misery that surround them.
She took her notes, ashamed as the old elation returned.
She listened to a man telling her about his wife and baby son. The man ha left at dawn to walk to work. When the thunder rolled, he ran back. How far? A mile or two to through a rain of fire. “But this is all there was,” his arm circling an upturned iron bedstead and a room knee deep in ash.
“If you see them,” the lost father said, “please tell him I am here.” He sat down in his doorway, hands on his knees, palms up, waiting.
“Of course,” she said.
Later she saw Miguel, head bent, camera at his side. She started toward him, in the midst of fear and death she could make him understand. A white figure steeped between them waving his arms. An ambulance passed, straining as it gathered speed in reverse. Another followed. A police car. Then men came running. Another tank might go. She turned and joined the exodus. She ran, one hand over the baby, afraid of falling on the uneven ground. A car stopped and she climbed in.
She left Mexico the next day.
It was raining in Ireland when she arrived and she felt it rained every day that she waited for the baby. Her skin shrivelled without the sun, her mind became dry a dust, her heart withered.
She was already in hospital when the earthquake shattered the heart of Mexico. She watched the endless loops of shaking buildings, cascading rocks, white wrapped bodies being carried down the mountains of rubble and searched the crowds for familiar faces. It was as though her dearest friend had died and she had not turned up at the bedside or the funeral.
Someone brought her a magazine. Miguel’s photographs spread over the inside pages.
“Aren’t you glad you missed it?” they asked. “Aren’t you glad you’re safe?”
No, yes. How to explain? I could help people, I could tell their stories. Too self serving. I liked the danger in my life. Too selfish. Whatever it was, it was gone. She shrugged an answer and they went away.
In the plastic cot the baby moved. Eyes squinted, a fist searched for his own mouth. She picked him up. He smelled of newness and birth. She held him a little easy from her; he squirmed, his eyes struggled to focus. She wanted to sing him a lullaby for comfort, but she didn’t know any. She remembered something she’s read somewhere. “It’s all right,” she nuzzled his neck. “We two form a multitude.”