Dedicated to Eric Valentine, who passed away this year.
© Copyright, April 2012. The Yesteryear Sonata by S. Kearney. All rights reserved.
I watched him from what I hoped would be a safe distance, as he said goodnight to the doorman, all smiles and bonhomie from behind his tidy beard and moustache. Who would’ve thought that he could look so amiable? He had a stack of papers under one arm, most likely manuscripts, to which he would probably only devote a couple of distracted minutes before bedtime. His other arm had not yet properly found its place in his jacket, which was only half on, making him tilt to one side, like a glider in trouble, jabbing his empty sleeve towards the pavement. Then, at last, Gerald P. Cossack was ready to walk. But even when he did break into his stride, he remained terribly stilted somehow. He put his head down and made his way, as I’d hoped, towards Union Square.
Now listen up if you can hear me! Trees can cackle like old women, Mr. Cossack, if the wind is right and the leaves are brittle enough. Yes, they can. Do you hear me? And ‘that’ instead of ‘which’? Really? In this day and age, when they have become so interchangeable? Oh, you are such an old stick in the mud. Just look at you! I would be laughing if you hadn’t made me cry so raw. And so what if I had the one-way traffic in that bloody London street hurtling away from the river and not towards it. Who cares? Who really cares? Should we stub somebody out because of it? I may have carried out a little bit of literary vandalism with all of those unnecessary adverbs. Granted. But this is what I’d like to say, firmly, passionately and convincingly: nobody died because of it.
I followed him for a couple of blocks, careful to stop and stare into a shop window whenever I thought there might be a risk of him turning around and looking my way. I had actually expected someone taller, with more of a manly frame, going on the photo I’d seen in The New York Times. I noticed his bizarre gait: one of his feet turned inwards as it landed on the pavement. A child might walk like that, until his parents pulled him up on it. One would hope that any decent mother or father would force their child to straighten up the feet and always keep an eye on them. But poor old Cossack might not have had such caring parents. Actually, maybe he didn’t even have parents.
Looking increasingly clumsy and vacant, he almost crossed a busy junction where the little man (or is it a woman?) had not yet turned green. A taxi driver yelled out. A cyclist swerved and swore. A drunk laughed. It was hard to believe this was actually the same Cossack who commanded so much power, who could ruin someone’s life with the tiniest squirt of ink from his pen. Getting closer behind him, I saw long white stains across his denim jeans and jacket, the kinds of marks left behind from sloppy washing. Was there no one at home to look after him? Had no one ever told him that a man of his age should no longer attempt to wear denim? How terribly sad.
As I’d hoped, he turned into the dim, narrow bar where I’d first observed him the week before. I stood at the door and watched his lazy progress, taking the opportunity to pull the fringe of my blonde wig further down over my eyes, just in case he was good at faces, profiles, familiar roman noses. He took the same seat, over beside a display of Marilyn Munroe memorabilia. He shook hands and patted backs, and I heard his voice for the first time as he greeted a couple of people. He had a southern accent, with a deep, rumbling quality. Here he was obviously liked and he felt at ease. I heard him order the same “blanche” he’d ordered the week before, which I discovered was a very transparent-looking beer from Belgium. No simple Bud for this man. No, Sir. He made no attempt to wipe the foam off his moustache after the first sip. He closed his eyes and let his body sink down into a deep sigh. How clichéd he looked. Bereft of striking characteristics of his own, to make us want to get to know him. What bloody work this man would be to flesh out.
I took a seat a few tables away, keeping my chin close to my chest, trying not to draw attention to myself. I ordered a glass of Italian red when the barman finally came over. He briefly looked down at my stomach, and I thought for a moment that maybe he’d noticed what I’d so carefully hidden. I almost stood up in a panic. But then he walked back over to the bar, seemingly unconcerned, wiping a few tables on the way. I kept my eyes fixed on the clock on the far wall and touched my middle, making sure everything was still safely in place, and then pinched at my blouse near the bottom to make it puff up. The silkiness felt wet. Was I sweating?
I took a gulp of the wine, which was way too warm, and let it flood the bottom of my mouth. I froze the muscles in my face and let the wine slowly leak down the back of my throat. I took out the last letter he’d sent me, the one that had brought our exciting 12-month exchange to a savage halt. What I will maintain, if I am ever called upon to explain things, is that Cossack had teased me unnecessarily – cruelly, in fact. He had cajoled me into a hypnotic dance, and I’d been stupid to believe that it was safe enough to reveal my nakedness, my vulnerability. It was difficult to read the words again, but I had to be reminded of how they had cut me down. The word dearest, in subsequent re-readings, had made me violently ill.
I am so sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Although I was
optimistic after reading your tenth (!!!) rewrite, I am still
not satisfied with how the book has developed. The overall
theme is brilliant, and once again in this latest version you
had me hooked at the start, causing me to ask: 'Could
something like this really take place?'
Sadly, however, after all these months, I didn't really care.
I feel that where you have gone wrong is that you have not
drawn your character well enough, not made him sympathetic
enough. His head is not a pleasant place for us to be in and
we are caught in his dark thoughts for longer than one can
bear. (Do we also have to have so many descriptions of things
and all those quirky observations?).
When I finished your manuscript I found that I thoroughly
disliked your protagonist. I also didn’t care about him or
what he did. Also, your sunny ending was terribly contrived
and came out of nowhere. Actually, I feel that what you have
here is a terrific short story shackled inside a novel that is
far too long and arduous. Less shade, more colour?
I regret having to write this to you because you are such a
competent, proven writer. However, I believe that you need to
accept the fact that you had a wonderful premise but just
didn’t make the most of it. Of course, not all novels should
have nice characters, but here there is not even one!
I’m truly sorry that I didn’t see all of this before, when we
asked you to rewrite those difficult passages. It’s possible
that I did spot these problems, but I suppose I just hoped
deep down that you would find a way out of the mess. This is
just my own point of view, of course, and someone else may
arrive at a different opinion entirely. However, I hope you
understand my position when I say that I am passing on this
book. I would stress, though, that I still think the world of
you as a writer.
Shall I pop the MS in the post, or should I place it in the
recycling bin? Please don’t take this too personally. After
all, honesty is the best policy.
Gerald P. Cossack.
Well, even though everything else in my life had turned hazy, it was perfectly clear to me that Cossack had to pay. It was out of the question that I would let him write that, after all I’d been through, without him suffering like he knew that I would suffer. Even if he had a point or two, and I’m happy to acknowledge it, there was no excuse for that kind of devastating letter. I no longer cared about the consequences. At his expense, I would feel life fill me up again.
I’d never found the courage to show that letter to anyone. I kept it folded up inside my bag, taking it out to reread dozens of times, during my desperate drives into the countryside, when I sat in those cafés along the coast, not wanting to return home. I told the more persistent of my friends that the publishers had fallen on hard times, forced to cut back on the number of books they printed. Yeah, right.
But everyone kept on at me: when would my second book be coming out, the one that I’d been struggling with for two years, which had required me to go on expensive writing retreats and even “escapes” to Paris and then Montreal? I locked myself away to avoid the piercing inquiries. As though my whole existence depended on the publication of another damn book! No one asked how I was, or how anything else in my life was; it was just the bloody book! I referred to it as my difficult second birth. People stopped praising me on my first novel, which had sold a respectable number, but just kept badgering me about the absence of the follow-up. Do you know that I’ve taken up cooking? I asked in desperation. Italian cuisine. Traditional. I won a prize in this contest, but I suppose you don’t want to hear about that. Didn’t think so. I also play the clarinet quite well. Also, I’m learning how to arrange flowers.
‘Do you mind if I sit here,’ I said. He hadn’t noticed me cross the bar, even though my feet seemed to make horrendous thuds on the unvarnished wooden boards.
‘Go ahead. No one else is sitting there.’
I examined his face as he glanced up, to check for any hint of recognition. Nothing, though. His eyes, watery and slightly pocked, went back to a crossword. Those horrid, rheumy eyes of his. That was a line from the book.
‘It’s awfully hot in here,’ I said.
Nothing. He just gently tapped his fingers on the table, apparently waiting for a stubborn word to move forward from the back of his mind. The smell of fries, mustard and sausages filled the bar, and then I saw a plate being whisked off to someone near the back.
I had already figured that the chances of Cossack recognising me when I got up close were slim. When they published my first book they’d put a small photograph of me on the back cover, but it was a black and white, and my hair had been gelled back behind my ears. (My mother said that I’d come across as severe and unfriendly, and nobody would want to buy the book, no matter how good it was.) Also, I had only met Cossack briefly when the contract for the first novel had been signed. I’d been told that he only really gets to know his authors in person after their third or fourth babies.
I squeezed my thumb and said, ‘Are you drinking alone?’
He didn’t look up. ‘Alone is not really the word.’
He kept his eyes on his crossword. ‘The bar is full. Even if I were having this drink in my own company, it’s not alone.’
I needn’t have been surprised by his rudeness. Really. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about him would’ve expected something like that.
I decided to get things moving. Conflict. Action. Resolution.
‘I just thought you looked like someone who could do with some company.’
He looked up at me then. His mouth opened some time before the word came out. ‘Company?’
He gave each syllable an unusual stress, with a deliberate, slow beat. Cum-pa-nee. The sound seemed to come up from deep in his stomach. It made me think of the beginning of Lolita.
‘Do I know you?’ he asked.
‘Just like we’re never really alone, we never really know anyone, do we?’
He smiled. ‘Well, if you’ve really got nowhere else to sit.’ He pushed the paper to the end of the table and looked down at my breasts, as I’d hoped he would. I pulled in my stomach and pushed both shoulders forward, slightly wiggling them; I didn’t want to make it too obvious, but just enough for him to notice.
I realised at that point that I could not go back. I had already passed the most risky moment, and I had told myself that sitting down at the table with him would be the confirmation that I would go ahead with my abominable act. I would risk everything, and it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was now a character in my own crime novel. I knew that if I ever had to later confide in someone about what happened this would be the moment I would remember the most. Poor old Cossack was well and truly hooked, just as he’d seemed to be with my novel. No chance of getting away, the poor sod.
‘So what do you do?’ he said.
I leant forward slightly. ‘Do you mean when I’m working, or when I’m playing?’
He sat back and chuckled, shaking his head.
I pulled out the chair and sat down, careful to ensure that there was no risk of my surprise slipping into view.
He said, ‘Do you often just chat to men in late-night bars?’
‘All the time. I’m interested in people. In their stories. In how they survive this funny old life. How they see their place in the world. I like to create surprises in my life, like a twist, the unexpected.’
‘Oh.’ He looked down at my breasts again.
‘I’m really into people’s stories.’
‘You sound like a social worker.’
‘More of an artist, but I suppose it’s like being a social worker.’
‘An artist? Do you mean a painter?’
‘Kind of. I do like to portray people, work out what colours and shade and textures are needed to create them.’
He took another mouthful of beer and I could see him discreetly checking me out again. A deeper discussion about colour and light was not really what interested him, which is exactly how I wanted things to go. I tried to imagine what look would come over his face when he realised what he had coming to him.
‘So what do you do,’ I asked.
‘I ... I make people ... but I also ruin people.’
I had to force myself to stay still, to suppress the shriek that wanted to fly out of my chest. ‘Really?’
‘It’s a terrible job.’ He shook his head, but then stopped and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘But there’s also pleasure in it. A power thing, I suppose. Decisions about whether someone is somebody or nobody. Funny, isn’t it?’
I folded my arms, to stop myself from trembling with rage. I had to stay calm. Action. Dialogue. Resolution. Nobody is nobody. Everybody is somebody. I looked straight back at him and said, ‘There’s a little hotel, just across the street.’
His eyes opened wide and he tightened his grip on his glass. He looked down at the table.
‘The room’s a little bit basic, but it’s very clean,’ I said, far too enthusiastically.
‘What are you saying?’
‘Oh, I’m just trying to paint a new situation. Anything wrong with that? Am I being too direct?’
‘It’s just all very sudden. I mean ... I don’t even know you.’
‘And I don’t know you. Isn’t that exciting?’ I stood up and nodded towards the exit.
The confidence had all but disappeared from his face. He now looked like a nervous high school kid, scared of deciding things for himself. Oh, how quickly we can change. But then, how wonderful to be able to mould a sequence of new events like this, to pull someone towards a conclusion that is not of their own choosing.
He followed me, not straight away, but a few minutes later. I was about 30 metres ahead of him the whole time, and I only had to look back once to make sure he was still there. I waited inside the lift in the hotel, my finger resting firmly on the button that kept the doors open. I’d already told the receptionist that I had a guest arriving, who was just finding a park down the street.
Cossack smiled nervously as he eventually stepped into the lift. ‘I’m a married man.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘And I’m old enough to be your father.’
‘I still don’t care.’ I twisted a finger around a curl in my wig.
‘I’ve never really done this before,’ he said, shaking his head and looking at the floor. ‘But I must say that I find it very compelling. I suppose I’ll have to pay. Is that it?’
‘No. Well, not with money.’
He looked at me blankly.
‘This is new for me, too,’ I said. ‘Sometimes we have no choice, though. Sometimes we just have to go along with things. It’s just how things develop.’
I placed my hand on the small of his back and guided him into the room. He took such small steps, as though he were blindfolded, expecting to crash into some obstacle. I told him to help himself to the choice of small bottles of alcohol in the fridge, which the receptionist had made a point of telling me about. I prepared some glasses and closed the curtains. The bed was massive, covered in a brown and cream duvet with matching cushions. Above the bed was a large painting of an elderly man on a bicycle. I dared not smile.
He poured us both a whisky and coke and added ice cubes. ‘I didn’t think this could happen to someone my age. How very lucky to have stopped off for a drink tonight.’
‘Yes, how very lucky. I just couldn’t help myself.’
‘What do you like,’ he asked, sitting down in an armchair. He now looked more at ease, starting to look cocky even.
‘Everything,’ I said. ‘Your pleasure is my pleasure.’ I took a sip of the drink.
‘I want you to devour me. I want to lose myself in your heat and sweat.’
He beamed a teenager’s grin and sat back with his legs wide apart. He gulped his drink in one go.
I sat down on the edge of the dresser. It was too soon for action, too soon to reveal my true intentions. I went over again what I had planned. I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I had no back-up plan.
‘You’re intriguing,’ he said.
‘Take off your clothes. I want to see you naked.’
‘Now? Just like that?’
‘Why not? Let’s get down to it. Let’s cut to the chase, as they say.’
‘You seem in a mighty hurry.’
‘I have no time to waste. I have a whole life ahead of me, a whole life to lead.’
‘A whole life to lead?’
‘Being stringed along is not good for anyone.’
He stood up and started to unbutton his shirt, from the bottom up, which I thought was kind of odd. I’d only ever seen men loosen their buttons from the top down. The little things we notice. We can’t help ourselves, can we? Always on the look out for the dinky little details we can sprinkle throughout our cruel observations. Even at times of great stress.
‘I thought you might want to rip my clothes off me,’ he said.
My hands started shaking when I saw myself in the mirror opposite. I was actually doing it. There I was. No mistake. A dream it definitely wasn’t. The adverbs were there in front of me; there was no point in trying to stop them in their flow. He moved awkwardly. She pouted sexily, or at least she attempted to. The bed rose eerily into the air. Figuratively, of course.
He was naked. His skin was tanned, though sagging. Grey hair. His private parts crumpled up. No one could be more vulnerable. All power and pretence had left him. The eyes were less willing to engage.
I reached inside my blouse and took out the packet that I’d so carefully wrapped. I placed it on the table.
‘It’s a weapon.’
I laughed. Loudly. I pointed. I put such effort into my laughing that it hurt across my chest. ‘Goodness. You think I might find a body like that attractive? Are you serious?’ I made it so tears mixed in with my roars of laughter.
‘What is this?’ He put his hand on the back of a chair.
‘It’s you. You are just so disappointing. Just look at the state of you. Do you really believe anyone would want you?’
‘What’s in the package? I don’t understand.’ He took a step back, his eyes scouring the room. Checking for possible escape routes?
‘Can I just say that I was optimistic after seeing you there in that bar, but I’m just not satisfied with how things have developed. You seemed so brilliant, so stunning, so sexy. You had me hooked. But just look at you! I’m sorry I didn’t see all of this before, but I hope you understand my position when I say that I’m going to have to say ... no thanks. Please don’t take it too personally. After all, honesty is the best policy.’
His blinking got faster. He went to speak, but nothing came out.
When I walked out of the hotel I still had a clear image of his bulging eyes, his trembling hands. I pictured him carefully opening the packet, still naked, and then the boom. The explosion inside his head when he realised what he had in his hands. No doubt, in the weeks that followed, he would’ve been absolutely sick watching that oh-so-familiar book rise to number one, in all its original glory, all of the culling reversed. Heavy on adverbs. The cackling trees replanted. Did he sit down and read the shiny reviews? One thing is sure: he won’t ever tell anyone the exact details of how he received his signed advance copy.
© Copyright, 2010. S. Kearney. Less Shade, More Colour.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the US, and as a tribute to all of the victims and their families, I'd like to republish this memorial poem I wrote back in 2006: Will they just one day forget? I think it becomes more and more relevant as the years go by.
the same breathless questions
shooting out through the night
agony's very own untiring voice
fingerprints on endless websites
hit replay, hit replay, hit replay
2417 visits in three cold months
smoke, approaching, screaming,
explosion, screaming, falling
dust, panic, where is he today?
oh my God, oh sweet Jesus!
what did he say this morning?
where did he say he was going?
grainy pictures make a shrine
visitors stop their enquiries
no one answers the little boy
so what was it all for then?
who won what in the end?
is anyone else better off?
does anyone cry for my daddy?
did they know he'd be there?
why did he stay to help others?
way way up on the 92nd floor
will I ever get any answers?
will they just one day forget?
© Copyright, 2009. S. Kearney. A 9/11 remembrance poem.
Norman Parker watched himself on the evening news, annoyed that he’d grinned at the camera in a way he never intended. He saw himself as an impostor, having a grand old time at playing the man of the moment, his minders hotfooting him through a crowd of frantic reporters. ‘Good to see you. Thank you for coming.’ He knew he looked ghastly. He’d become that institutional thing that flashes by on the screen: an unbreakable suit, vanishing grey hair, a round face of feverish red. ‘Kind of you to show so much concern.’ His ballooning stomach pushed his tie almost out to a right angle.
What he did like about the latest footage - filmed as he was trying to slip back into his hotel - was the image of an elderly woman cleaner in the background, just carrying on polishing the windows of the plush foyer. She stayed straight-faced, spraying and wiping in an even rhythm, chewing gum, apparently oblivious to all of the hype.
The TV journalist rushed his words. ‘Norman Parker is refusing to comment on his failure to attend the first day of this all-important conference. But senior sources tell me there is no doubt it’s due to Mr Parker’s matrimonial problems.’
Then, from nowhere, a cheap-looking advert for a new seaside retirement village filled the screen. The residents looked so pleased to have finally found happiness, playing golf under the shocking red of summer blossoms. Norman ripped out the plug.
His deodorant was starting to fail him, warmed up into treacle under his arms, giving off that half-sweat, half-perfume odour. Was it too soon after the last cigarette to have another one? The camel on the packet just kept on walking through the empty, sweltering desert. It had been with him for years, always there when he needed relief. He hunched over near the window, depressed about how quickly the darkness had arrived with a cover of frost. He persisted with a large bottle of South African whisky, even though he found it had a disagreeable aftertaste. What he desperately wanted to hear were leopard-skin drums and charging female elephants.
He also wanted rid of his clothes, as he had the feeling they were tightening their grip on his wrists and ankles. He was surprised at how easily they slid off when he tugged at them. The room spun like a fairground carousel. A madman in charge of the pedal. No chance to jump off and make a run for it. He started jumping up and down. ‘Wowayow! Wowayow!’ His snorts of pleasure were new to him, but why was that not allowed? Who said he had to restrain himself at all times? He trampled on the clothes with vigour, causing a silver button to pop off and fly across the room.
The excitement didn’t last long, though. ‘My goodness,’ he said. ‘What an absolute fall from the sky!’ For the fourth time in half an hour he checked the door of his room, to be absolutely sure it was locked.
He rubbed his thumb over a small photograph of Joyce, taken at a time when her hair fell long behind her back, before she’d needed to start colouring it burgundy to hide the grey. He poured some more whisky and supped it viciously. He got hold of his glass and fixed his face down on the rim, creating suction, his nose right inside, almost touching the alcohol. He slowly breathed it in - smelling it seemed almost important as drinking it – then cradled the goblet above his head to see his warped, mischievous reflection.
He looked down at his naked front and pretended he had an audience, his hands on his hips. ‘Heavens! Billy belly way too broad. But am I not just a little bit desirable? No? Not just a little bit adorable as I turn and show you my ass, once so beautiful like the moon?’
A tinny voice rang out. ‘Do you need something, Sir?’
Norman’s eyes froze on the black box on his dresser. ‘Jesus!’ He’d forgotten to turn off the radio link with members of his team on the next floor up. ‘Heavens, no. I mean, I’m fine. Thank you.’
‘We’re going to turn in if that’s alright.’
‘Absolutely. Please don’t stay up on my account.’
Making low-level noises in his throat, he sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed his feet together, letting the nails dig in, catching rough skin as he curled and then spread out his toes. He plugged the television back in and slumped down in front of a live performance of U2. One song in particular made him cry enough to fill a basin.
* * *
He tried his best to sound composed when he got on the phone to his driver. ‘Just a little tour along the waterfront. I feel so confined here. You don’t mind, do you?’ Norman knew the poor man was enjoying his favourite beer and a game of poker with some of the hotel staff.
‘Of course not, sir.’ The driver’s voice was mellow and reliable.
‘I hope we still have some of that Irish whisky in the car. We’re thankfully out of that South African stuff.’
Norman gathered together all of the newspapers that had blackened his hands and placed them in his satchel. He phoned his security staff and told them he needed some space: no need to clear roads or organise a singing and dancing escort.
He concentrated on his walking and got the lift down to the lobby. Everything still ached, despite the attempt to soak his muscles in liquor. Things became slightly misty as he walked, as though a thin veil covered his eyes.
The regal car pulled up in front of him, the headlights making him flinch. The two small flags at the front were folded around on themselves, the wind too icy to allow them to wave. He knocked his head slightly as he got in. ‘I need some space to read through all this stuff,’ he said to his driver.
He lay out the newspapers on the tray in front of him.
‘Anywhere in particular?’ The driver smoothed down his thick moustache, which loomed large on his skeletal face.
‘Let’s just drive’ said Norman. He caught sight of his own sullen face staring up from the papers. He wasn’t at all surprised by the media sensation: it was like a bird with only one wing had been thrown to a pack of wild dogs.
‘You’re helping sell a lot of papers today,’ said the driver.
Norman looked down at one of the headlines: PARKER SEPARATES FROM JOYCE
‘You just sit back, sir. It may be windy, but it’s a perfect night for a drive.’ He put on some melancholic Brahms.
‘They always use the most ridiculous and unflattering profiles, the ones that make me look inept and dreamy.’
‘That’s their job, sir.’
Norman knew that nothing could be done with his basic ingredients: bloated grey face; eyes underlined with what looked like smudges of ash; incredibly fine white hair, haphazardly pasted around the side of his dented head. The relationship with the media had always been a sore one, and it didn’t help when that big overseas paper referred to him as Norman ‘Porker’. He’d been promised it was nothing more than a typo, but the damage had been enormous, to say the least.
They drove past a deserted container terminal, where large stevedoring cranes stood about like docile, alien creatures. The wind slammed hard against the trees along the waterfront, pushing some of the smaller ones sideways. The sea splashed up over the railings.
Norman noticed that the headline had only used his last name, while his wife had been accorded the honour of being referred to by her first name. By simply being referred to as Joyce, she suddenly became the mother of the nation, worthy of sympathy. He read the headline out loud a few times, putting heavy stress on the word ‘separates’.
The driver looked at him with wide eyes through the rear vision mirror. ‘Do you want to stop off at the lighthouse?’
‘That would be nice.’ He remembered paddling there when he was a child, and thinking how wonderful it was to have sand, shells and changing sheds so close to the city centre. The beach was deserted when they pulled up, and the light from the moon revealed the water peeled way back from the shore. He could just make out a dinghy lying on its side in the mud, while birds with beautiful long legs were just visible, bobbing along in search of food. How could creatures like that live in such a busy place?
‘Are you going to get out, sir?’
‘Not here. Too many cars going past.’
Norman took out his diary to record some notes: the columnists, the exact phrases, the names of the papers, the page numbers. It gave him some kind of satisfaction to know he was able to gather it all together, analyse it, have some kind of control over the words. His eyes burned into the article that enraged him the most, the one that spelled out the misery of what he’d written to Joyce the Tuesday before. He’d agonised over it, and had even considered asking his speech writer to touch it up and take out the parts that were bound to cause trouble and pain. He’d battled on, though, started and restarted, made five attempts at writing it out by hand, but then finally settled on a typed version. Three hours later, with sore hands and heavy eyes, he’d finally risen from his desk, knowing there was no chance of making the final draft read any better.
With the Academic Festival Overture in C playing behind his head, Norman read through the now very public copy of his letter.
It is with great sadness that I type this letter to you
tonight, the anniversary of our first ever date. I asked you
about that day only last month, but you seemed unable to
recall even the slightest detail. I told myself you
were just punishing me for what has become of our lives. I
truly believed we were happy then, when we told each other the
names of all the children we were going to have. Is it so
wrong to want to remember that time, to try to understand how
that kind of beginning can lead to this kind of ending? I
realise now that having a family was something paramount for
me, a wish I thought you shared. I’ve been pretending it
didn’t really matter. I fear I’m writing this and you will
never really understand - just another missive from an over-
reactive Norman. I could go on fighting, but I know you have
long given up your corner. A few months ago you said: Love is
a word for dreamers, and I’m not going to live in a dream
world. You’re right. I cannot pretend we have a reason to stay
together. The surprising events of the past few years have
changed me, as I am sure they have changed you. It all seems
like madness, I know, to upset this life that seems so perfect
now, but you will thank me one day. I give you back your life,
Joyce. I will always love you and I will always continue to
Tears made their way down his cheeks.
‘Not too loud?’ asked the driver.
‘Louder if you want. Let’s continue further along the coast.’
How had Joyce been able to hand over such a personal letter to a journalist? ‘One can only imagine,’ howled the paper, ‘how desperate the situation must have become when Mr Parker’s wife felt that her only remaining option was to call up a newspaper and share her sorrow with strangers.’
Norman then noticed a photo stuck to the dashboard. It showed a gracious woman and two handsome children. ‘Is that your wife and kids?’
‘Very fine looking.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
Norman felt ill. The children in the photo now frightened him, standing beside their awkwardly seated parents, with not a hint of a smile on any of their faces, the worry of the legacies they would have to follow etched on their foreheads. Somehow the little boy and girl seemed like ghosts, as if they weren’t really there.
‘Are you okay, sir?’
He told the driver to return to the hotel at once. He kept his eyes on the pavement and the cars parked along the route back to the city. He was convinced the children might disappear from the image if he dared return their gaze.
* * *
Back in his room, Norman looked around for something to keep his mind focused. But the next moment he again found himself being driven by something stronger than his own will. He lay on his back in the middle of the floor, in the shape of a magnificent star, arms and legs stretched out as far as they could go, sharp pain in his muscles and joints, his head filled with nervous, pumping blood. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed, but he knew he was moving; the carpet burned his arms and legs. The whole episode - complete with heavy breathing, fits of uncontrollable laughter and then uncontrollable crying - lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Then he stood up and stared at nothing with great intensity.
After about five minutes the newspapers came back into focus and he was able to dress, putting on what he liked to refer to as his armour: a black Savile Row suit. Instead of reaching into his case for his usual one-colour tie, however, he zipped open the small compartment at the side and felt around for his colourful bow ties. He found one with streaks of silver and gold. It was much more original than the fusty, traditional tie, and was something that could maintain the smile when the wearer was not in the mood. He got on the phone and asked for food and more cigarettes, plus an urgent meeting with his team.
Norman’s men arrived one by one, and he could see their septic eyes snatching glances at his suit and bow tie. ‘Who says I can’t look smart late at night?’
‘God, they have a cheek,’ said one of his staff, in reply to a query about what the tone of the media had been. ‘This is a private matter and has no bearing on the workings of the big machine!’
‘Except I fear the workings of the big machine do depend on the workings of me,’ said Norman. He pushed his fingers hard into his closed eyes.
He smoked by the window and spent a few minutes appraising the seven men before him. He didn’t like them and couldn’t trust them. He often felt as though their hands were slipping into his pockets or reaching up inside his jacket when he wasn’t looking, feeling around for something secret. He even dreamed they had the ability to slide their arms into his body, with their hands gloved and lubricated, gaining access through thin openings in his thighs, able to feel around for signs of indecision or incompetence.
He helped himself to the tapenade, chicken and blue cheese that had been brought up to his room, and then looked down at the carpet, where only minutes before he’d pretended to be a starfish. ‘We just have to keep our heads together and move forward. That’s why I’m going to the conference tomorrow.’
‘Wonderful,’ said one of the men.
Norman could only focus for a couple of minutes on the debate that followed. After a while he looked up to see the men staring at him, waiting for an answer to a question. ‘Goodnight gentlemen. I think sleep is the answer.’
All but one of them departed.
Norman pretended to be sorting through papers on his desk, his back to his most senior advisor.
‘What a bloody mess, Norman. What were you thinking?’
‘I can tell you this dream I’ve been having lately, if that’s any help. I’m at the top of this snow-covered mountain, walking along a thin path in a blizzard, with sharp drops on either side, attached by rope to these other climbers, like a row of convicts walking along an icy tightrope. If I slip, we all fall together. But it’s me I’m worried about, not the skill of the others.’
‘It’s impossible to take those simple steps, knowing how easy it would be to slip and fall to a terrible death. I stay like that and there’s nothing anyone can do, because the path is too narrow for anyone to double back or go forward to help me.’
‘I see.’ The man opened his eyes wide.
‘But don’t worry about it,’ said Norman. ‘It’s only a dream.’ He went over to the window and felt the silkiness of the curtains. He wanted to pull them down and cover himself.
‘Well, that’s all very well, but the public really does need to know that you’re strong.’ The man wore slippers beneath his fleece and jeans, his ginger hair flat on one side, his eyes puffy.
‘It was something small that did it, but I’m not sure you’d understand.’
Norman turned around to face him. ‘It’s the thing about not having children. I’ve tried blocking it out. But then she wanted her own room. You know there’s been nothing for a long time. Just dry kisses, which have slowly moved away from my lips to my cheeks.’
The man folded his arms. ‘I’ve been in a single bed next to my wife for years. You just need to find other pleasures like the rest of us.’
Norman looked out the window. ‘It’s also that I’m here in the best darn position one could imagine, and yet what I’m consumed by is the need for something very basic.’
The man was gone. Nothing else shared. No attempt to console. Norman felt more alone than ever. He undressed lazily and crawled into bed, curling up into a small ball, just like he used to do when he was a child.
* * *
He came to with a start the next morning and felt considerably better. He shaved and took a shower and slipped into another one of his suits hanging behind the door. This time he put on a normal tie with stripes of mauve and brown.
He checked that his personal notes were secure in his briefcase and then rang the hotel reception to announce he was ready to be picked up. But as he placed his hand on the door handle, he suddenly felt the urge to yell out, to say something absolutely crazy. He stood there quietly, his head down towards the carpet, his briefcase feeling foreign in his hand. Then, coming from nowhere, he pictured himself walking to the conference in an old pair of slippers, shorts and a singlet.
He walked down the corridor, still enjoying his vision. He shook hands with several of his colleagues waiting down the hall. ‘Did you hear me yell out the word bugger just now?’ he asked his personal secretary. ‘I could swear that just now, just before I opened the door to leave my room, I yelled out the word bugger. Are you sure you didn’t hear me?’
On arrival at the conference venue, he had to push his way through the journalists and photographers gathered like hungry sparrows. This time he tried not to grin. He almost stopped to speak to the young TV reporter who’d been such an expert on his absence the day before, but he remembered what his team had advised him. ‘Thank you for coming.’ He closed his fists even tighter, knowing his mouth was lifting at the sides.
He gulped with relief when he got inside the warmth of the conference centre. Down a corridor he saw what he presumed to be members of the choir due to perform later in the day. They were dressed in what looked like medieval costumes, with colourful, frilly skirts that seemed to rise and move on their own. Several of the men and women got excited when they spotted him, giggling themselves into huddles. He gave them a wave. ‘Morning!’
‘Hello, Mr Parker,’ yelled a young boy with a ducktail haircut, and who must have only been about six or seven. ‘I’m going to sing you a song,’ he said, before being hushed by his mother. The small lad’s chubby cheeks rose up and covered his eyes.
‘Good for you,’ said Norman.
The chairman greeted him with a slap on the back. ‘There’s apparently a crisis, if we believe what we see on the television.’
Norman wondered if he really was expected to say something. ‘No comment. Thank you for coming.’
The chairman laughed, but Norman could hear it was forced. Above his head, along some small windows in the ceiling, he saw a tiny bird thump into the glass. A sparrow? He wondered if it had been injured, or had managed to resume its flight.
He was taken through to a large hall where special teams had started work on strategies for the coming year.
‘We’ve scheduled your speech in for eleven o’clock,’ the chairman said quietly. He had a small stain on the sleeve of his cheap brown suit, which he’d been wearing since the 80s. Big flakes of dandruff were visible along his thinning hairline.
‘I’m very much looking forward to it,’ said Norman.
The chairman coughed. ‘I don’t think it would hurt to ... to refer to this thing with Joyce as well.’
Norman looked around to see where he might be able to get an alcoholic drink. He was concerned he might not be able to cope with all the faces and just find himself reduced to flummery. He opened his briefcase to ensure his speech, mostly written by his aides, was in order. He didn’t have a clue what he could say about his separation.
He was invited to sit in on one of the committee meetings. When he entered the room the delegates went quiet and looked him over for signs of disorder. He returned his gaze to the chairman, convinced that tears would come to his eyes. He took a seat near the back of the room, still avoiding any direct eye contact with the 30 or so delegates. The chairman left Norman on his own, telling him he would come back to fetch him a little later.
His legs started to go numb and his head seemed to go cold. He could feel himself being catapulted somewhere else. This has never been this bad, he said to himself. He closed his eyes and tried to see if he could tune back into the dialogue around him. He heard nothing. He opened his eyes, but found the lights too bright to handle. How will I ever turn this around? He felt his lips shrivel, the bottom one dividing up into little individual sections, like the holes in a harmonica.
At that moment he would’ve loved a reliable, wet whisky. He tried to open his eyes again. This time, though, he couldn’t even find the energy to move the muscles in his eyelids. He remembered moments over the previous few months when people with complex problems had looked up to him for leadership and wisdom. They read his silence as the sign of a great mind engaged in the search for a greater understanding, not realising that he’d simply been chewing over some trivial matter. The intermittent fluttering of the lashes? The widening and sharpening of the eyes? The slight raising of the head? He was simply being misread.
The low hum of the delegates became audible again and then someone whispered in his ear. ‘You dropped this at the door, Mr. Parker.’ A young blonde woman, whom he recognised from previous conferences, placed a folded-up piece of A4 on his knee. She was already gone before he could say thank you. He opened the paper and saw the haiku poem he’d written earlier in the car. He read it again to check he’d counted the syllables correctly.
up the red carpet
into a cold, double life
down slippery steps
He thought it didn’t read too badly at all.
‘Any chance of a shot?’ he said to the elderly woman who seemed to be in charge of a refreshments trolley nearby. The deep hollows in her cheeks and the dark half-circles under her eyes shocked him. He wondered if he looked just as bad.
‘Of course, Norman,’ she said endearingly. ‘I thought they probably had something flash organised for you somewhere else.’ She sniggered behind a shaking hand.
He found it amusing that she felt comfortable using his first name, and he thought he’d match her cheekiness. ‘Don’t suppose you have something stronger?’
‘This hour of the day? Now wouldn’t that be nice.’ She winked and poured some coffee. ‘Here, this’ll give you strength for those pesky reporters.’
He could tell she was logging away their little chat, something she would probably tell her grandchildren: the day Norman Parker asked her for a hard drink in the morning.
Through the small glass panels in the door, he caught sight of the chairman having a discussion with a group of other officials, expressions of grave concern on their faces.
He took his place back on the plastic chair, knowing full well that eyes were following his every movement. The coffee was instant, with the taste of something that’s been sitting on an element for too long, but he hoped it would be enough to make him steelier.
The elderly woman stood over him again, three gold teeth shining out from her smile. ‘You’re wanted outside, Norman.’ There was something winsome about her, something motherly and embracing. He thought it was a shame he couldn’t just chat with people like her. When he stepped out into the corridor, with its linoleum floor polished to excess, he saw his deputy had arrived as well. He bowled straight over to them, attempting to put a bounce in his step. ‘I see the military backup has arrived.’
His deputy said, ‘You look tired, my friend.’
‘Just a little.’
‘You fell asleep in there, which is terrible timing,’ said the chairman. ‘We’re trying to tell the world that everything’s all right.’ Some of his flakes of dandruff shifted precariously and threatened to tumble onto his face.
Norman was surprised to be spoken to like that. He reached out to shake his deputy’s hand.
‘Luckily you didn’t drop your little poem outside in the street,’ said the chairman. ‘The media would’ve had a field day.’
‘Didn’t you like it?’ asked Norman. He grinned.
The chairman lowered his eyes.
The deputy said, ‘I can always give the speech in your place.’ He smiled mechanically, rolling back on his heels.
‘If it’s feeling a bit hectic, there’s no problem,’ the deputy added. He smelt of soap, with his dark hair looking freshly cut and styled. He sucked on some kind of mint. ‘You could give yourself more time to let all this die down.’
‘Yes,’ said the chairman. ‘Maybe it’s best you don’t do it.’
Norman felt his chest tighten. He frantically blinked, wondering how he could make himself seem more in control. There was a split second when he thought he might pass out. ‘Actually, I think I’d rather do it.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked the deputy.
The chairman and deputy exchanged a dark look, as if holding their breath, waiting for the other to talk first. At that very moment, though, someone came over to tell them that the main hall was ready for the address and the delegates had started taking their seats. The bustle became louder once the large doors to the main hall were opened, like big slabs of stone being hauled back to reveal a dark tomb. People scraped their chairs as word spread. At long last, Norman Parker would be making an address. He made a conscious effort to keep his lips together, tightened the noose around his neck and then let his feet lead the way.
© Copyright, 2010. Seamus Kearney. The Drunken Starfish.
Help us! Ireland’s Eye is drowning!
Her trill echoed across all of Howth
The boy! The boy! Do something!
Sleeping dogs on a trawler stirred
People hurried to the harbour wall
Hands over mouths, eyes expanded
What was that? A boy’s in trouble?
One man already imagined a wake
But still no splashing could be seen
The waves rose in anger, thumping
No sirens yet in the town. The boy!
For the sake of heaven! Somebody!
The elderly woman fell to one knee
It’ll be too late! Just throw the boy!
A Dubliner pleaded. Where is he?
You need to show us exactly where!
Quiet attempts to console her failed
A young man came barging through
We’ll just have to try! I’m going in!
The crowd formed a line, searching
Ocean debris caused a girl to scream
Soggy chips discarded, plastic bags
The elderly woman grabbed at arms
I’m begging you! She is leaving us!
Martello Tower. Please rescue her!
Seabirds landed with petty squeals
Someone gently leaned into another
Her? I thought she said it was a boy
And throw the boy? Makes no sense
Heads came together, murmuring
A frail gentleman cleared his throat
Well, I heard something quite odd
She said the island was drowning
More sore eyes came in off the sea
Someone pointed to an orange ring
Life ring? Life buoy? Ah - the boy
A young woman in white appeared
What’s all this then? Another tale?
You’ll get all these folk in a panic
© Copyright, 2010. Seamus Kearney. Panic in Howth Harbour - a poem. Photograph of Howth Harbour by Seamus Kearney.
They breathe only to conquer Europe’s heaven,
those spry souls, hungry with mad adventure
Picks on raw shoulders, lips all but vanished
Are they hostage to her beauty, or her gloating?
For all the reminders of past frozen tragedies,
pleas from burning arms and legs are ignored
Faint lines of silence, attached like convicts,
with a heaviness of feet, lightness of head
Princess Mont Blanc waves her ancient crown
Just how did she earn such blind devotion?
They can be delayed, stranded at the Midday
Needle, but only until the storm passes
Mothers know little about the Alpine Loonies
They would faint to see those sharp drops,
their babies on icy tightropes, fast melting
And do they beckon French or Italian angels?
The impossible infants are now unreachable,
only looking up, no chance of going back
© Copyright, 2009. Seamus Kearney. The Alpine Loonies (a poem about Mont Blanc)
Here's a video of some of the best photographs from our summer trip to Eastern Canada: "The Charm of Eastern Canada". The images are accompanied by one of my original piano compositions, "The Return to Acadia". Make sure your speakers are turned up and click the play button below. If it stops and starts at the beginning, give it a little bit of time to download. Enjoy!
Alex felt guilty as he rolled out from beneath his Saturday morning sleep-in, scratching and rubbing a sore shoulder. Responsibility leaves no poor soul in peace, like a cat that constantly sails around the feet. He was pleased that he’d managed to snatch a few hours away from his three younger siblings, but now the day's certain labour had to be faced. Only two weeks after his 17th birthday, Alex had no time to even think about a normal teenage life.
In the living room, he surveyed the damage from the previous night. The children had been allowed peanuts and chips and overflowing glasses of soft drink. A screening from the Top Horror Films Of All Times collection had been promised all week, and Alex had spent the last of his gardening money on the rare supply of snacks. There would be plenty of time to vacuum before the Old Man returned from his three-week stint on the fishing boat.
Alex massaged his middle and thought about lunch. Thank goodness for the unlimited supply of TV dinners in the freezer! The pre-cooked meals, wrapped in tinfoil, were given to the Old Man on a regular basis by one of his drinking buddies - stolen from the hospital where he worked, but fell off the back of a lorry, if anyone asked. The corned beef with mustard was normally okay, but the cabbage and mince was decidedly dangerous. It was always battle stations in their delicate stomachs. The pain and unpleasant aftertaste could hang around for days.
On the way to the freezer, housed in a shed in the garden, Alex heard a deep male voice. He walked to the back of the section, doing his best to avoid the patches of slippery mud among the grass. He peered through the overgrown hedge and could just make out Toby’s red jumper. The Dutch man who lived there was asking where their father was, how often was he away from home, and why they weren't going to school every day? Toby, aged nine, didn't say too much. He just shrugged and pushed his fingers into his eyes. The little ones, David and Sasha, stood nearby.
Alex yelled out, walking back a wee way from the hedge. “Toby! David! Sasha!” He pretended not to know where they were.
“That must be Alexander,” said the neighbour. He jumped up and down, trying to raise his bald and freckled head above the hedge. “I would like to see you!” The man’s voice was stilted, a bit like the ones that come out of computers.
“What for?” Alex yelled into the hedge as if it were a huge microphone. He tried not to sound too rude. “Have they done something wrong?”
“No, no. Nothing like that,” said the man. “Do you want to come around and join us?”
Alex hesitated, but he knew he had no choice. He decided not to climb through the hole in the hedge, which Toby had made a few months earlier; that would've been asking for trouble. He walked out the front and then down the Dutch family’s driveway, noticing that only half their name was on their letterbox. The last letters had been scraped away and he wondered if the young ones could have done that. It said Van den ... and that was it.
As he made his way towards the neighbour's house, the problem became perfectly clear: the large plum tree in the corner of the children's property had been the source of the morning's entertainment. The Dutch family’s lawn was covered in plums, some rotten and some not ripe. The young ones had obviously hurled them over the hedge, and not just one or two. It was impossible to count the exact number, but there had been an absolute bombardment. This was no laughing matter. The plums also littered the family’s patio, with red patches all over the glass sliding doors.
Alex ran up to his younger brothers and sister. “Bloody hell, you guys!”
The wife arrived with a bucket and cloth. She was expressionless. A tiny thing in a yellow cardigan.
“I am really sorry about this," said Alex. "They know they're not allowed to do that.”
“Yes, I've already had a chat with them,” said the neighbour. He grinned and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “They tell me that you're looking after them, while your father's away for work."
"It's very hard to keep an eye on them."
"I was sorry to hear about your mother."
Alex looked down at the grass.
"But we have to be strong," said the man. "We can't let that destroy us."
"I really am sorry about the plums," said Alex, still looking down.
"Let's not say another word about it. I would like to invite the four of you to lunch.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. He wondered if he had heard right.
"How about it?"
Alex tried to think of an excuse. The gap proved to be dangerous.
“Great!" said the man. "You are very welcome."
The wife cleared away the last of the plums from the patio. The young ones nervously began to help pick some up off the lawn, but Mr Van-den-something signalled to them not to bother. “Just come inside and wash your hands.”
The young ones stared at their elder brother, waiting for permission. They knew they would be in trouble when they got home. Their little brains were addled. They'd been expecting to be shouted at. But it hadn't come. Not from Alex, who was too flustered to think, and not from Mr Van-den-something.
Alex led the way. He was not sure what to expect. All he could focus on were the hundreds of plums, which lay like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. Surely a price had to be paid.
The young ones looked silly sitting in a line on the sofa. Their faces were pale and they looked painfully sheepish. Alex felt embarrassed about their stained feet. Davie also had plum marks all around his mouth, and his hair resembled candy floss. Sasha had the demeanour of a grown-up. There was an unmistakable air of guilt across her face, but also a trace of arrogance and defiance. The children’s eyes were fixed downwards.
The inside of the house was very austere, with nothing special for roving and curious eyes to rest on. Just ordinary furniture. A few nondescript pictures on the walls.
“Did you know that only half your name is on your letterbox?” asked Alex. It seemed like the best way to break the silence, but then he realised it raised a bigger question.
“Yes. We don’t know who did that." Mr Van-den-something did not look up as he put place mats and cutlery on the table.
“I only just noticed it,” said Alex.
Mr Van-den-something gave a small resigned smile. "My wife won't be long. She's in the kitchen preparing lunch."
"Thank you," said Alex.
"Our name is actually Van den Burgh."
“Really? There’s a girl named Julie Van den Burgh in my work experience group at school.”
“Yes, that's our niece,” said the man. But he didn’t look up.
Alex then remembered that Julie had been caught shoplifting. Someone had told him that she'd punched a shop assistant when she tried to get away. The police had also found cannabis in her bag when they questioned her.
Alex desperately searched for something to say, but Mr Van den Burgh spoke first. “Here,” he said, his manner somehow forced. “Come and take your seats at the table.” He made extravagant gestures towards the table and then disappeared into the kitchen.
The children looked at their brother for guidance, but he deliberately avoided their eyes.
There were only four places set at the table. Toby and David nervously slid into two of the seats. Sasha remained on the sofa. Alex stood up and hesitated, wondering why only four places had been set. The Van den Burghs didn't want to eat?
The husband briefly poked his head around the kitchen door. “What? Only two for lunch?”
Alex and Sasha awkwardly made a move for the table. He felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t think of anything to say. The four sat in silence, surveying the cutlery and napkins neatly placed out before them.
Mr Van den Burgh appeared again. “It’s a very special lunch today.” His voice sounded higher, excited. "In many homes, sitting down at the table is the time for a family to come together, to sort out their problems, to reflect on how their lives are going. It's also a time for the adults to communicate with their children."
Then, with a terrible clatter, the kitchen door burst open. The wife came charging in, and everything seemed to unfold at half speed.
Alex caught sight of two small buckets. The couple seemed to have huge hands all of a sudden, covered in what looked like blood.
The young faces had no time to react. The hands smeared and smudged.
No patch of bare skin was spared. The mush was lathered on thick. Small heads tossed about. The red flesh was smacked over their faces, smothered through their hair. The cruel juice dripped down their young pale necks. No one tried to get up. The manic onslaught was just too incredible to take in.
Alex understood then that he had been left alone. The silent witness?
Toby, David and Sasha had their innocent mouths filled up with the mushed-up plums. They showed very little resistance. Their faces were totally covered. The pulp was everywhere. No one laughed. Just humiliation. Ridicule.
Outside, the four stood huddled in silence. Their eyes were wide and shocked, their mouths dropped open. Sasha whimpered slightly, half-heartedly trying to scrape the mess out of her hair.
Alex turned and watched the Van den Burghs close the sliding door. They calmly started to wipe down the chairs and table. They did not look up. They hadn't said a single word during the onslaught.
The four shook as they made their way home, united in their shock.
Toby started to sob. "Adults aren't supposed to do things like that to kids."
"No, they're not," said Alex.
"They told us we were going to have lunch," said David.
Alex stopped and looked down at the teary eyes before him. He thought for a moment, struggling to stop himself from shaking. "When they were little, they mustn't have had a big brother to teach them how to be good."
"I'm glad we don't live with them," said Sasha. She brushed down her stained dress, lifted her head and marched towards the house.
© Copyright, 2009. Seamus Kearney. The Plum Incident - a short story.
Naturally, I ended up being found out. But at least I did my best to shake everything I could out of that highly charged moment. What delicious drama! My name tag and crucifix snatched off me and tossed to the floor! In a totally improvised performance, I played up to their worst fears, with one hand on my raised hip and the other over my crotch. I’m not sure that any of those poor souls actually heard it, but I hissed slightly, like a deadly snake that managed to get away from Saint Paddy. It must have looked as if I really were possessed. For that glorious exit alone, though, the whole sorry affair had been worth it.
As it happened, it turned out to be my defining moment.
But to understand what took place, you need to know the background of my connection with Father Michael (I don’t even know if he had a surname). This was a man of the cloth who was seen as a bit of a maverick around Cork. Well, in the church they wouldn’t have used a word like that; they would’ve said that he was a bit of a character, and some might have even stretched their words in private to say that he was peculiar. But they would have quickly added that he was harmless and enthusiastic, which wasn’t a bad thing for an organisation struggling to keep its darker numbers in check.
When he cornered me at the end of mass one November morning, just two weeks before I was due to escape on the train to Dublin to begin a music course, I admit that I was more than perplexed. He hadn’t spoken to me for at least 18 months, not since the “little chats” my parents had set up, at which I insisted that I really couldn’t be changed. After a lot of praying on his side, and tearful stubbornness on my side, I’d been forced to accept that being “like that” could only be tolerated if my impulses weren’t physically acted upon. He told me he was prepared to accept that values in society were changing, and people like me had a right to be respected, but there would never be any comfort found in "entertaining the whims of the flesh". Yes, quite.
For a 17-year-old living on a farm, 60 miles too far out of Cork, and with parents who never let their first-born go into the city on his own, it seemed the agreement wouldn’t be too hard to keep. My thoughts and fantasies were taken care of in increasingly novel ways in my bedroom, and as long as those wicked impulses weren’t acted on outside of those walls, my parents didn’t need to worry about the risk of me standing on the terraces above hell. I even continued to attend mass, while I bided my time in peace, free of any unbearable, weepy speeches from my parents.
It’s true that I really had thought that ma’s discovery of my happy inclination had sealed my fiery end (she'd apparently fainted when she found a grubby stash of English male pinups behind the false panel in my desk). However, when Father Michael had been discreetly employed, they seemed eager to believe that he would adequately take care of the matter. Just three sessions together turned out to be enough to reassure my folks. It’s funny to think of it now, but they never even asked about the outcome, like they thought it better not to implicate themselves further by knowing the details. It had become the business of the church, a matter between me and Father Michael, between me and God, and they had seen no need to be briefed on how the matter had been resolved.
That’s why it was so astounding when Father tapped me on the shoulder at the end of mass that day, in front of my parents, and asked if he could see me in private. The expression on my mother’s face will stay with me for the rest of my life: a look of utter hurt and disappointment, as though I’d let them all down and we would have to return to those ghastly nights when no one slept. My father walked away, pretending he hadn’t heard a thing. Even though Father Michael took my mother’s hand and told her there was nothing to worry about, and that he only wanted to see me for something related to the parish youth group, the pain on her face failed to dissolve. She stumbled slightly and swayed as she went outside to join my father.
Father Michael entrusted me with a secret project, which I was told to keep from my parents, despite their obvious distress. It didn’t exactly sound like a mission from the big boss above, but Father was convinced that my presence at the seminary in Kinnercree the following weekend, where 14 new recruits were to be assessed for their suitability for the priesthood, would be indispensible. I was to be the eyes and ears of God, he said, although it did cross my mind that surely the Almighty would be pretty good already when it came to seeing and hearing things.
We settled down to dinner with Father Michael in the grand old hall of the seminary, puffed up in the black frocks we’d found at the ends of our beds. The cold stares and crude haircuts of young priests from previous years stood out on the sombre wooden walls above us, provoking an uneasy question: what had become of them all? Someone beside me said many of the pictures, now stained and yellow, dated back to the 1920s. Out of all the portraits I took in, not one seemed to show even the remotest sign of joy. How many were now in jail for unspeakable acts? Shipped off to the New World because of their love for the bottle? Happily married with children?
‘This is a great journey you’ll be embarking on,’ said Father. He took his time to focus on every single pale face. ‘This is an alliance with God, and the rewards are many. But let me say right here and now that there is no shame in admitting that this road is not for everyone. Some of us may find that we’re actually not able to devote our lives in this way. Some of us may find that although God’s voice has called us, we need to be honest about whether we are ready to follow with our hearts open and our minds at peace.’
Some of the boys put their heads down, as though deep in prayer, others nodded and beamed with enthusiasm.
‘This weekend is the time for that reflection. This is the time we get to decide whether we want to be part of God’s family, to advance only in his shadow, forgetting our own selfish needs and ideas. This weekend we must decide whether we are willing to leave ourselves behind. Our lives will be devoted to one person, and one person only. The ways of the world, of the flesh, must be put aside. Are we ready for that?’
We ate our meal in silence (delicious New Zealand lamb with a thick mint sauce, and baked potatoes and peas). An elderly woman served us, daring not to meet any of the young, earnest eyes around the table. A gale outside seemed to be making its way through the panels in the walls, creating a faint whistling sound.
‘Where are you from?’ asked a young man beside me.
I didn’t immediately turn towards him, but I’d already clocked his tightly-cropped blonde hair and bright rosy cheeks.
‘Just outside of Cork,’ I said.
‘I’m from Galway myself. Stephen Dunne.’
Very slowly, I took a piece of gristle out of my mouth, and did my best to remain composed. I waited a moment before I turned to get a better look at him.
Wham! A thousand sirens!
I swear that my heart stopped for five seconds as the piercing beauty of his eyes went through me. They were bluish grey, framed with the longest lashes I’d ever seen. I almost couldn’t speak. ‘Hello, Stephen. I’m Tim. Timothy O’Malley.’
I soon became aware of Father’s glare. Had he seen my chest freeze, and my face ignite with something magical? I thought back to that crisp conversation he’d had with me, where my “special calling” for the weekend had been confirmed. Well, he hadn’t actually spelt anything out in plain language; it had all been a bit cryptic really, though I did get the general idea that he wanted me to assess whether any of the boys shared my inclination. The Bishop had suggested that more vetting was needed, to avoid the heartache and distress threatening to envelope the church and empty out the pews! And who better to do a bit of secret vetting than someone who knew exactly what to look out for? Perfect.
‘They reckon we’ll be getting a stint at the Vatican next month,’ said Stephen Dunne, whose broad frame I’d now begun to discreetly admire.
‘We might even get to help the Pontiff prepare the Wednesday and Sunday messages.’
I didn’t want to think about the fact that he might go to the Vatican and never look back, that he would get swept up in the emotion of it all and dive blindly in. He had to be stopped. What a terrible waste! What a tragedy! I didn’t even bother to engage with the others around the table, and continued to avoid Father’s searching eyes. I’d earlier checked out the other boys, before we chose our places, and I knew straight away that none of them were of real interest. One or two of them looked like they might be like me, but it was the Dunne lad with the blonde hair and the devastating eyes who now demanded my utmost attention.
A sofa by the fireplace in the main lounge turned out to be the perfect place to chat, with me even pretending at one point to be interested in the numbing details of his small parish. We talked for hours, and I don’t think I misread things when his hand brushed up against mine at one point, when we both jumped up to contain an explosion of embers. Hallelujah for the sparks! I remained flushed, and my heart seemed to be jumping from one side of my chest to the other.
Eventually, Father brought us hot drinks and asked us whether we’d had a chance to mingle with some of the others.
‘Mingle? But the two of us are getting on so well together,’ I said.
Father was standing behind Stephen and so felt safe enough to scowl at me. ‘Mingling is part of what we’re supposed to be doing.’
This forced Stephen to his feet, all apologetic and flustered. He left Father and I alone to shuffle our feet close to the flames.
‘For the sake of heaven, O’Malley. You’re not supposed to be taking a shine. You’re supposed to be assessing.’
‘Taking a shine?’
‘I may be old and fusty, but I’m not blind to it.’
‘I am assessing, Father, just as you asked!’
He rubbed his eyes, pushing the fingers hard into the sockets. ‘Assessing and helping me, O’Malley. To decide who needs urgent counsel.’ His frown looked painful.
‘And it’s a pleasure to be of service, Father.’
‘Good boy. Now mingle! So we know who we’re dealing with. We’ll get this sorted yet, please God.’
Stephen slapped me hard on the shoulder in one of the narrow corridors that led to the chapel. ‘That sounded mighty serious,’ he said. He smirked and guided me along with a hand on the small of my back.
‘That was Father telling me off. I’m supposed to be mixing and mingling. The eyes and ears of God.’
‘Eh? But we’re all the eyes and ears of God. That’s the beauty of it. We’re all one and the same.’
‘Wouldn’t that make life easier now!’
The sound of some of the boys singing behind the closed door of the chapel was surprisingly good. We entered as quietly as we could, to hear the last few verses of Wild is the Wind, which I thought was a strange song to be singing in a chapel. Were non-religious tunes like that allowed in Catholic churches? It brought back memories of Grandma Jessie, who used to turn up the volume whenever the track came on the radio.
The pew we chose to sit down on creaked as we settled in, causing a few of the others listening to turn around and frown. The smell of burning candles, mixed in with incense, helped me to relax.
I realised then, through moist eyes, that any one of them up there on that small altar might have been of interest: the way they rubbed shoulders and swayed from side to side; the way some of them flicked their fringes out of their eyes; the little looks they exchanged when they leaned back and struggled to reach the high notes.
The lyrics spoke to me in such a dramatic way that my insides became all churned up. I felt giddy when I realised how close Stephen was sitting up against me, and that he seemed to be gently pushing himself closer and closer. I stared straight ahead at the open mouths, trying my best to memorise the beautiful lines being delivered. Our hands, palms down on the bench, briefly touched. Our knees also knocked together slightly. I felt so uplifted that I truly believed nothing would ever again be able to drag me down.
The thrill didn’t last long, however.
As we headed back to the dining hall for the promise of an evening hot chocolate, accompanied by a reading from the Old Testament, it became clear that something wasn’t right. A couple of boys stepped in front of me in the corridor and ushered Stephen to go on by, closing the door behind him. The boys had stern looks on their faces.
‘What’s this then?’ I grinned and tried to appear relaxed.
‘Someone overheard something quite troubling,’ said one of the boys, a tubby type with a heavy northern accent.
‘Something about you not really here to become a priest,’ said the other boy, who was very clearly English.
‘That’s utterly ridiculous.’ I looked back along the corridor to see if there was anyone who might serve as a distraction, someone I could catch up with or call out to.
‘So if you’re not becoming a priest,’ said the tubby boy, ‘then who are you?’
I folded my arms and leaned back. ‘I’m the eyes and ears of the Almighty.’
They burst out laughing.
I shouted, ‘I’m telling you! I was chosen to be the eyes and ears of Kinnercree!’ I hadn’t meant to be quite so loud and theatrical.
They stopped laughing and came closer, their eyes sharp and inquiring. One of them took me by the arm.
I figured that frankness was all I had left. ‘Who told you then?’
‘Someone overheard Father Michael in his office, complaining about you on the phone, about how you’re not buckling down to your secret little mission here. Vetting is the word I think he used. Homosexual was another one.’
I accompanied my inquisitors to the dining hall, where the others stood around with their big mugs of hot chocolate. The glum looks on their faces left me with no doubt that word had spread quickly. A traitor amongst us! That’s when one of them flounced up and yanked off my name tag and crucifix, which Father had so delicately attached to my frock with a safety pin.
‘That's not how priests are supposed to act,’ I said.
The crucifix landed face down.
Another boy stepped forward. ‘We’ll pray for you. That’s all we can do. We’ll pray that Father will also be forgiven for this shameful episode.’
Without any hesitation I started moving my hips. I tried my best to imitate the vulgar transvestite my cousin and I had once seen in a crazy American movie in Dublin. It just came to me like that, this burst of a feeling that those boys badly needed to come face to face with the irreverence they seemed to be so afraid of. If I hissed as I moved, it was only because I fell so easily into the character I’d seen in that film. Not one boy raised his mug to his lips. They looked like wax figures, their eyes bulging, their mouths prised open. One did, however, discreetly take hold of his wooden rosary beads. He looked up at the ceiling as he pressed them hard against his chest.
That was such a long time ago now that it’s a wonder I can still remember all of the minute detail. I only got it three quarters right when I retold the story at our reconfirmation ceremony in New York last month. Of course, we had the sound of Nina Simone and Wild is the Wind behind us, and I thought of those skinny lads in the chapel, producing waves of velvet with their voices. That’s really confirmed now as mine and Stephen’s anthem, having seen us through such a horde of summers and winters.
‘33 years since you defrocked me,’ he whispered after the service.
‘No one forced you to come chasing after me, Mr Dunne.’ I made a silly face and tugged on his tie, before we were thrown together for another snapshot.
Squeezing my elbow firmly, just like he’d done all of those years before in Kinnercree, he said, ‘Whatever they say about the misdemeanours of Father Michael, it’s him we have to thank for this little union of ours.’
I nodded and turned the ring on my finger. ‘We never did find out if he really understood the irony of what happened. Do you remember his last words to us?’
‘No, but I can tell you it certainly wasn’t praise for those eyes and ears of yours!’
© Copyright, 2009. Seamus Kearney. "The Eyes and Ears of Kinnercree". Short story.