Anne O’Brien

I Have Called You By Your Name

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

I’d promised Sam whales, a sub­sti­tute for his Mum who was off on hol­i­day with her new boyfriend. Sam knows all about whales. He’s most fas­ci­nated with the larger ones; the blue and the hump­back, the nar­whal too, with its uni­corn tusk. So, I did the re­search and chose Ice­land.

A few days in, we take our first whale spot­ting trip. The old whal­ing boat sets its course per­pen­dic­u­lar to land, straight out to open sea. Reyk­javik quickly dis­ap­pears. The pas­sen­gers’ chat­ter dies off as the sea be­comes rough and, de­spite its size, the boat is tossed about. I wrap my arms around Sam and grip the metal rail, my knees tense and give way with the dip and rise of the boat. We spot the tail fins of a cou­ple of minke whales. On the PA sys­tem, the cap­tain says that, in the old days, the minkes were spared be­cause the whalers be­lieved they were sent by God as pro­tec­tors. Over the next half hour the wind builds and the sea swells un­til he an­nounces that it will be dif­fi­cult to spot any­thing in the choppy wa­ters and we head back to the calm of Reyk­javik har­bour.

The winds reach gale force dur­ing the night and in the fol­low­ing days the whale spot­ting boats re­main tied up at the pier. We de­cide in­stead to drive out on the ring road, past Mos­fells­bӕr and Grun­darhverfi to the old whal­ing sta­tion Hvalfjörður, si­t­u­ated at the top of the fjord. The fjord got its name from the num­ber of whales that came in to shel­ter there and Sam is hope­ful.

The North At­lantic re­cedes and the sea stills as we fol­low the fjord in­land. Since leav­ing Reyk­javik, the ham­lets have be­come sparse and though we pass a red-roofed house now and then, it’s been half an hour or more since we’ve seen any­one.

We reach the dis­used works. The nat­u­ral sides of the fjord run into stud­ded walls and a slip­way that slopes to the wa­ter. There are low con­crete build­ings with cor­ru­gated tin roofs and, scat­tered about, rust­ing metal drums as big as houses. But for some bro­ken win­dows and an empti­ness that hangs about the place, it’s easy to imag­ine that a door could open, men stream out and work be­gins again in an in­stant. It’s not that long ago that they dragged whales up here; their dull weight no match for the power of the winch of metal rope.

I’d ex­pected an industrial area but the build­ings are sim­ple like the tools they used. We’d read about it at the mu­seum, how the first pro­cess­ing was done on the slip­way, us­ing flenses with wooden han­dles and thick, scythe­like, blades. The men sliced and carved whale flesh into large rec­tan­gu­lar slabs that could be lifted with long-han­dled metal hooks. A hose was used to rinse the meat, red wa­ter run­ning down to the sea.

‘Can I throw stones?’ Sam’s voice breaks the si­lence, his body tilt­ing as his hand scram­bles amongst the peb­bles. A nod and he’s off to­wards the wa­ter, the blond hair he got from his mother flop­ping up and down, his boots slid­ing on rocks that are smooth with al­gae.

The ground shifts as though the ghosts of whales are stir­ring be­neath our feet but it’s only a flock of oys­ter­catch­ers that rise as Sam draws near. They’d been in­vis­i­ble un­til they’d lifted, but now low sun­light catches the white of their un­der-wings. They fly close to the shin­gle and set­tle a few yards along; their fine curved bills pull aside sea­weed as they for­age for food.

Their move­ment un­set­tles me and I shout to Sam to come back. My words are caught on the wind, like the lost echoes of the ma­chin­ery, the calls of whales and the voices of the peo­ple who’d worked here, who’d hauled and skinned and sliced in bit­ter cold, when the days were so short they were hardly days.

I turn to­wards the car. The sun moves in and out be­tween the clouds. In the

sun­less mo­ments, the moun­tains darken and bear down, as though it is their job to hold us here. The car is grey against grey stone.

As I look, a shaft of light picks out the front wind­screen and I see her sit­ting in the pas­sen­ger seat, so still, look­ing to­wards the dis­used works. It’s not the first time I’ve seen her, but to­day she’s in her fifties, the age I re­mem­ber her best, when we were more friends than son and mother, about to head off for a walk on the pier, fol­lowed by a cap­puc­cino in one of the fancy new cof­fee places she loved. The loss of her fills me up, like it did in the first weeks af­ter her death.

My sis­ters of­ten talk of my mother’s con­tin­ued pres­ence in their lives. They see her in the white feath­ers they find in their paths. I envy them the soft­ness of the an­gel they imag­ine her to be. For me, she sits in cars, wait­ing to be brought home.

I walk to­wards the car and she turns to look at me but I’m too far away to read her face. As I come nearer, a cloud ob­scures the sun and, as sud­denly as she was there, she is gone.

I turn and call Sam. Again, my first words fall into the wind so I pull air deep in­side me and shout.

‘SAM.’ Am, am, am, the echoes bounce off the far side of the fjord and he runs to­wards me, red spots on his cheeks, the steam from his breath be­fore him.

‘Look, Dad.’

In his hand, a white bone, silky smooth. It’s pos­si­bly the thigh bone of a bird. There’s a small knuckle at the end, like a minia­ture head. I hold it. It’s light, picked clean. White.

I take Sam’s hand and we move to­wards the car. I slow the beat­ing of my heart so it matches his steady pulse in the palm of my hand.

‘Maybe it’s from the wing of a great auk,’ says Sam. We’d been to the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum and seen the pen­guin-like bird that swam so fiercely but walked like a man, its tiny flight­less wings tucked in at its sides. We’d read how trap­pers had killed the last pair for an ex­hibit, one of the men had stum­bled, smash­ing the soli­tary egg with his boot.

‘Prob­a­bly an oys­ter­catcher,’ I steady my voice. ‘Will you mind it for me?’ ‘Sure.’ I put it in my pocket as we reach the car.

‘Hold on a sec.’ I open the driver’s door, look in­side, then in the back. Noth­ing.

As Sam hops in and starts to buckle his belt, I turn to look one last time at the low cairns of grey stone at the edge of the road.

It’s all in your head. I re­mem­ber my fa­ther’s voice from when I was about Sam’s age, an­gry be­cause my mother had once again left his bed to place a warm hand on my fore­head to soothe me when night ter­rors struck.

It is all in my head. That’s the prob­lem.

My eyes flick from rear view to side mir­rors as I start up the car. The relief at driv­ing away from this des­o­late place gives way to the fear of leav­ing her be­hind. I pull the hand­brake and, with the en­gine still run­ning, step out­side to scan the land­scape once more.

I call out: ‘You can come.’ Um, um, um… Sam laughs and leans out the win­dow to join in.

‘COME.’ Um… ‘Who are we call­ing?’ he asks. ‘The bird that owns the bone, of course!’

We drive west. The brown, rain-soaked grass eases on to the road, re­duc­ing it to a thin strip of tar­ma­cadam bor­dered by flu­o­res­cent snow mark­ers set ev­ery few yards. The build­ings re­cede in the rear mir­ror. The flock of oys­ter­catch­ers rises as if to usher us out, set­tling once more in the place where, for some mo­ments we had stood, as though nei­ther we, nor the whales, or the men and women who’d worked this place, had been there at all.

The road passes be­neath the wheels like it moves, not us. Here and there, a hol­i­day house is tucked deep be­tween two hills in a spot where steam rises from the ground. We pass small groups of low con­crete houses lined up near the road, or a farm­house sur­rounded by hard-won fields. There are sheep but no peo­ple. The wooden door of a sim­ple church with a white steeple looks like it has been shut a long time. We drive past small lakes, the im­pos­si­ble blue of the trapped wa­ter gath­er­ing the pat­terns of scud­ding clouds. Moss soft­ens the hillocks made from an­cient lava de­posits so that, in places, the land­scape looks like the pocked skin of a sleep­ing gi­ant.

Last night we read the story of the Nykur, ghost horses that live in th­ese lakes, their hooves turned back­wards, the wa­ter haunted by their cries as they search for fod­der in sod­den fields. When the lakes freeze and the ice cracks, you can hear them neigh.

I’d wo­ken in a sweat from a dream of a Nykur who car­ried me at speed to­wards the still wa­ter. Once you mount them, you can’t get down and they’ll take you be­low. The spell will only break if you call out their name.

A blast of cold air fills the car as Sam low­ers the win­dow to shout NYKUR at each stretch of wa­ter that we pass.

‘When we get back to the ho­tel, can I skype Mum to show her my bone?’ ‘We’ll see, Sam. We’ll see.’ Soon Reyk­javik is in sight.

‘Now he’s from the west,’ says the Ice­lander in the petrol sta­tion. I re­alise he’s talk­ing about the wind. Like sticks and stones, hills and lakes, the wind is per­son­i­fied. All things are named, a litany like a prayer. Hvalfjörður, Mos­fells­bӕr, fos­sar, fuglar, ís...

II. Dublin

The wind car­ries us east and we stop off in Dublin on our way home.

I go alone to visit my fa­ther. The house is no longer rec­og­niz­able as the home I grew up in. He lives on his own. He’s got rid of all the beds but his, so no-one can stay.

Each time I visit, it’s harder to re­call my mother in the kitchen, the smell of boiled pota­toes in the air, the plas­tic-clothed ta­ble set for seven and the con­den­sa­tion run­ning down the alu­minium-framed win­dows. The film of si­lence is tan­gi­ble like the dust that’s set­tled on the ceil­ing light where two of the five bulbs have blown.

There’s no longer a sofa in the liv­ing room. My fa­ther has used the faded cush­ions to build up the height of the scat­tered arm­chairs. Each chair has a mat in front, so your feet won’t wear the car­pet that will long see him out.

I sit like a health­care pro­fes­sional on a home visit, tak­ing in the plas­tic box of tablets and vi­ta­mins on the kitchen ta­ble, the glass with the squeezed teabag ready for re-use, the sin­gle car­ton of milk in the fridge and the halfempty jars of jam. I know that there is still a stack of mis­matched din­ner plates in the cup­board by the cooker, as though at any mo­ment my mother will grab a few and set them out, side by side, and dish up din­ner.

On the drain­ing board, a side plate rests, propped on a cup.

Wind whistles around a sheet of hard­board tacked over the small win­dow in the back door. It had been smashed a few nights pre­vi­ously.

‘Bloody Tinkers. They thought they could just put their hand in and open the door,’ he says.

The rob­bers had fled when the alarm sen­sor had gone off.

‘They didn’t know who they were deal­ing with,’ he says. ‘I’m not past tak­ing them on.’

I think of him get­ting up in the night and grab­bing my mother’s old walk­ing stick that he keeps by the bed, mak­ing his slow progress down the stairs, as ready to wage war as ever.

For­give those who tres­pass against us. I don’t for­give him.

The cur­tains are open, but not fully so I pull them back. A shaft of sun­light picks out a path across the car­pet, end­ing in the door to the hall. On the tall hedge, a black­bird pulls its head back and calls out in the post-rain still­ness of the gar­den.

‘Do ye hear that fella?’ he says. ‘Do you know what that’s all about?’

I re­mem­ber my fa­ther on late spring days, when the first sun had warmed the plas­tic roofed lean-to where his aviary was. He’d stand amongst the birds, stripped to his singlet as he cleaned out the large cage, never gen­tler than when he lifted a fallen fledg­ling back into its nest or wrung the tiny neck of a finch half plucked to death by the oth­ers.

‘He’s the big fella, de­fend­ing his ter­ri­tory.’

I think of the oys­ter­catch­ers lift­ing into the sky and re­turn­ing to their place on the stony beach once we’d gone, the fine-boned birds ris­ing, as one, on the wind.

It feels like the house is sink­ing. Moss has gath­ered in the corners of the win­dows and weeds push through the gravel in the front drive­way. Though my mother is long gone, her plas­tic flower pots re­main, cracked and pet­ri­fied.

‘I’m just go­ing to the toi­let,’ I say, leav­ing the room quickly be­fore he can ob­ject. He won’t like me go­ing up­stairs. Out in the hall, the car­pet feels spongy un­der­foot, as though it’s wa­ter­logged. At the top of the stairs, the door to their bed­room stands ajar. My mother’s wardrobe draws me in. I take quiet foot­steps to reach it, catch­ing the re­flec­tion of my pale face in the mir­ror of her dress­ing ta­ble.

Five years on and her clothes still hang on metal hang­ers, the necks of un­worn cardi­gans stretched and long­ing. A pair of shoes, echo­ing her feet, stand side by side on the dusty floor of the wardrobe. I poke my head be­tween her clothes search­ing for the smell of her. The hang­ers jan­gle. I wait for him to call out, What are you at up there? But all is quiet.

My heart pounds, but I will have some­thing of hers. I slide open a drawer. Down­stairs, a floor­board creaks, sud­den, cer­tain. I grab a scarf and stuff it in my pocket. Be­low I hear the shuf­fle of his feet on the car­pet.

The han­dle squeaks as the liv­ing-room door opens. I turn to check I have left ev­ery­thing as it was, then move quickly and qui­etly, reach­ing the bath­room just in time to pull the flush as he calls out.

‘What’s keep­ing you?’ I open the tap and wa­ter splashes against the porce­lain. ‘I’m com­ing,’ I say, his child again, re-ar­rang­ing my brazen face in the

bath­room mir­ror.

Over a cup of tea, I dis­tract him by ask­ing about his ail­ments. And then he tells me about his lat­est project. He’s bought a new al­bum and filled it with photos of just the two of them, be­fore they had chil­dren. He flicks the pages.

‘You’ll be off so,’ he says, com­ing to the end and slowly get­ting to his feet.

I stand to leave too. He seems to have shrunk since my last visit, his up­per body slop­ing for­ward from his hips. The sight of his bald head, mot­tled with age spots soft­ens some­thing in­side me. I move to hug him. But, as I near, he takes a step back­wards. Noth­ing has changed.

I reach into my pocket for the car keys, they snag on the scarf and it al­most comes out with them.

‘What have you there?’ he asks, his eyes nar­row­ing and the blood sud­denly rush­ing to his face like it did when I was a child and had stepped out of line.

My throat tight­ens as my fin­gers scram­ble deeper. They close over the smooth bone of the bird. I prof­fer it on my palm.

‘Sam found it. In Ice­land.’ ‘Not that.’ His hand darts out and pulls the scarf from my pocket. ‘I have noth­ing of hers.’ ‘You have no bloody right. Snoop­ing ye were.’ ‘She’d have given me any­thing.’ He laughs.

‘You don’t know ev­ery­thing,’ I say. ‘She wanted to come home. To­wards the end. She knew there was noth­ing else the doc­tors could do.’

‘Rub­bish. She’d have told me.’ He lifts his head and his chin juts for­ward. ‘She was afraid. Not of dy­ing.’

I turn to the front door and feel his knuckle in the small of my back – the bony thrust of it.

‘You never knew the dif­fer­ence, did ye? Al­ways the liar with your made-up sto­ries. No won­der your wife left ye.’

The sting of his words is like the smart­ing im­print of his open palm af­ter a smack. But in­stead of hurt­ing, my skin tin­gles like ev­ery cell has sprung to life.

I’ve put words on what needed to be said, named what should be known.

I feel the power of the Nykur be­neath me, ris­ing from the lake and car­ry­ing me clear of the wa­ter.

I turn the hired car in the drive­way and head on to the main road, my hand raised in farewell.

III. Brus­sels

The plane lifts and lurches af­ter tak­ing-off from Dublin. Wind hits us side-on and we are rocked like the fishing boats that are specks on the sea far be­low. Ire­land’s Eye sits amongst the white-topped waves. The pi­lot an­nounces that we’ll head to­wards London then veer right across the chan­nel, to land in Brus­sels in an hour and twenty min­utes.

Be­side me, Sam draws page af­ter page of the bird of his bone - rain­bow coloured birds that spread their wings to the edges of his note­book.

As the house gets used to hav­ing us back, it stretches and creaks. Dur­ing the night, the wind rises, a late spring storm with gusts that make the doors bang. I dream of ships tossed on stormy seas and great nar­whals that move deep be­neath them. Sam wakes in the night and climbs into the bed be­side me.

‘I miss Mum,’ he says, snif­fling.

‘I know, Sam. I miss her too. Will I read you a story to help you go back to sleep?’

He nods, and I open H.C. An­der­sen’s fairy tales.

There came a sol­dier march­ing along the high road – one, two! one, two! He had his knap­sack on his back and a sabre by his side, for he had been in the wars, and now he wanted to go home….

Two more sen­tences and Sam is asleep. I close the book and lie be­side him, fol­low­ing the slow in and out of his breath with my own.

In the pink-tinged light of morn­ing, be­fore Sam wakes, I see her again. This time she’s in the driver’s seat of a blue Ford Fi­esta parked out­side the neigh­bour’s house. She’s look­ing ahead along the cob­bled street to­wards the park. The car’s read­ing light is on and haloes her face. I rap the kitchen win­dow. She turns and smiles and raises her hand to wave. I run down­stairs and out of the house in my shorts, but by the time I reach the street, the car is turn­ing the cor­ner, jaun­tily, as though she is head­ing into town, to meet her friends for cof­fee.

The ‘For sale’ sign in the front gar­den has blown over. I lift the post and wedge it back into the soft earth. Ev­ery­thing is fresh and wind tossed. Last 1. An­der­sen, Hans Chris­tian, ‘The Tin­der-Box’ in The Com­plete Il­lus­trated Sto­ries, trans. H.W. Dul­cken, (London: Chan­cel­lor Press, 1983 [1889]) pp. 18-24

night’s storm has bent the wa­ter­logged roses to­wards the earth. A brood of spar­rows have va­cated the nest that’s tucked un­der the eaves of our roof. The rose bush pro­vides a perch­ing spot for the clutch of young spar­rows who grip the thorny branches. It’s not so far from their nest and yet far enough to know they can’t re­turn.

Old habits die hard and while the oth­ers move off, one of the fledglings squats low so that it ap­pears to have no legs. It fluffs its feath­ers out and the wind ruf­fles them. It pulls its head back, open­ing its beak wide and calls to its par­ents to feed it. It waves to and fro on the branch, the thorns red against green shoots. It calls and calls. But no one comes.

The ground is soft with rain, the ter­race criss-crossed by the tracks of snails. The fledglings’ evic­tion has been well timed, the veg­etable patch is dark with turned earth. There is food, worms and bugs and green­fly washed from the roses. But still the fledg­ling squats and waits.

A bird hov­ers nearby, it lifts from a post to land on a branch, then from the branch into the air as though to say ‘See, this is how it’s done.’ It must be one of the nest­ing pair.

The bird lifts higher into the sky and I imag­ine our patch of grass seen from above: the gar­den shed, the roof of the house, the ad­join­ing houses with their small stamps of grass. Higher still it rises and my home is hemmed in by more houses, apart­ment blocks, of­fices, roads and then mo­tor­ways filled with slow mov­ing cars head­ing into the dense cen­tre. Train tracks con­verge then split and head across Europe. There is a rare flash of wa­ter, a foun­tain or maybe a park pond. Higher still, un­til the bird will at last see the short stretch of wide flat beach dot­ted with the re­mains of di­lap­i­dated Ger­man bunkers, the grey North Sea so far out that it seems to draw away from land into it­self, hardly a sea at all but for the whiff of salt in the air.

I watch un­til I can no longer see the speck in the sky. When I turn back to look at the rose bush sway­ing in the wind, the fledg­ling is gone. I scan the hedge and ter­race and then the taller trees in the neigh­bour’s gar­den. There

is no sign. Against the brick wall sep­a­rat­ing our two houses, a fat tabby flexes its paws, length­en­ing its body out as it stretches in the sun.

I want to name what lies be­tween here and there: Ghent, Oos­tende, Folk­stown, London, Liver­pool... to join the dots that lead back to the place I came from. But fur­ther still, be­yond Ire­land, across the swell of the North At­lantic with its mem­ory of Vik­ing boats that car­ried the first set­tlers from Nor­way and the south­west of Ire­land to Ice­land, on­wards to a place that does not know me at all, a sea-filled place where I could stay a while.

Soon my fa­ther will be gone. Some­one will buy the house for the site, for its long gar­den. Peb­ble-dashed and damp, it will stand for some weeks as the pa­pers go through. My sis­ters will talk of go­ing there to sort through stuff.

A few pieces of fur­ni­ture might be sal­vaged, a pic­ture or two. Then a skip will be dragged up the drive­way to be filled with sag­ging arm­chairs, bro­ken wardrobes, rugs and mats, plas­tic sun­loungers that no-one has sat in for years and the last re­main­ing bed with its stained mat­tress.

When they pull the house, when the road is like the curve of a mouth with a front tooth miss­ing, I’ll fly back, to stand and take a pic­ture of the gap. Be­cause the gap is where, for a time, I was.

Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion Sec­ond Place 2016

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