Hen­nessy New Ir­ish Writ­ing

Jan­uary’s win­ning story and po­ems

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - BY PATRICK HOLLOWAY IL­LUS­TRA­TION: AN­DRE PARRA

The vend­ing ma­chine was bro­ken and had stolen my money. I tried push­ing against it sub­tly and then not so sub­tly and still I was money-less and choco­late-less, and, worst of all, when I com­plained to my sis­ter I was told to be quiet and have some re­spect. “I’m go­ing for a walk then.” “Where?” “Around.” “Be back soon, Mum will worry.” It was cold out­side and in my ef­fort to show my an­noy­ance, I had for­got­ten my jacket. It was get­ting dark and I had no idea of the time or how long we’d been there. I walked around the car park read­ing the regis­tra­tion plates and mak­ing up lit­tle phrases with their last three let­ters. DBR – Dwarf Brain Re­ac­tion, PFX – Prince Finds Xy­lo­phone, FDB – Fox Dies Bleed­ing.

And then there was our car, parked all crooked and un­locked. In the panic, Mum must have left it like that. I sat in­side it and felt the leather and I could see my breath in front of me. Pulling the seat for­ward so my feet could reach the ped­als, I looked in the glove com­part­ment for money or cig­a­rettes, or some­thing I could get into trou­ble for tak­ing. But there were only in­surance forms and my par­ents’ driver’s li­censes. In the photo, my dad looked like some­body who would work in a chemist – his eyes were all red and his hair hadn’t been combed. I could tell Mum had pre­pared for her photo. Her lips were bright pink and her hair was combed so it curved neatly around her face.

I left the car be­cause it was even colder in there than it was out­side, and I walked around the back of the build­ing where there were win­dows. Mostly the cur­tains had been closed, but in one room I could see an old lady with tubes com­ing out of her hands, and there was a teenager asleep on the chair next to her bed. It made me feel sad and a bit sick so I kept on walk­ing around in the cold. My hands were all pale and, un­der one of the out­side lights, green. I couldn’t feel my ears burn­ing.

Go­ing back in­side through a dif­fer­ent en­trance, I wasn’t sure where I was. As soon as some­one looked at me I in­tended to ask for di­rec­tions, but ev­ery­one was too busy hold­ing flow­ers and tex­ting and look­ing se­ri­ous. So I got in a lift and pressed all the but­tons, plan­ning to have a look at each floor un­til one was fa­mil­iar. When I got to the third, a woman as old as my grand­mother got on, fol­lowed by a doc­tor who looked nearly as young as my sis­ter. She had one of those things to lis­ten to peo­ple’s hearts around her neck.

“Which floor are you go­ing to, young man?” the old woman said, frown­ing at me. “Eight,” I told her, ly­ing. “Then why are all the but­tons pressed? You know that wastes time. The lift is not a toy for you to play in, it’s not just . . .” The doc­tor put her hand on the old woman’s arm, lean­ing in to whis­per some­thing to her.

“You came in this morn­ing, right?” Her voice was soft when she turned to speak to me. “With your mum and sis­ter? I think your dad is on the sixth floor, not the eighth.”

We had al­ready passed the sixth floor so I got off on the eighth as planned and left with­out say­ing any­thing to them. I took the stairs down to the sixth floor, my shoes squeak­ing on ev­ery step. As I walked along the cor­ri­dor, I could see my sis­ter wait­ing for me, point­ing her fin­ger and tut-tut­ting.

“This is so typ­i­cal of you. Where were you?” She stood with her arms crossed. “Say some­thing!”

I thought of telling her about the time Dad and I were driv­ing down by the old church, and I saw a fox ahead on the side of the road. I was go­ing to say some­thing to Dad about that fox but he was giv­ing out about how self­ish I was and how I was al­ways in­ter­rupt­ing, and then there was the sound of a thud like a bag of sugar fall­ing on to car­pet, and the fox was un­der the car and there was the sound of Dad brak­ing and the smell of burnt rub­ber, and we both got out of the car even though Dad told me to stay put.

The fox was twitch­ing and there was blood around his face and I no­ticed how small and dark his pupils were, and how they looked like they were cir­cled by honey. It’s Tails from Sonic ,I thought, peer­ing at the fox and lis­ten­ing to his wheeze. I never knew a fox would wheeze but I could hear him, clear as clear. “Get in the car,” Dad said, but the fox’s black beady eyes looked at me and Dad’s voice seemed far away. I stepped closer, want­ing to stroke its tail – so thick and full that it didn’t look real. Just the blood looked real. I could still smell the burnt rub­ber, but thought it was the smell of Tails. I thought it was weird that a dy­ing fox should smell of a race­track. “We can’t just leave,” Dad said. “It’s not fair on the poor crea­ture.” And then, “Get back in the car for God’s sake.”

Dad knew I wouldn’t leave. It was dark and the road was empty and the branches of the trees that sur­rounded the Pitch and Putt Club were beat­ing against each other as if ap­plaud­ing. Dad went down a dirt path look­ing at the ground. I took an­other step to­wards the fox. His paws were curled up and his claws arched in to meet each other. He had long dark whiskers and, un­der his chin, some wiry dark hairs like a lit­tle beard.

“Get back in the car!” Dad was hold­ing a jagged rock and his face was flushed. I was al­ready crouched be­side the fox and I reached down to touch the fur of his tail. It wasn’t as soft as I thought it would be, in fact it was wiry like the hair of old peo­ple, and I could feel the bone un­der his fur. The fox just looked at me with his eyes that seemed made of honey and then Dad pulled me back and moved for­ward. I tried to walk away but my feet were planted to the ground and my eyes were wide open as my dad shut his tight, and ham­mered down the rock.

“The doc­tors said we can go and see him now. Mum is al­ready in there, would you like to see him?” “I sup­pose.” Dad was ly­ing flat in the bed, and Mum was busy stroking his hand and push­ing his hair back. The air in the room was dry and tasted of an­ti­sep­tic. No­body talked, we just lis­tened to Dad wheez­ing, long and heavy. Be­tween each breath I

counted the sec­onds, one Mis­sis­sippi, two Mis­sis­sippi, wheeze. And his eyes were a lit­tle open, the cor­ners all shot red. “It’s not fair,” I whis­pered, but ev­ery­body heard and they came to hug me, say­ing things I couldn’t take in. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t fair on the poor crea­ture, but I just sat in one of the chairs and watched.

In the wait­ing area, I fell asleep. When I woke my un­cle and cousins were there. My aunty was hold­ing flow­ers and the white of the lilies stood out in the room like they were fake, or alien. I tried not to say any­thing.

“They’re only good for boils and burns!” I said, my voice louder than I ex­pected. “What’s that dear?’ ‘The lilies, they’re only good for boils and burns. Well, the roots and leaves are. Dad’s not burnt.” “Oh, I brought them to brighten up the room.” “Dad thought it was cruel to rip flow­ers from the earth, es­pe­cially that kind.”

“Ja­son,” my mum said, her voice tired. “That’s enough.”

I don’t care what any­one says, I told my­self, I was right. Dad had told me. He had been in the gar­den and I’d brought him a cup of tea that Mum had made him. He was bend­ing over on his knees, scratch­ing at the earth with his fin­gers.

“You have to,” he said, “get the hole nice and deep. Oth­er­wise they’ll never grow.” He huffed as he dug again. “I know it’s all bor­ing to you but one day you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate how beau­ti­ful lilies are.” Huff­ing some more, he con­tin­ued to work and talk. “You know the great Monet painted them. They found huge can­vases filled with lilies in his stu­dio when he died. I was your age when my dad told me that, and I was think­ing at the time what a bore he was, and now, here I am, plant­ing the same flow­ers and prob­a­bly say­ing the same things he did. It’s a strange old thing, is life.” “How’s the tea?” I asked. “Per­fect,” he said, tak­ing a sip. I re­mem­ber sit­ting then and watch­ing him sift again through the dirt with his fin­gers as if play­ing the pi­ano. He was look­ing for stones and when he had a hand­ful he threw them over the wall and on to the farmer’s track. Then he trimmed the roots of each lily, the lit­tle shoots of green shak­ing from the clip­pers as if re­ceiv­ing a shock.

“They have a medic­i­nal use, you know?” he con­tin­ued. “The roots and the leaves are great for burns and boils, all skin con­di­tions re­ally.” “Is that so?” I en­quired, nod­ding and star­ing. “It is! So don’t go wast­ing your time with lilies for girl­friends, un­less it’s for the acne.”

Then he was laugh­ing with his eyes shut tight and his face up to the sky. It was the laugh only he laughed, the laugh he kept for one of his own jokes that my sis­ter and I called laugh-less. Then he went back to pre­par­ing the spot for the plant­ing, whistling and tap­ping his foot against the ground. I imag­ined the rhythm sink­ing into the earth as I sat watch­ing and think­ing that all things go­ing into the ground should grow.

I saw my aunty drop the lilies. They seemed to make gasps and screeches; one even stole my sis­ter’s cry­ing. An­other had the voice of the doc­tor from the el­e­va­tor. I bent down and picked them up, stroking their leaves and putting them against my face. The larger ones shook as if they were sob­bing.

That is my mem­ory of my fa­ther’s death. I re­mem­ber the lilies, re­mem­ber hop­ing no-one would stand on them. I even thought about re-plant­ing them to see if they would grow like all things should in the ground. But later, my sis­ter told me, I hadn’t held the lilies at all. She said I’d been the first to Dad’s side af­ter the doc­tors had done all they could. She said I climbed up on to the bed and lay across him as if I had wanted to be­come him, wanted to sink into his body and leave with him. And I’m not sure, one way or the other, ex­cept for the lift and the fox and the lilies. That’s what I re­mem­ber.

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