excerpts: the written word

From the flash fiction piece entitled “Infatuation, Risk and Redemption,” first published in P.W. Bridgman’s fiction selection, Standing at an Angle to My Age:

“We must go out in the boat.”

Clare said it—Clare whose rimless glasses and accent channeled the coolness of San Francisco directly into our high school. It was 1969. She had actually seen the Jefferson Airplane perform in a park. Smitten and 17, I would have followed Clare over a cliff.

No one else at our poetry reading said anything. It was midnight. A swath of silvery moonlight floated on the oddly calm waters of Maple Bay like a sacerdotal vestment.

“Let’s go,” I said, breaking the silence. The rest stayed back, knowing the wind could come up in an instant. I knew it too.

It was eerily quiet as I pointed Roger’s rowboat out into the bay. Clare, sitting opposite, watched me intently. I could feel my pulses falter. Leaning forward she whispered, “You don’t have to say it.”

The moment the rowboat cleared the lee of Arbutus Point it began to pitch and wallow in a quickly gathering squall. I fought to return us to sheltered water. An oarlock dislodged and the oar slipped my grasp and into the growing swells. Helpless now, we spun about, directionless. Clare held onto the gunwales with a death grip.

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From Ceann Dubh Dilis, a prize-winning short story that was first published in 1998 in Pottersfield Portfolio and which also appears Standing at an Angle to My Age:

For as long as I could remember, Mr. Pound had lived in the back bedroom. He wasn’t family (as my dad was quick to point out to anyone who came by). “He wasn’t family until we made him family,” my mother would always add. Mr. Pound was already eighty when he’d first come to live with us in Portaferry. It was 1952, the year I was born and the year he’d left the kettle on the gas ring, sending his own house up in a fiery blaze while he dozed, oblivious, in a shady spot in his back garden. Even the pumper trucks didn’t wake him—an old bachelor, his mind going queer, without a living soul to care or look after him.

“Some’d be content to take in a stray cat, but not your mother,” my dad would say, within her earshot.

“Catch yourself on, Lorcán,” she’d say back to him, gently. “Is that the example you want to be setting?” These were good-natured exchanges. Sometimes there were harsher words; low, muffled voices on the other side of a door.

Mr. Pound spent all of his time either in bed or in the pushchair my dad built for him with little cast-off wheels he’d brought home from work at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast. In his more lucid moments Mr. Pound would ask me to manoeuvre him to the window so he could watch the birds. He would sometimes have me sit up on his lap and then point to them and tell me their names. He would also sing little snatches of old songs, bits of his own childhood dislodged by some stimulus not apparent to anyone around him.

“Clitherty,

Clatherty,

Out upon a Saturday,

In upon a Sunday morning.”

This particular fragment brought my mother running into the lounge from the kitchen, her hands red and dripping from the washing up, her face alight with excitement. “My father sang that to me, Ben! He was a weaver. They would sing that song at the beginning of each week when they changed the webs on the looms.” I could see that there was magic and mystery locked up inside Mr. Pound.

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From the short story entitled “Our Secret,” which was first published in Standing at an Angle to My Age.

“Stop squirming and sit up straight.”

Ron Downie was obsessed with posture. He loathed Bea’s sloping shoulders and the way she leaned over her plate (“like a squirrel with a nut”); he could see that Astrid was well on her way to developing the same habit.

“I’m sorry, Father.”

Astrid could not make herself comfortable on the shiny plastic seats of the hospital waiting room. She flipped the curled pages of a year-old Time magazine, half-reading an article about Duane Eddy and his favourite guitar. She wanted just to go somewhere and apologise to somebody for something.

With his thick, lumberman’s fingers Ron Downie turned the flimsy pages of his Bible slowly, a page every two or three minutes. He sat in his seat, his spine arrow-straight, the habitual set of his jaw grim.

Astrid could tell by the way the pages were piled higher on the right side than on the left that her father had sought refuge, as he so often did, in favourite passages from the Old Testament. More at home with swarms of locusts, floods and hellfire than with miracles of redemption, Ron Downie seldom consulted the pages of the New Testament in the supple King James that, through long years of travelling to and from the woodlot in his black lunch pail, had gradually been moulded by his thermos into a crescent shape.

Astrid looked up again at the clock. Like the clocks at school, it lacked a second hand but when she watched it closely she could detect barely perceptible movements in the minute hand that traced the impossibly slow, forward march of time and with it the endless wait for news. She tried to will the hand to move more quickly until it occurred to her that these minutes could be her mother’s last. She shifted in her seat and turned her head so that her father could not see her crumpling face.

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From a short story entitled “But No, Nothing” which received an Excellence in Contemporary Narrative Award in the 2014 Leonard Koval International Short Fiction Competition.  ”But No, Nothing” appears in the 2014 Gem Street anthology published in August, 2014 by Labello Press of County Tipperary, Ireland.

A tap in the kitchen dripped with a merciless regularity. Its time signature differed from that of the equally regular ticking of Fr. Diarmuid’s old, hand-wound alarm clock. The ticking and the dripping merged and separated, merged and separated, contrapuntally, laying down a structure to which the priest’s disquiet could attach itself—a disquiet that consisted of doubts and reassurance that ebbed and flowed and ebbed and flowed within his troubled and sleepless heart and head.

He got up to urinate. He then shuffled into the kitchen and twisted the cold-water tap more tightly closed. He placed a balled-up dishcloth in a small saucepan and positioned it in the sink beneath the tap before making his way slowly back toward his bed. The cloth was soon sodden.

As a result of these ministrations the dripping took on a muted sound—a funereal sound—that wove its way still, in and out and in and out of synchrony with the ticking of the clock, the concordances coming now at more widely spaced and stately intervals.

Settling back into his bed, Fr. Diarmuid squinted at the clock face and saw that it read twenty past three. I could just take it to the far side of the canonica, he thought (“canonica” being the Italian translation for “rectory”—an exotic adornment to his vocabulary that he had proudly brought home with him from Rome after his priestly studies there many years before). But of course he couldn’t remove the clock to any distance. Lauds commenced at six-thirty and without it ringing close by he would run the risk of sleeping through, of not beginning his morning office punctually, as always, with these portentous words:

“O God, come to my aid.

 O Lord, make haste to help me …”

And so Fr. Diarmuid turned onto his side. In time an uneven, fitful sleep settled upon him. It continued until the hammer on the alarm clock sprang to action, provoking its little iron bells into an insistent fury of metallic sound, bringing the stub end of an unsatisfyingly short sleep to an abrupt and profane conclusion.