Short Stories from Loose Leaves (part ii)

Too Old – No Never

By Breege Caldwell

The people and neighbours where I live are very friendly and when they became aware I had recently retired I was invited to join a retirement group in the town who meet once a fortnight.  They’re a great bunch of ladies who arrange outings and parties and have speakers in who do their best to bring us out of the doldrums by keeping us informed as to all our entitlements.  They usually have a raffle, which helps to defray costs.  The only things we’re short of are men who seem to shy away from such meetings, but their presence would be an added bonus as some of us would remember that we had been romantically linked to one or more of those old lads with caps.  We’d often laugh about what we got up to in our youth.  I have to say we were no angels, both my wings got broken and eventually fell off. Last year the group decided to be more adventurous and go abroad so they arranged a week’s holiday to Turkey.  I was thrilled, this was my chance to travel and see a bit of Europe.

I’m going to seize this opportunity I informed Tom, as you never move away from your home surroundings except to the golf course, people could be forgiven for

thinking that you had been ordered by the courts to stay within a certain radius.  You

can look after Rex until my return, he won’t let you forget his daily walk and

tell him each night as you pat him on his head that Brid or the Missus as you

sometimes call me, that it’s a day closer to my return home, this dog knows

everything you say and pines in my absence.

When away I like to say a few words over the phone each evening, he barks in recognition when he hears my voice, at least he’s reassured that I’m still in the land of the living.

I borrowed a suitcase and put in a few things.

“Don’t bring too many clothes as the climate is so warm.  Bikinis are very popular,” said Heidi, my daughter.  “And you know those new knickers, they’re all the fashion now, called thongs, they’re much handier than those big pink ones you wear mother.  They’re so old fashioned, they almost come up to your chin.  You’ll need lots of sun barrier cream as knowing you you’ll allow the sun to shine on parts of your body it never saw before.  Be careful not to get burnt.”

All had been arranged.  A bus would collect us at the Resource centre on Monday morning and bring us to Dublin Airport where we would catch the afternoon flight to Bodrum, a holiday resort in Turkey.  I was up at the crack of dawn and hadn’t been as excited since the day Father Donnie married Tom and I and we promised to take each other for better and for worse until death do us part.

As an older group with prior bookings, there were very little delays, everything went according to plan and we sailed through all the checks.  Then we were soon allowed into the departure lounge, having browsed through the duty free shops, we sat around waiting for the announcement telling us it’s time to board Flight 107 for Turkey.

The announcement came loud and clear.  So, picking up my hand luggage I took my place in line with the other passengers and walked to the plane.  As we were being greeted on  board, the plane was already revving up for take off. It was great to get sitting down and watch the other passengers as they came on board selecting their seats.  Then the air hostess told us to fasten our seat belts and put us through our drill in case of any emergency.  I sat beside a friend who was nervous.  She was adamant she wanted to be near an exit as she felt she could vacate the plane quicker if required.   “I want to be near a door in case I have to jump out Brid.”

Managing to hide my smile I went along with that as it gave her a sense of

security.

The plane journey went without a hitch and soon the big jet was racing along the runway and cruising to a halt.  The pilot thanked us for flying Aer Lingus and hoped we’d have a lovely holiday.  It was time to disembark, taking down the overhead luggage I decided to take off some of my clothes as the heat was making me

perspire.  The relief was great as I undressed and it wasn’t until Stella prompted me

saying,

“Brid, please, you’ll soon be in the nip, don’t take it all off, you must keep

your modesty in this country or else you could be escorted off by the Turkish police

for indecent exposure.”

Having collected our luggage we headed out making sure no one was missing and as previously arranged there was a coach waiting, which was to take us to our hotel.  On the journey to it I gazed out the window.  The sights I saw were simply awesome, I felt so excited at the prospect of exploring as much of the Turkish country as our time there would permit.

After light refreshments on arrival, most of my companions were tired and wanted to rest but not me, I wanted to get my bearings so I decided I’d go for a stroll and have a look around.  I promised my companions I wouldn’t go far.  Off I set in shorts and a light top with sandals which allowed my toes full exposure, they appeared to look up at me as if to say we’re enjoying this freedom and lovely heat.

I hadn’t gone too far when I noticed a fine young fellow walk in my direction. I couldn’t help but notice his huge brown eyes; they were like melted chocolate.  I put his age at twenty something and brimming with testosterone.  I thought for a moment that he knew me, then in a very quiet manner he said.

“A woman as beautiful as you must have come from another planet.”

Then a strong hand gripped mine as he continued.

“Let’s talk, come sit down and drink with me.  You must be thirsty.  My name is Ali, after the great boxer.  You melt my heart.  I love older women especially when they’re chubby like you and have love handles which I can grasp.”

As if hypnotised, I obeyed and sat down on the sandy beach beside him, my blue eyes gazing into his brown eyes.

“You need your toe nails painted,” Ali said, “then I’ll recognise you later.” Taking out vivid red nail varnish he proceeded to paint my toenails.   I was mesmerised.  Here was a complete stranger looking after my toes and I knew that my husband didn’t know or seem to care if I had any digits.  I appeared to be completely under his spell.  No one had ever spoken to me in such glowing terms before and informed me of my utter beauty.

Just as he finished his task, Annie and Jeanette from our group passed by and

recognised me.  The latter was the first to speak, relief spread across her face as she uttered,

“Thank God we found you.  Ignore him Biddy, come with us, that lad is after your money we’re here to save you.”

Silence reigned for a while as I was unscrambling my mind.  This lad seemed so polite and kind.  He had hooked me but I hadn’t come for a holiday fling I had come to show Tom I was independent and still young enough to seek adventure.   Annie raised her voice saying,

“Have a bit of sense Biddy.  You’re long past your sell by date and I don’t have to turn you up to see, your face is all dried out and lined, your lips worn

out from kissing, plus, you’re suffering from chilblains which I hope the heat of the sun will cure.  And then she lowered her voice saying,

“Have you lost your marbles girl, that lad is what they call a toy boy come with us quickly.”

I felt butterflies in my stomach and sadness that I’d have to be separated from Ali but then the penny seemed to drop, my courage returning, I shouted.

“Be gone young man.  I’m old enough to be your Granny.  I don’t want a toy boy; all they’re interested in is money.  I have a husband at home.  Off you go, I feel the devil is around, be gone and bring Satan with you.”

He was very quick to realise what was happening.

“You come lady.  Me give you great time,” he promised me.  “I’ll get two friends for those two ladies with you.  I’ll be back with those lads tonight.”

So we agreed to that and settled where we’d meet up.

On the way back to the hotel my two friends told me off adding that they didn’t think I could be so stupid.

“Please forgive me,” I pleaded.  “He was naughty but nice and I fell for his charm.  He had great power in his hands as he rubbed my poor swollen painful knees. the pain and swelling left them.  Doctor Sean’s tablets are still in their foil cases,

it’s a wonderful and I hope a permanent cure.  Tom will be delighted as we will be able to partake together like long ago in the old time waltzing competitions.  When I return home he’s sure to tell me, ‘Maggie can sit in the corner, now, dearest that you can dance like a fairy once again.’  He often told me that she was getting too fat and he was getting it harder to get a grip of her to hold her tightly as he propelled around the dance floor.”

We were soon back at the hotel, to my surprise the bus was revving up to take us to another hotel.  There had been a mistake due to some kind of overbooking. But all had been sorted out.  On counting the passengers I was missed and the search began causing panic and delay.  Yes, having apologised, I listened intently to the warnings of the tour guide.  The realisation of what could have happened to me sank in.  I’d never go off on my own again, but thankfully I still had all my money, he hadn’t succeeded in finding my secret bank.

We had the happiest of times travelling around.  It was really a life changing

experience. We visited many historical sites and relaxed on fabulous beaches.  Turkey

is a place where there are so many beautiful things to see, the inspiring sunset views

are hard to beat, the best feature is it’s weather, endlessly sunny but not too hot.  The

sandy beaches sprinkled with ancient ruins and fringed by a beautiful sea left me reeling and a yearning to return again.

Each evening I phoned home.  At the end of the week I heard Tom’s tenor voice sing out over the phone,

“Get on the road that leads you back home to me.”

The holiday has given me so many memories to lock away in my heart.  There was a great party atmosphere each night after dining.  Young men with sun drenched faces to die forand bodies that didn’t play second fiddle would approach and whisper whatever words you wanted to hear, while the lovely music wafted out on the still night air.  The music set my heart in a whirl and seemed to pour extra power into my legs.   They wanted to get up and dance with those boys but with advancing years I was compelled to remember I wasn’t as fit as I used to be.  I regarded myself as a package.  All my limbs have to be in agreement for me to stand p and lift my skirt and hi! I’m away one, two, three and hop, then twist and twist again.

All too soon the holiday ended but it has given me itchy feet to travel on and see places of interest and enjoy life, have fun as I age.

The journey home went without a hitch.  Tom was there to meet me, delight visible on his face.  I know I don’t have to worry that he’ll ever leave me.  After a short journey home I was among the family.

I wouldn’t change a thing for the treasure of a king.

Heather’s Garden

By Hannah Masterson

I was startled out of my nap by a young bird that landed on the arm of my old deck chair. It was inches from my folded arms and so I remained motionless, careful not to disturb him. Its blue chest moved up and down while its head did jittery twists as it checked out my face. Briskly, the little fellow fluttered its delicate wings, and broke into song. This wonderful bird continued to sing unobservant of all the loud noises around him, particularly, with the volume of noise that came from the building site nearby.  It didn’t seem bothered by the sound of heavy machines, or the different tools that hammered continuously. The bird wasn’t put off by the grinding of the giant cement mixer that rolled over and over, growling. Neighbours dogs barked madly, while other dogs joined in from a distance. My eyes looked up and I saw a silver white aircraft dazzling overhead, leaving a feathery white trail behind it. I didn’t risk turning my head as the bird now had stopped for a breath. Two brown thrushes flew close to investigate the scene, the little bird jumped off to the ground, and waited. I watched several coloured butterflies scoop and dart in and out of the yellow privet hedge running along the end of the spacious garden. A red ladybird climbed over my sandal and made its way slowly over the mixed pebbles, measuring its way down to the soft green lawn. Striped bees buzzed up and down and flitted from flower to flower gathering nectar before heading off for base. Some of the busy bees took off the flower petals like miniature space ships. Watching them gather their harvest made me think about honey, golden, dippy, syrupy honey. Honey poured on hot buttered toast. What a scrumptious thought! I gazed in awe at all these beautiful creatures, and found myself thanking God and the universe for moments such as these. They are gifts, for free.

I moved down the garden. Instantly, I thought about Heather. My close friend Heather died from cancer last year. Her illness was short, but together we made every moment count. Heather lived every day as if it were her last. Her strength and bravery amazed me. Her acceptance of death, the memory of her courage will stay with me forever. She was my soul friend. I loved her. Heather loved nothing better than to crawl into her hammock at the end of her long garden and there, she would relax with her books and favourite music.

The first time Heather and I met was at an antique auction. Neither of us knew much about antiques, but somehow, between us, we both managed to send the price of two silver candle sticks through the roof!  We both bid and wanted the same pair.

I’d lived in the locality for about twenty years, while Heather was still considered a new comer, even after ten years in the area. We lived about ten miles from each other, but we never met till the day of the auction, nine years ago.  Heather moved house for the second time, and it worked out that she lived just minutes up the road from me. This was very exciting for the two of us. We had some marvellous days and exciting evenings together.  I recall the evening heather invited me over to celebrate her moving in, and to christen her new house and garden.

After we viewed the house from top to bottom, Heather sighed and held her chest as if it all happened like a miracle. She reached for two tall slim blue glasses  and poured our favourite red wine.

“To us,”she chirped, her smile filling out her face.

“Yes, to us,” I breathed and raised my glass.  “To your new home Meadow View.”

We both clinked our glasses, and cheered “yahoo.”

Heather moved on with her glass still in hand.  She beckoned me to follow her to the garden to admire the large veranda. Six white wooden chairs were positioned round a circular table.  A huge green and white umbrella stood centre of the table, shading the strong summer sun from our eyes.  Heather announced mischievously,  “Just wait till you hear this Penny.”

She stopped for a moment, her appearance looked radiant and she continued fondly.

“This is my pride and joy.”

She disappeared off to the garden shed in a sort of tiptoe action. I had no idea what Heather was up to. Suddenly, the evening silence was filled with the wonderful sound of Chopin. We both loved his Sonatas. Heather called out.

“What do you think Penny?”

“Oh it’s …. it’s magical!” I replied dreamily, my spirit already engaged with the music.

“Yeah, you like it,” she quizzed, waving her hands in a questioning gesture.

“How did you manage to get the music in the shed?”

After a few moments Heather reappeared in the shed doorway, her head tilted

slightly as she breezed out.

“My idea darling!”

I watched her crank up the music a notch or two.

“Got my music where I can hear it best,” she added, swinging her hips in an  up beat tempo out of the shed.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Well Peter got it all sorted out for me,” she said, sticking her finger into her glass and bumping me forward with her bottom.

“Wow!” I teased.

Heather swished past me, and with a pouty lip she said,

“Mr. Drynan followed Peter’s instructions on how to install the music system in my shed,” she drawled. “Thank he got it right kiddo?”

“Yeah! Looks like Mr. Drynan followed instructions to the letter, Mam!”

Peter is Heather’s son.  He lives and works in Canada as a Television Presenter. He is also a fine musician and artist. It’s a bit sad for Heather as Peter has no intention of returning to live in Ronsilla. Perhaps, this might change in time.

Curiously I inquired further.

“A separate system in the shed then, Heather?”

“Yes, Penny,” she chirped gaily. “I can share my music with Fred, (her beautiful Labrador dog), with my friends the birds, really with all the small animals who visit me here.”

She smiled easily and gazed down her garden with love and sweet admiration. With a quick turn of her head she giggled and said,

“If they don’t like the sound they can leave!”

Then she fixed her hair and hummed away like a bee.

“Really?” I nodded and threw her a nervous glance.

Heather saw the glance and piped back quickly, “You think I’m crazy Penny?”

“Ah no! … No … I’m overcome with ……..”

Heather always quick with an answer interrupted, “I am crazy you know.  Don’t go telling everyone will you Penny Wilkins!” Her eyes flashing mischievously.

“Only you would think of such a thing, you crazy girl!” I belted.

“Oh thanks a lot,” she said.

Heather leaned back in her chair.  The black stilettos carelessly fell off her feet, and she exploded with the giggles. Me, I missed the mouthful of wine from my sip and it hissed out and splattered the whitest linen tablecloth you ever saw in you life.

“Jesus! Look what you made me do,” I spluttered. I’m so sorry, Penny I ……..”

“Hey, don’t fret girl. I’ll get the magic spray.“

My knee jerked upwards to help her, but Heather read my action. She shook her head.

“No,” she insisted “You sit right there.”

In a blink, the stilettos were back on and all you could hear was the spiky heels do a click, click, click, in the direction of the kitchen.  Overhead, this fabulous rainbow reached across the house. I wanted Heather to see it so I called out to her.  She didn’t hear me, so I watched the rainbow alone. Heather was a teacher for twenty years. She changed careers and returned to her favourite love of all, writing.

“To develop my creative skills,” she was known to have said on many occasions. Heather was an excellent cook and was always up for a dinner party or, any kind of party for that matter. She was full of life.

“Writing was my first love,” she confessed many times, as she struggled to finish some chapter or other. Often at night she could be seen sitting up writing into the early hours with a shawl draped over her shoulders. Other times, she would fall asleep across her desk covered with pages. Soft pipe music was her companion into the late hours. Her friends the birds were her early morning friends as they greeted the dawn with their morning chorus. Heather often remarked,

“This is the Universe bringing me love and inspiration. I’m the co-creator of these beautiful books.”

A pale Heather arrived back, stain remover in one hand, cloth in the other. I stepped in from the patio, back into Heather’s view. We looked at each other inquisitively as we often did. Checked each other with our eyes, mostly we just burst into hysterical fits of laughter.  Our thing. Heather and Penny dealing with our stuff. As friends do, of course. Of course.

The sound of our high pitched laughter lasted several minutes over the garden rails. Finally, I picked up my glass, again,

“Here’s to your Garden.”

“What,” Heather screamed. “To my sanctuary,” she corrected, a slight slur forming in her speech. Her wispy blonde hair fell in dips over her eyes, this made Heather blink and throw her head back, which in turn, caused her to feel a bit unsteady.

“Ttt toooo …. ….to your sanctuary my darling.”

I managed, a great lump forming in my throat, followed by a touch of sluuurred speech that seemed to resound off the crystal glass perched stiffly in my pointed left hand.

Heather sprayed and resprayed the tablecloth at least a dozen times.

“There that should do it,” she piped cheerfully, as she continued to spray the table linen and the daylights out of the lovely lilies resting majestically in the middle of the table.  I turned away.  My chest simply hates sprays of any kind.

“Penny,” Heather sighed as she rested her hand on the table.

“It’s not the end of the world. It’s only a wine stain,” she croaked, as she held her hand up to her mouth.

“And Penny, move away from the spray will you, please.”

I searched for a reply but, my mouth was much too dry. Heather beat me to it.  “You, my dear Penny, are the sister I never had. You can spill wine here any time,” she giggled loudly, and proceeded to fire the cleaning cloth and spray, high over the garden fence.

“Jesus, that’s good to know,” I mocked and reached for another bottle of wine to refill our glasses.

After a brief pause, Heather joked again, “and we can laugh at anything we like.  And at our silly selves too.”

“At … at anything?” I teased more, and held out my hands.  Heather, fell forward and into my outstretched arms, then gasped,

“Here, give me a big hug you Wally.”

I held her close. Her body weight had dropped considerably and I felt her thin outline against my own. In that moment, I knew my friend was really ill. I rested her cheek against mine.

“Thank you darling,” I murmured, and my throat ached so badly.

At that, Heather’s face changed to a more serious expression. She looked me in the eye and said,

“Penny I know how much you love music. You are an excellent musician, and you appreciate all creative gifts and talents.”

My jaw dropped, my mouth opened, but no words came out. Heather smiled bravely and went on.

“You also love birds and animals. Your heart sings in the world of nature. You are my spirit friend, forever.”

Before I could utter any kind of response, Heather continued.

“I will always be with you Penny. Remember, no more tears when I’m gone. Promise?”

She lifted her glass, “cheers Penny,” she said softly and turned away from me.

I cried.  I couldn’t stop myself.  The tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. My heart was aching. Part of me wanted to rush forward and hold her again, but she had already, as if she read my mind, moved away across to the couch the other side of the room.

“I’m waiting for your promise, ” Heather said.

My shaking hand wiped tears I had no control over.

“I promise Heather,” I managed. “No more tears.”

To the memory of Heather my soul friend.  I salute you today on your first Anniversary. A Toast Heather: “To our sanctuary, may it bloom and grow in love and peace. And now, seeing I am the new owner, gardener and pianist, may Chopin and me have many musical and gardening days together, for a long, long time.”

Invisible Scars

By Rose Byrne

Alice loosened her grip on Darren’s hand.  He broke free and ran ahead of her.

“Hurry Ma,” he called, eager to get to the café for his plate of chips.

Darren ran through a small puddle splashing a smartly dressed woman.

“Sorry missus,” Alice said as she reached Darren.

The woman looked straight through Alice and tossed her haughty head upwards. She then turned her back muttering something under her breath.  All Alice heard was the clicking of the woman’s expensive stilettos.  Alice disregarded her in the same fashion and moved on.

She was looking forward to going in for a rest.  She liked the café in Arnott’s. Just as she reached the side door a young man caught her eye.  He was sitting on the ground begging.  Alice walked past him into the shop, but inside the door she stopped.  There was something different about him.  Earlier on she had passed another homeless man outside Marks and Spencer selling the Big Issue. It hadn’t affected her.

“Darren, c’mon back outside for a minute.”

“But Ma,” he protested as he followed her.

The money for the café was tucked safely away in her pocket. She rooted in her purse. There was a couple of Euro.  Alice hesitated.  The young man was sitting on some newspaper.  His head bowed, he was motionless, melting into the grey walls behind him.  There was no cap or container in front of him.  No words escaped from his mouth.  Just an out stretched hand, reluctantly asking but not really expecting.

“Here yeh are, get yourself a cup of tea or somethin’,” Alice said as she gently placed a coin in his hand.

The young man looked up at her.  His eyes empty.

“Thank you very much,” he said in a very refined accent.

“What’s your name?” Darren asked.

The young man just gave him a weak smile.  Alice recognised that look.  She wanted to offer something, a word of comfort or hope but she could not.  Instead she just smiled, took her son’s hand and walked on.

“These chips are lovely ma, d’yeh want some?”  Darren asked his mother.

She shook her head.  As she sipped her tea she wondered about the young man. He reminded her of Thomas. There were no physical similarities, just the same desperation silently seeping from him. Why wouldn’t the young fella tell his name?  Where was he from?  He sounded like he came from money.  But who was she to be making these kinds of assumptions?

“Are yeh ready ma?” Darren interrupted her thoughts.

“Yeh promised me you’d bring me to Smyths.”

Darren was impatient to go, although she could have easily stayed a while longer.

“All righ’ then, we’ll go.”

Alice tided the table before she left.  The waitresses were accustomed to her, almost expected it now.

As they walked up the street she glanced over to where the young man had been sitting.  He was gone.  Alice shrugged.  She hoped he’d got something to eat.

“Ma, why are all them people over there?” Darren asked.

“Its probably your man that lets on he’s a statue.”

“Who ma?”

“Yeh know that fella that tipped us with his cane and we didn’t know who it was.”

“Ah yeah, that was funny,” Darren giggled.

“That’s not his usual spot though,” Alice answered.

Curious they went across to look. It wasn’t the man who frequented Henry Street imitating a statue. He could stand there for hours catching passer-by’s off guard, tipping them on the shoulder or hooking up their shopping bags with his cane. Instead, it was a tall dark-haired young man; his jet-black hair oiled back in a quiff.  He was dressed in black leather playing a guitar while singing,

“But uh, uh, honey lay off my blue suede shoes.”

He shook his leg, Elvis style.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “Uh huh, huh.”

The crowd clapped. A few young girls whistled. Some of the onlookers went over and threw money in his cap.

“Look at that ol’granny eyein’ him up,” a young teenage girl said to her friend. They were standing beside Alice and Darren.

The granny was only in her early forties and it was the snobby woman from earlier.

“I don’t think she’s that old is she?” Alice said out loud without meaning to.

“She’s older than you anyway. She’s bleedin’ ancient.”

Alice laughed despite herself.

“I tell yeh, I won’t be eyein’ up young fellas when I’m as old as her,” the young girl continued.

“I will if they’re as good lookin’ as him,” her friend replied cheekily.

Alice smiled to herself, remembering.

“Good luck girls, be good.”

“See yeh missus.”

As she moved on the guitar began strumming In the ghetto.

“Another Elvis fan Darren.”

“Who’s Elvis ma? Why was that man gettin’ money?” asked Darren.

“Because he was singin’.”

“If that fella outside the shop sings will he get money?”

“That’s a good question son. I doubt it.”

“But you gave him money ma, and yeh didn’t give the singer any.”

“Ah, I’ll explain it to yeh when you’re older Darren.  C’mon, d’yeh want to go to Smyths or not?”

He nodded.  Alice was relieved.  How could she explain it?  She hardly understood herself. Why people turned out one way or another.  She couldn’t tell him why people, even people you knew or thought you knew inside out, changed. That someone you loved could go in a totally different direction.  A direction that was all wrong for them, but they wouldn’t be told. They seemed incapable of grasping the fact that they affected other people’s lives, dragging them down with them. People they loved, or said they loved.

She knew Darren would have plenty of questions when he got older.  She would simply tell him the truth.  She could do no more. Her young son tugged at her coat.

“Are yeh goin’ to buy me somethin’ in Smyths’ ma?

“We’re just havin’ a look, Darren.  Yeh can pick somethin’out and ask Santa te bring it, all righ’?”

“Yeh might buy me somethin’ small?”

She squeezed his hand gently.

“Not today son,” Alice answered.

The child didn’t reply.  Alice sighed.

“How are you today Alice and you young Darren?” asked the Polish security guard on the door.

“Fine thanks,” Alice answered.

“I’m pickin’ out somethin’ for Santa te bring me for Christmas,” said Darren.

“That’s good. You must send him letter, yes?” the guard asked.

“Yeah, but I have te pick out me toys first. C’mon ma.”

He rushed off with Alice close behind him.

The guard smiled.  Inside the toyshop they strolled up and down the aisles.  Darren changed his mind several times.

“Yeh can only pick out two things now Darren, don’t forget.”

“Why?”

“Cause…Santa has loads of kids to get presents for, so that’s why…”

“All righ’ ma”.

Darren had given in too easy.  Alice wondered when the child had become so accepting.

She checked her watch.  They still had an hour to kill before the bed and breakfast would let them in.

Nothing Personal

By Lorne Patterson

“Will you? Please?”

She had never asked before. Since the attack she had grown afraid. I didn’t feel comfortable with the request but she was my friend so I said, “yeah, sure. I’ll go with you.”

When she went to the hotel she wore the stolen cashmere that she kept for such emergencies. The coat was her passport into guarded places. It distracted from her face.  She had carefully applied her make-up tried to pass off gaunt as model-thin, desperate to pass off pasty skin as chic pale. I watched as she strode past the doorman, settling down in a café across the way to drink over-priced coffee while she waited.

Usually she left the building with the money after sending whoever approached her upstairs first. Sometimes she had no choice but to go with them. She had been attacked after one of her pick-ups insisted she accompany him to his room before he paid her.

“Should have quit right then,” she told me later.  “I could feel it going bad.”  But she needed money and quick, so she closed her mind to her fear and went with him.

She said it was the sight of her needle-sores that triggered the beating.  “Thought I was about to introduce him to Mr. Slim,” she said sponging down the bruises and caked blood. Between her abscesses and thinness it wasn’t too hard to see where the AIDS idea could come from. Or maybe he was just one of those men who got off on hurting a woman and would have battered her in any case. For a brief moment I guess we both wished she had been a carrier.

I sat and waited until I saw her as she came out of the hotel’s nearest side exit, moving deceptively fast despite her casual manner. The cashmere was already over her arm, wig barely visible within its folds, and as I went to meet her I had the half-jacket ready. When she bumped into me, both coat and jacket were dropped, exchanged. I apologised for my clumsiness and with her accessories safely in my bag watched as she strode away, straw hair lifting in the breeze.

*                          *                             *

Later.

Hearing the tape-deck before I got there, the sound easily escaping the thin door of her basement flat. Otis singing, I’ve been lovin’ youuuu, tooo long…. She’d already used. We had a code.  If there were no music playing I’d go away, come back later. I’d watched her once as she hunted down a vein, fingers probing, testing, searching past the rigid ruin of old injection sites. But shooting up was an ugly intimacy, one that couldn’t be shared without participation so I left.

Plenty of noise now, so I used the key she had given me long ago and let myself in.

She was sprawled across the sofa a dog-eared copy of Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita in one hand. Like Otis, something she had introduced me to.

Good memories.

Ones to balance the others.

A smile lit her face at the sight of the bags of take-away in my hand. Sniffing the spicy aroma she cast the book aside. As I got plates from the kitchenette I could see her kneeling at the low sitting-room table clearing away the paraphernalia she’d left there.

This time it was tourniquet, bottled water, and flame-blackened spoon, the works she’d used in hitting up. Sometimes, it would be kitchen scales and other equipment, making ready to sell on a little of whatever she’d managed to get. Bulking it out with talcum powder if it was for her tight little circle.  For outside the circle she doctored the gear with brick dust or other dirt. If she didn’t know you at all, she wouldn’t sell. It was no guarantee of safety, but with user-dealers like her the bread and butter of police-sweeps and public hysteria it helped improve poor odds.

Remembering.

Way back, when we were young enough to both be wearing our school uniform, she would tell me there was any number of reasons to take something, try something. A toke of this, a taste of that, anything I would want courtesy of the tab or tribal smoke. ‘The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away,’ dancing around me as she sang. Beautiful and full of life and I loved her so.

Later, when school was a thing of the past she told me of what happened when the dose was wrong, or the stuff was bad or mixed and they slid you over the edge. If you took them stupid, or took them smart, didn’t matter your karma was bad.

“Listen,” she’d say on our second bottle of wine, the sheets tangled down around our legs and the sweat starting to cool. While I was light-headed, she seemed hardly affected, not even buzzing as far as I could tell. “No free rides on the magic bus.”

Pushing the words into my heart with a heavy finger.

“Doesn’t matter what it could be, what it was. It’s just junk now. You hear me?”

No us for a long while.

Diverging, moving on. Different lives. One for me – for her, time and opportunities discarded like copper change. But still friends. Always coming back into each other’s lives, accepting each other, honest with each other. Even when lies and deceit had become the currency of her life I don’t think she lied to me. Not consciously, not about anything important. Occasionally she spouted the party line.  “I’m in control.  I’m only chipping.  I can stop whenever I want.”

Neither of us believed it although I’m sure she would have liked to. Otherwise, she told me things openly, things she’d seen and done and had done to her, things I would never have told anyone about myself.

Ever.

The nakedness of her life was a gift to me.

I brought the food and cutlery through while she tidied away the gear, the curry easily overwhelming the lingering chemical odours. By the time she returned from the bedroom I had the food dished out, the wine poured.

As we sat down the phone rang. She wouldn’t answer it, pushing the ring-volume down to silence instead.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Ducking her head in acknowledgement. Knowing what I had meant. Not tonight.  No business tonight.   Tonight at least was about us.

We clinked glasses and she finished off half her drink with the first swallow. Reached over and topped her glass up before starting on the curry.

I had heard her but she was still riding the bus. Still paying. The magic long gone.

*                          *                             *

I heard the sniffing as I awoke.  A familiar sound that put a twist in my guts. The running nose a red flag signalling she was in trouble. It would be the eyes next, then the sweats. Asking me to rub her legs, her back. She must have been greedy yesterday, lost to the moment, and the morning scrapings hadn’t been enough for the wake-up fix to do its job. As I stood to pull on my jeans she brushed past me still only half dressed. I followed her with my eyes, watching as she stooped to pry an ornamental brick loose, reach beneath and scoop out a small bottle. How little flesh there was left on her bare thighs, how white and bloodless they looked.

I tried to swallow back the rising trepidation, realising that she had become increasingly isolated, desperate. Over the years, I looked on as that glorious, animated face dwindled to blankness, to stillness, ready to be moulded into whatever mask the situation required. Looking on as the person I knew disappeared month by month, lie by lie. Not sure what to do, except try and be there for what remained of her and keep looking for solutions that didn’t seem to exist.

She counted out the tablets in the palm of her hand before swallowing them dry.

“Enough to calm baby’s jitters until it gets its proper medicine.”

A sickly grin for a joke that wasn’t funny.

I knew that was going to be the rest of her day, looking to stop the pain. It wouldn’t matter how, not anymore. So many promises broken, the ones to herself the ones that ate her up when she wasn’t floating. I smelt her too. A rancid seeping from her pores like a biological warning to stay clear. Or else you’ll get hurt. Nothing personal, just the way it is.

“You have to do something,” I told her.

Our old argument.

“I will, my love. I will, but let me do this first.”

A reflex response, not even hearing me enough to be irritated, wriggling the tights up over her hips before tugging down her dress.

I stepped forward and took her by her arm above the elbow, away from her sores. She was so thin.  I hated that thinness.  She pulled away.

“There’s nothing out there to help me now.”

Her need and her fear riding her, spurring her. The anger at being obstructed, at my perseverance for a tired subject hot in her eyes.

“I’ve got to see to myself first, you know that.”

I’d brought her to treatments. Collected her from them too. Watching her walk out as often as she was thrown despite her promises and good intentions. Her mother had long since passed from despair to anaesthetised indifference.  Her father hadn’t been part of her life since the pregnancy was discovered.

Arguments over medication, over rules or commitment, about being crow-barred into programmes that held no meaning for her, no relevance. It wasn’t a question of will.  I knew all too well if she had to score, she’d score and that was that. It was… something more. Something fundamental that I could sense but not quite reach.

I don’t know what she saw in my face that morning but she changed. She reached out and touched me, smiling sadly, and her hand was gentle on my cheek, her fingers trailing as if tracing a stranger’s memory.

Sometimes, when she wanted to be held, we would still go to bed together. She would let me turn off the light and I would pull her close and stroke her hair until the pills took effect. Feel her bones against my body as she jerked and struggled against her dreams. Try not to recall how tranquil she lay upon me when we were young.

“You don’t know.  You can’t understand! Knowing it’s right there. Just waiting!”

Crying. Wanting me to accept.

“You don’t know what it’s like to give in.”

In the poor light from the street-lamp, her bed sheet had looked like a shroud against her pale skin. When I’d tucked it round her I’d felt like her undertaker.

I stood before her not knowing what to say. Feeling something should be said, hating myself for not having the words to make a difference. Terrified the odds would finally catch up with her. Maybe it would be a dirty needle, dirty dope, and she’d mainline rat poison or some quiet bacterium straight to her heart. Perhaps the stuff would be cut more than usual, cut less even and she would misjudge the dose. Take one pill too many beforehand. Maybe her body would grow too tired, too old.

Or maybe it would be the kamikaze couplings that did for her. AIDS something she didn’t like to think about much, voracious little genocide that wouldn’t kill her until it rotted her body alive first. So many terminal possibilities. The one thing I dreaded above all, the one thing she wouldn’t talk about, that she would finally stop caring.

My fears a weight on my chest that wouldn’t let me draw a full breath.

I make my decision.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, voice ragged.  “I can’t do this anymore.”

But she was already lost to me, eyes flicking towards the phone; some plan forming behind her tears and pushing aside her sorrow.

Needing me to be gone.

Nothing personal, just the way it was.

Company

By Adrian F. Duncan
It is warm and bright in this well kept public garden that is hidden from the city. The sunlight and the easy breeze rustle through the beech leaves.  There is a man in the middle of this small park, jerkily reclining onto the recently cut grass. The man is all bone and sinew. He has removed and balled up his shirt and has placed it underneath his head. He smiles. The blooming colours around him reach. The beech trees sway gently, their lower branches brush the perimeter stonewall with dark and airy strokes.

“That’s a grand day sir,” says the park gardener without looking, as he passes the man.

The gardener has a pronounced lisp. His dark hair is thinning and his overalls are small and poorly fitted. His shoes are new, unsoiled and are unsuitable for this kind of work.

“It is, ” the man replies, eye cocked and squinting as the gardener pads soundlessly to the small, timber tool-shed that is obscured at the shadowed rear of this ordered and muffled place.

The man slumps back and closes his eyes again, in ruffled contentment.

There is an old woman walking a small, wheezing Daschund on a leash that is too short. The last dog that she owned was bigger. The Daschund is now barking at the gardener in his tool-shed.  The dog doesn’t recognise him. The old woman tries to calm the dog. The gardener appears from the dark of the tool-shed and stares silently at her and her dog. He stands and stares, taking umbrage at the barking Daschund. The dog takes a piss before its mistress drags him off.   The gardener looks down at his hands, turns them over mechanically and returns to his shed.

The traffic thrums from beyond the wall, indifferent. The abrupt, plaintive wail of a distant siren starts and stops. The skinny man that lies on the grass, has his hands folded across his chest, his chest rises and falls rhythmically. He is asleep.

Inside the dark tool-shed the gardener is hunched over and working with precision. Everything is grime and oily glint. His hands and fingers are like tiny, stuck, exacting eels. He is clamping the shaft of a broken strimmer between his legs. It twists. He moves it down from his thighs to his pincer knees; steel to bone. He is now garrotting the strimmer urgently. The strimmer’s flailing lengths of cat-gut have become tangled in its confused head. The gardener grunts. Then he flips, twists and holds the strimmer before him and regards it. He places it carefully, into the murky corner behind the door, which is swaying mildly on its misaligned and rusting hinges. Tools, oil, grime, earth, steel and sweat; the incongruent filthy heart of industry to the well maintained blooming body beyond. Now the gardner works at the shears, replacing the nut at the fulcrum. He fishes about in the box of oily nuts and bolts, not looking, his fist like an absent minded pig’s snout nosing through some black-hard truffles. These first-principle repairs are necessary; the last park gardener didn’t keep his tools nearly well enough. The summer is a vernal to vesper’d war on the fecund and the fertile. Order must be maintained, order that emanates from the spit-squalor of this operations room of rotting timber, rusted nail and felt.

A chain-gaggle of children enter from the other end of the small park, a pre-school class, offspring of the wealthy. They are wearing polite and expensive navy uniforms, with crests and traces of tartan and British sensibilities. The teachers, who are from the country, look on, smiling professionally, masking their farming-class republican disgust and fear, perpetuating the indulgence. The children scream and shriek and whirr; wave upon wave of attention. The only sign of disruption to the reposing visitor lying on the grass is when he crosses and re-crosses his legs. The sun that bathes him gives him the appearance of angular translucence. The children don’t pronounce their “r”s fully, and the small boys are running about with a rugby ball that is half their size. The girls twirl.

The gardener, inside his shed, closes the door.

The children and their teachers eventually leave the park to its changed quiet. A couple of magpies whirl and delight in the sky above this organic fortress to this city. There is a third magpie high in a tree, an old tree. It is violently peck-playing with a sweet wrapper that one of the children had left behind. Its treasure. It snaps the wrapper into its beak and flees the public show of whirling affection before him.

The sleeping shaft of bone and light in the middle of the park starts awake suddenly, wrenched from his torpor. He groggily reaches, feels and fumbles beside him on the grass. He throws out a wizened and skinny arm as if to embrace a lover. He slowly wakes, comes to and realises that he is not in a bed and that there is no lover. He sits up, looking dazed in a way that only day-time sleep can bring, scratches his shorn head with bitten fingernails and then erects himself bone by bone until he stands upright, ball of crumpled shirt in hand. He shakes the shirt out and pats it and then pulls it on over his head without undoing the buttons. His wrinkled, stiff and skeletal form makes its way to the leafy exit, like a string of crotchets from a poorly tuned piano. At the gate he turns for home.

The park is empty now as the shadows slowly and silently lengthen and softly merge. The gardener, in his shed, is finished sharpening the blades of the shears and he hangs them on a nail beside the small, grimy and pockmarked window of single, warped glazing. The window shrinks and rattles in the winter even when there is no one there to hear it. The tools are now prepared and ready, and tomorrow he can begin, in earnest, with the upkeep of the public garden he has inherited. He turns from pad-locking the shed, and sees that there is no one in the park.

The early evening chill has settled and the light breeze from before has left unnoticed. The gardener trudges to the park exit fumbling with the set of gate keys in his hand. Before he reaches the gate, the old woman’s Daschund ambles in, head lowered and sniffing. The Daschund is dragging his leash behind him, occasionally stepping on it, and lightly and a-rhythmically wrenching his neck to one side. When he sees the gardener he begins to bark, this time more playfully than before. The gardener looks around, pockets his keys and then reaches out and places his hand on the Daschund’s neck grabbing the collar. He runs his hand quickly along the length of the leash, picks it up as he goes and does not stop until he finds the leather loop handle at the end. He gives the dog a pat and leads him out through the gate. He turns, hoops the handle over a railing spike as if to tether the little sausage dog and carefully swings closed and locks the gate, making the railing complete. Then they walk away into the bright, roaring city.

* * *

Later that night, when the gardener is at home, he sits, in the gloaming at his bed-sit kitchen table, to his dinner of mince and beans. He takes a handful of his food from the plate and without looking down he reaches his hand below the table. He smiles when he feels the dog’s abrupt, wet mouth licking hungrily at his gnarled and dry fingers.

A Return Ticket

M.V. Horan

Some years back, on a spring morning my friend, Helen, and I left Portavade by car with her dad and a neighbour. The men were going to the fair in Belmullet. We planned to spend a few hours by the sea. Jimmy wanted a driver for the return journey. He planned to have a few drinks when the deal was made. Helen sat in the front passenger seat. I shared the back seat with the neighbour.

The minute the old white Peugeot chugged down the lane the Rosary was started. This was always part of travelling with Helen’s family. When the prayers were finished we enjoyed easy conversation about the weather and the countryside. It was a lovely journey along the Sligo coast road to Ballina. On our left the Ox Mountains rose and fell. Atlantic waves broke on the shore to our right.   In Ballina town we turned off for Belmullet. The scene became rugged and bleak. The road wound its way through bog land. It was narrow and bumpy with a deep drop into the bog on either side. A few miles from Belmullet we got stuck behind a white lorry. Over-taking was risky but Jimmy ventured forward. The space was very narrow. I held my breath. As we edged past the tail of the lorry it moved towards us. Helen reached out to sound the horn but there was no sound. It was out of action. The white lorry had no wing mirror. The driver was oblivious of our movements. Like the action of a movie in slow motion we were pushed to the margin of the road. I knew we were in jeopardy. I held my head in my hands feeling sure that my neck would be broken. I said out loud, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and then all hell broke loose. Every tool in the boot rattled. I do not know how many times we somersaulted.    After what seemed like an eternity a strange stillness settled. I experienced a sense of peace, which I had never known before. I expected to wake up dead. Filled with wonder I waited to see who was on the other side ready to greet me. My familiar world had disappeared for a timeless span.  In the distance I heard a voice saying, “are you alright? Can you get out?” I was reluctant to respond. I felt a body very near me. I was entangled in the grey-suited neighbour. I opened my eyes and realised that the car was upside down in the bog. Helen and her dad, looking like ghosts, stood nearby. They had crawled out through the shattered windscreen.      True to my nature I reacted very slowly. No panic, no fuss. I foraged around for my black bag, replaced my scattered sandwiches and my knitting and then felt my head. My veil was missing. I found that item on the roof, which was now the floor of the car. I heard another anxious call. This time I recognised Helen’s voice saying, “Hurry, the car could catch fire.” The neighbour managed to turn off the engine. I crawled out of the wreck. The bewildered neighbour followed. Little was said. I was a bit numb. The neighbour had sore ribs. Helen had scratched legs and torn tights. Jimmy had an eye to business. He managed to open the boot, took out his stick for the fair. He and the neighbour scrambled up the steep boggy bank and on to the road. They hitched a lift and went off to the fair as if nothing unusual had happened.

Helen and I followed suit. A young couple in a banger gave us a lift to Belmullet. We told them about the accident. Helen was worried about her dad’s heart condition but decided to let him have his way.

My first and last impression of the town of Belmullet was a feast of cabbage plants. They seemed to be everywhere, all over the square, up and down the street. They stretched as far as I could see. We made our way to the local Mercy Convent. In true Mercy fashion we were resuscitated by hot tea and toast. I was offered a comfortable bed, which I gladly accepted. I was very shaken. I had been in hospital only a week beforehand. As I lay flat I became aware of a poster on the bedroom wall. I found myself reading the words over and over again:       “If I take the wings of the dawn

And fly to the ends of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me,

Your right hand will hold me fast.”       The words were from Psalm one hundred and thirty-eight. As I realised their impact my whole being was filled with gratitude.       Meanwhile Helen was struggling to make contact with home. To add to our dilemma there was a post office strike. Those were the days when the post office owned the telephone system. When Helen managed to convince the operator that the call was a real emergency she told her brother about the accident. He drove at high speed to collect us. Along the way he saw the wrecked car. He felt that someone had to be seriously injured. He was relieved to find us in good spirits. In a downtown pub he located Jimmy and the neighbour. Jimmy cried when he saw us. He seemed to have forgotten about us since he left us in the bog.       We set out for Portavade. At Crossmolina the men stopped for a drink. Once more we were left to our own devices. Women, not to mention nuns, did not drink in pubs and we were happy to be alive so we let them have their way. When we finally got home Helen’s mother, like all caring mothers, she was relieved and annoyed. Jimmy a got a dressing down. It was bad enough for Jimmy to have endangered the life of his own daughter but he could have ended my fragile life as I struggled to recover from illness. Jimmy said riot a word. Patience was his middle name.

A few days later the Peugeot was ‘written off’. At another fair, at a later date, the driver of the white lorry heard of the drama, which went on unknown to him.

On Christmas Day last year Jimmy passed peacefully to the other side and did not return. I was very aware that I had been given a return ticket at the time of the accident. Now his ticket was one way only. May he rest in the peace which was always his gift in life.

The Bearer of Light

By Breda Sullivan

The Bearer of Light climbed the mountain. Although it was still dark, he had no difficulty finding his way. On the summit he stood, facing east, eyes closed, arms folded. As always, his head and feet were bare. He breathed in deeply the cold, crisp air.  The first light tinged the horizon. His eyelids fluttered. Slowly his arms unfolded in time with the spreading light. The crown of the sun appeared. The Bearer of Light’s eyes opened. Head flung back, arms outstretched, he welcomed, embraced, absorbed the first rays of the new day.

When the sun had become a golden disc now, The Bearer of Light made his way down the mountain. He sat on a rock to put on his sandals. All day he walked the streets. To all he encountered he brought light. The woman weighed down with worry about her breast lump decided to have her hair done and deal with the results of her biopsy when they came. The man in the darkness of grief bought a rose to place on his wife’s grave. The little boy hurried home from school determined to tell his parents about the bully. The young couple, disappointed because they could not afford their dream house, went to view another.

As daylight leaked away, the Bearer of Light trudged home. Too tired to cook, he had a supper of bread and cheese and a mug of milk.  Like a spent battery, he lay down to rest, to sleep, to be fallow.

In the morning darkness, he would climb the mountain again.

The Old Morris Van

By Jimmy Keary

I remember with fondness an old Morris van, which stood in our neighbour’s garden. To the ordinary onlooker it was just a wreck, its wheels missing, its paintwork chipped and discoloured, and the back used as a henhouse. But to my friend and I, two imaginative nine-year-olds, it was the Batmobile or a secret agent’s super car.

Playing the roles of Batman and Robin, or Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, we chased countless imaginary villains and enemy agents in that battered old van, now transformed into a fantastic and powerful automobile by our unfettered imaginations. We took turns in the driver’s seat, in reality only an upturned bucket, but that never seemed to matter. Once behind the wheel, we imagined ourselves speeding along the open road, copying the actions and manoeuvres of every driver we had ever seen.

Leaping from our ‘gleaming roadster’, we used to engage the baddies in fierce hand-to-hand combat or in life-or-death gunfights. Fistfights consisted of throwing punches at thin air and falling back when on the receiving end of an uppercut, while gunfights involved oddly shaped sticks or pointed forefingers and raised thumbs. All these actions were accompanied by unusual contortions of the lips and tongue to produce the required sound effects.

That was over forty years ago and the old Morris van is now long gone. My friend is living in America, his parents are both dead and his old house has been sold. However, the memories of those long, balmy summer evenings are still with me as is some of that childlike imagination, which still helps me to see the magic in ordinary things.

A Meeting of the Minds

By Aine Reilly

Lola was a bright beautiful twelve-year-old child with deep brown eyes but she was a little scared at the moment. She didn’t know where she was. Of course her father and aunt were chatting not far from her. They were engrossed with what ever they were talking about. The whole scene was terrifying to Lola, but fascinating as well. There were about twenty people outside sitting around campfires. These were Lola’s’ family.  She had never met them before but somehow she felt as if she knew them well. In the throng was an old lady. She wasn’t talking to anyone but staring intently at Lola. She was a tall gaunt woman with the same brown eyes as Lola’s.  Lola thought, I belong here. She went over and sat down beside the old lady, she knew this was her great grand mother, her father had told her on the way.  It was the first time they met each other since Lola was a baby, but everything seemed so right. Lola placed her thumb and forefinger on the old woman’s chin. They looked at each other and it was as if magic had taken over. Lola could feel a current of electricity go from her to the old woman. A smile came to both their faces and all seemed to evaporate and disappear for the briefest of seconds. Just as suddenly as it started the whole feeling disappeared. The whole experience for Lola had never happened to her before, but it had happened to the old woman several times and she now knew that this child was going to take over from her and be successful.

Lola was just an ordinary little twelve-year-old with no great cares or worries. She lived outside Barcelona with her mum and dad and her two older brothers. She had a good life and then one day her aunt came to tell the family that her great grand mother wanted to see Lola. Her parents were a little apprehensive but they said she had to go. What Lola didn’t know was that her father was from a gypsy, Romany, fortune telling family and his grand mother was a great matriarch. She was the real power behind everything that was done, but she was getting very old and weary and this was the time to train her predecessor. She knew it had to be someone from her own family, but after several interviews she still had not found anyone to replace her.  Then she remembered her grandson had had a little girl. He had left the gypsy camp years ago. He had been married and they had three children but shortly after the little girl was born they left. She then got her grand daughter to go and see Lola’s family, and ask to see Lola.

From that single meeting a new matriarch was found.  Lola was the rightful heir, the new leader of the gypsy clan.