Category Archives: Doolin Short Story Competition

The Winning Story: Exile by Phil Young

waverly3‘This is to be your bed, Charlie.’ Nurse Gillane led him to the narrow bed with its iron frame. One of about ten in a long room. The room was painted a shiny green. It was very cold.

‘You can put your things into the locker,’  she  said, ‘and leave your boots beneath the bed.’

Charlie’s things consisted of his pyjamas, some clothes and a photograph of his mother and a man who was his father. Well, Mama said he was his father. Charlie didn’t remember him. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, and looked  just like so many of the men in Charlie’s town. Mama said that he was killed in the war. He was a hero.

‘You can be a hero too Charlie! You be a brave boy now,  and when the war is over we’ll be together.  Just the two of us. There, how grown up you look in your new boots.’

She had just bought him new winter boots. Heavy black leather, laced beyond his ankles, and with studs on the soles, which he  could make spark when he struck them off the pavement. They were too big for him, but she said he would grow into them.

‘By the time you come back home, they’ll be just right size for you. But mind you don’t scuff the toes now. You have to look after them, so that they’ll last until you come home.’

She had kissed him then, and he had got on to the train with the other children. They were the most important thing, his boots. While he kept his boots safe, he was linked with his mother and his home.

Charlie remembered little of his journey. Noise, confusion, darkness. The whistle of the train, the rocking motion which soon put him to sleep. The long boat journey during which he was sick. The panic as he tried to clean the vomit from the front of his boots. And then being brought to this long grey building, with lots of other children and  lots of nurses with red crosses on their fronts.

Over the next few weeks, Charlie did as he was told, said as little as possible, and tried not to be homesick for his mother. He did all the jobs he was told  to do, he paid attention in the classes which were set up in one of the rooms of the building, and he ate the food which was put in front of him. Each  morning, as soon as the bell to wake the boys rang out, Charlie jumped out of bed to check if his boots were still there. As soon as he put on the boots, the cold, raw feeling which had been with him all night seeped away, and he felt a measure of security. While his boots were safe, he knew his mother would come for him.

The months went by, and gradually the number of children in the building grew less. ‘We’re finding foster homes for them,’ Nurse Gillane explained. Charlie hoped they would not find one for him. What if Mama came searching for him and found him gone? And then, one morning, Charlie was called to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had a letter in front of him.

‘Well Charlie. How have you been getting on here?’

‘Fine sir.’

‘And you’ve been happy enough?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good, good.’ The man looked awkward and ill at ease. Charlie knew there was more to come.

‘You see this letter?’

Charlie glanced quickly at the letter. Black typing. Heavy paper. Official looking.

‘The thing is, Charlie. You have to be  brave. Very brave ….’

Charlie knew then. He knew it from the flutter in his stomach. From the trembling that shook his knees.

‘You see, she knew,  Charlie. She knew that she had only months to live. That’s why she wanted you to be here … in safe hands. She knew we’d take good care of you Charlie. And  we will. We will.’

scratch boot  Charlie looked down at his boots. She had made him a promise. The boots were still shiny and barely scuffed. He took such care of them. He would not let anyone touch them. He never let them out of his sight. But now, she was not coming for him. He would never be going back. Who else was there to go back to? There had only been him and Mama. And she had promised. The shaking that had started in his knees now took over his body, his hands, his teeth. He couldn’t stop shaking. The superintendent rose, and coming around to his side of the desk, put his arm across Charlie’s shoulder.

‘There, there,  boy. Don’t cry now. Be brave. We must all be brave at times like this. Nurse Gillane will look after you for the moment. You like Nurse Gillane, don’t you?’

Charlie nodded.

‘Yes. Well, she’ll take care of you. Until we decide what’s to happen. I’ll call her now Charlie. You wait there. There’s a brave lad. She’ll know what to do.’

  *  *  *

 The train journey seemed to go on for ever, but Charlie didn’t want it to end. He sat on a lumpy seat by the window, a window so caked in dirt that it was like looking at everything through a fog. Across the carriage from him was a brightly coloured picture, beneath which it said ‘The Lakes of Killarney’. A man and a woman sat  in the seat opposite him. The man smoked a pipe which sent out waves of strong smelling smoke. The woman was knitting, and every now and then she would put the knitting on her lap, lean over towards Charlie and ask  ‘Are you alright son? You’re not feeling sick?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, she would continue her knitting. Charlie hunched into his seat and closed his eyes. He wondered where he was going to, but didn’t really care. Fostered. That was what happened to the other boys who had disappeared. Some were excited, most were crying. But none of them had ever returned to the grey building.

‘A lovely couple in the West.’ Nurse Gillane had cleared out his locker, and helped him to pack his things back into his little brown suitcase.

‘They’ve no children of their own, and want a little boy to help them on the farm. You’re so lucky Charlie! Do you understand how lucky you are Charlie?’ She gave his boots a little wipe with his handkerchief, and slicked down his blond hair.

‘What I wouldn’t give to get out of the city and have all that fresh air!’

Charlie knew nothing of the country or fresh air. He and his mother. Up three flights of stairs to their home. One room that overlooked a city grey with industry. Tall chimneys belching smoke. Cars, buses, trams…noise that was comforting in its ever presence. People everywhere, hurrying, busy, purposeful.

He opened his eyes now. He didn’t want to think of his mother. Of their life before all this happened. It was raining over the countryside. Mountains loomed out of their misty shrouds. Sometimes a burst of sunshine filtered through, to light up the vivid greenness of the fields. A rainbow hung like a child’s drawing, touching down behind a cluster of tiny houses.

‘Are you being met son?’ The knitting woman and her husband got up, gathering together their many bags and boxes.

‘Yes, thank you. I’m going to the west. To be fostered.’ Charlie heard his voice, as if it came from someone else.

‘You poor mite.’ The woman shook her head, and mouthed something at her husband, who nodded, and said to Charlie, ‘Isn’t that fine for you. That’ll put a bit of brawn on you.’

The woman pressed a coin into Charlie hand.

‘That’s for luck son,’  she whispered. Then they got out at a one building station, and once more the train hissed on its journey.

There was nobody in the carriage now, and Charlie stretched out, putting his feet on  the seat opposite.   He closed his eyes.

*    *      *

‘Here you are lad! Out you get.  There’ll be someone to meet you here.’  The guard shook Charlie by the shoulder. Guiltily, Charlie removed his feet from the seat.

‘Are we in the West?’

‘As west as you can go,  boy…unless you want to jump in the Atlantic.’

The guard handed him down his case, and Charlie stood on what seemed to be a deserted platform, wondering what would happen next.  A cold, grey, drizzle seeped from a leaden sky and found its way down the collar of his coat and into the top of his boots. This west was the emptiest looking place he had ever seen. Maybe nobody would meet him. Maybe he was just being abandoned here. But he had been told to wait, and Charlie had always done what he was told, so he waited.

* * *

 ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ Pat shook his head .

‘There’s no going back now.’ Nora turned away from him. It was  what he had always wanted,  wasn’t it? All those years. All that hoping and longing. But the years went on, and nothing  had happened. And the hope had turned to sourness. He never said…Pat wasn’t like that. He was a quiet man. But she had failed him. How can a man work a farm without a son? And what was the point of it? Well, now he would have someone. It would take the burden off her. It would not take away the ache, but  it would be someone for Pat.

Pat clicked on the reins, urging the pony to move on. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Weren’t they alright as they were? He had long ago come to terms with the fact that there would be no children. That was the way it was, and what was the use of wishing your life away? Of course it was different for women. He knew that. He knew how she had lived from month to month, in those early years. But hadn’t they been happy enough together? And now this! Fostering a strange, foreign boy. Was there ever such a daft notion in all the world? Pat let the pony slow down to his customary shuffling gait.

Charlie watched the man approach. As there was nobody else on the platform, this had to be the man who was to meet him, and Charlie looked at him in a detached way. He saw a small man, not much taller than himself, wearing a long grey overcoat, wellington boots, and a cap.

‘You’re Charlie? The man’s blue eyes slid away from Charlie shyly. He took Charlie’s case, and motioned him to follow him out to where the pony was tethered. Charlie  climbed on to the wooden cart, and sat on a bundle of sacks behind the man. The sacks were wet, rain glistened on the pony’s rump, and the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The man spoke in bursts, shooting out long rambling monologues which made no sense to Charlie. He wondered was this Gaelic? Or some other foreign language? It certainly didn’t sound like the English he had listened to in the  grey building outside Dublin,  much less the English he had been taught in school. He listened hard at first, then switched off. He clung to the edge of the cart and stared straight ahead. Eventually the man stopped talking. Darkness was creeping across the grey  landscape by the time the pony trotted into the yard in front of the farmhouse. The pony shook himself in relief, and Charlie got down , every bone in his body aching. A woman stood at the farmhouse door.

‘You found him alright?’ she said to her husband. She nodded at Charlie.

‘You can call me Nora, and himself Pat, and you’d better come inside, for you look half dead.’

Charlie felt half dead, what with cold and tiredness. At least he could understand this Nora better than the man, and he followed her into the kitchen, where the heat from the fire soon sent clouds of steam rising from his clothes. Nora took his case and his coat, but when she made to remove his boots, he shook his head.

‘You want to do them yourself? Suit yourself. Now sit up there by the fire and have a bite to eat, and then you can go way to bed. Things will look better in the morning.’

In spite of herself, Nora felt sorry for the lad. He was much smaller and younger looking than she had been expecting. And so white and scared. He wouldn’t be much help to Pat anyway. Scrawny little thing, sure he’d never be up to farm work. Still, a couple of weeks they were told, and then they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him.

Later on, when the boy had eaten and gone up to the attic, where he was to sleep, Nora asked Pat what he thought.

‘He’s a strange class of a lad, to be sure. Never opened his mouth all the way home, and looked like he was going to cry every time I spoke to him.’ Pat shook his head. ‘I don’t know why we’re doing this at all, Nora. We’re too old for this business. And I’d say that boy was born and bred in a city. He knows nothing about farming.’

‘Can’t you be teaching him? He can surely take some of the load off you, can’t he?’

‘We’ll see, we’ll see. ‘

The months passed. Winter yielded to spring, and the greyness of the west peeled back to show its undercoat of greens and purples and blues. Charlie fell into the routine of the farm, rising early to help Pat with the work. Cleaning out stalls, shifting dung, milking cows, harnessing the pony to take the churns to the creamery. All the daylight hours were spent working, so that when darkness came he could go to his attic bedroom and sleep. The two weeks’  trial period had passed. Pat and Nora were happy with him, and he was to start attending the village school after Easter. Charlie fell in with whatever they wanted him to do, and obeyed without question.

‘I never saw the likes of him!’ Nora whispered to Pat as they drank tea by the fire one evening. ‘It’s not natural for a child to be so good.’

‘Maybe when he goes to school he’ll unwind a bit.’ Pat answered.

‘I don’t know … I don’t know. But then, hasn’t he been through the mill? Away from his own country, no family, no home, nothing. Isn’t that enough to touch any young fellow, when you think about it?’

‘Hasn’t he got us now?’

Nora warmed to the statement. She could see that Pat had really taken to Charlie. He didn’t think that she noticed, but she had seen how he watched the boy. How he protected him from the heavier work, how  patient he was when Charlie made mistakes, how he encouraged him to eat  and to rest more. And in turn, she herself now took more pleasure in cooking meals for her ‘men’. If Nora could win a rare smile from Charlie she felt that  all the extra trouble was well worthwhile.

‘Have you seen how he’s filled out? He’s bursting through that jacket of his, and his coat will barely tie on him now.’

‘I know … it’s your grand food Nora. And all the fresh air. Sure what fresh air would they have in them foreign cities? By the end of the summer we won’t know him!’

‘If we still have him at the end of the summer.’ The thought of losing Charlie was suddenly a bleak one.

‘Have you noticed those black boots of his?’ Nora asked.

‘Why wouldn’t I. Isn’t he forever cleaning and scraping the mud off them?’

‘Well, I’m of a mind that they’re squeezing his toes – he’s grown that much. They’ll give him blisters if they’re too small for him. I thought maybe I’d bring him in to Connolly’s shoe shop on Saturday and buy him a new pair. What do you think?’

‘You do that Nora. He’s earned it, God knows’.

Nora sat back pleased, and sighed in anticipation. She and her foster son, shopping in the town together. Charlie’s eyes lighting up. Tommy Connelly bringing out his best, his most expensive leather boots. That’s a fine young fellow you have there Mrs. Ryan. He’s a credit to the both of you!

*  *  *

   ‘No thank you.’ His voice was polite, but quite firm.

‘But they must be pinching you, Charlie.’

‘They’re not pinching me. They’re fine.’

‘Now, don’t be silly. You know you need a new pair. And don’t be worrying about the cost…we want to give you a present.  Take those off, and we’ll see the size. Sure they must be falling to bits at this stage.’

Nora reached out towards Charlie’s feet. His reaction was instant.

‘No! No! Leave them alone. There’s nothing wrong with my boots! They’re fine. Just leave me alone!’ He sprang up and dashed out of the kitchen, taking the attic stairs two at a time, and banging his bedroom door. He didn’t come down for dinner that evening, and when Nora went to the top of the stairs to call him, she could hear his sobs. She quietly entered the room. He was lying face down on his bed. He continued to cry as she touched his face and stroked his head and murmured  endearments to him. ‘Hush, hush. There, there. It’s alright , lad, it’s alright’. He continued to cry on and off throughout the night. Nora stayed with him until he cried himself out and fell into a deep sleep.   She pulled the blankets up on him, and tucked them in beneath his blotched  face. It was as she was closing his door on her way downstairs that she noticed the strange animal like shape of the boots beneath the covers. She did not remove them.

It was the week before Easter. In two weeks’ time he would be starting in the local school. Charlie sat by the river, his head full of plans. Nora  had got him all the books he needed, and Pat had bought him a bicycle, so that he could get into town each morning. He loved cycling. The freedom of whizzing along empty roads, of feeling the wind whistle past his ears. At home he had rarely cycled. ‘It is much too dangerous,’ his mother had said. ‘Maybe when you are older…but the city is not a good place for children on bicycles.’ She had worried about him all the time. She would hold his hand tightly when they went out on the streets together. He remembered her white face, and the coldness of her hands on that day when she had brought him to join those other refugees on their way to Ireland. She knew then that she was going to die. Maybe she knew that he would never be coming back. Charlie closed his eyes, and let himself think about his mother. All those images which he had stifled for so long. He let them in, and examined them.   Her long black hair, which she braided into a plait each morning. The way she chewed the end of her pencil as she worked out her budget – always trying to make her money stretch. The smell of her when she kissed him good night. Soap and lavender water. Mama would like it here. She would love the openness, and the colour of the mountains, and the softness of the boggy grass. She would laugh at the curious way the cows stared over the wall, and at the pony’s antics when he was let out of the harness. She would be like a child gathering armfuls of wild flowers from the small wood behind the farm, and pressing them to her face saying ‘Oh, Charlie, smell them! Feel their silkiness!’

Charlie sat up. The sun was hot now,  much too hot for the week before Easter. He unlaced his boots, and released his feet, red and sore from their tightness. He spread his toes, and watched as slivers of grass sprang up between them. He felt the tickle of a small insect venturing up the  mound of his arch, and down the other side. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear Nora calling to Pat that dinner was ready. He knew he should be getting back to the farm. Nora got cross when they did not eat her food while it was hot.  Anyway, it was bacon and cabbage today. He loved bacon and cabbage.

Phil 2Charlie jumped up. Grabbing his boots by the laces, he swung them over his head, round and round, and flung  them into the fast flowing river. He listened for the splash as they hit the water and sank. Then he ran home, barefoot.

Phil Young is a native of Dunmanway in West Cork, and now lives in Dublin. She is the winner of the inauguarl Doolin Short Story Competition. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with an MPhil in Anglo-Irish literature, and has had a number of short stories and articles published in various magazines. She has also been featured several times on the RTÉ Radio programme Sunday Miscellany and is the author of the first ever biography of children’s writer, Patricia Lynch. This biography was launched in Cork as part of the Cork European City of Culture celebrations in 2005. Her first novel entitled IN A PLACE APART was published in  September 2009, and she is currently working on her second novel.

 

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Doolin Short Story Competition – Third Prize: Valerie Sirr – Pete

doolinPete

He was beginning to notice a lot. Every light-reflecting surface in the hostel’s kitchen glared at him. The kettle accused him. The four cooker rings accused him. The shiny linoleum floor accused him. Get your own place. Why are you always here?

Viv, his care worker, flicked the switch on the boiling kettle lowering its rumbles to a hiss. Viv came twice a week to see that he went to work. He looked at her feet in her flat-heeled shoes planted on the black-and-white squares of the lino. He was often surprised by the presence of others – their weight, their outline, how firmly they were moored in the world. Nothing would pull Viv’s legs from under her. Viv knew where she stood.

He looked at his own white shins jutting out from trouser legs too short for his gangly limbs. ‘I’m a scarecrow.’

Viv laughed. She was all teeth and wrinkles. ‘You’re Pete,’ she said, handing him a mug of milky tea. ‘Pete Roberts.’

He gave her a blank look. She placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘Have you taken your pills today?’

He flinched. Then he nodded at her.

He covered his eyes with his hand to hide the vision of his morning capsules bleeding purple dye into the toilet bowl, same as every morning this week. Then he looked down at her hand resting squarely on his shoulder as if it were a part of some alien creature. He wondered why people were always touching each other. He stirred his tea. Viv always nagged about pills but he knew better than Viv.

She removed her hand. He watched it move across the broad expanse of her skirted hip as she turned back to the counter. He looked at the glossy skin on her solid calves. Black women had softer skin. The guys at work told him that. He liked the look of women’s skin. He liked everything about women. There were women in the supermarket, women in the street; women in cars. Sometimes they stood near him in a crowded tube. He would shrink from their touch but would be spellbound by a cluster of freckles, a single flyaway hair on a cheek, a tongue licking a lip. He would try to keep his eyes on the map of the underground, but he couldn’t. His eyes would fix on an earlobe, a smooth neck, a pillowy cleavage, until its owner moved away.

pill2

He kept his head up as he walked down Pepys Road trailing one hand across the park railings. It was his fifth day without pills. The world was taking on a new resonance, vibrating like a film with the sound turned up. Frame by frame, he saw every branch of every tree, heard parting words in doorways, felt moved by the captured light. Everything was part of everything else. The wind, daylight, voices, his own edges thinning as though he no longer had a skin. There was a girl approaching; raincoat plastered against thighs. He flashed a smile at her startled face.

He walked on, smiling. He had graduated from Unit six of the Bethlem Royal to his own bunk bed at the hostel, and a job two mornings a week, and soon he would have a girlfriend. A car pulled up at the kerb. A woman got in, kissed the driver’s cheek, then they pulled away. He felt a rush of joy. He didn’t need drugs. He was sure of it. It was ages since that time in the hospital. Noises hurting his eardrums. The never ending table tennis in the common room, pock! pock!, the bedlam of TVs and stereos, pock! pock!, slamming doors and shouts, pock! pock!, the thundering of the tea trolley, pock! pock!, and Wednesdays in a tiny white room, where he sat in front of a psychiatrist, who sat in front of a wall-chart, which seemed to frame his head. He used to stare at the image on the wall, the fleshless head in coloured sections: cell,

brain, blood, bone, the white paper of the chart shining through the gaps between them.

‘Is that an actual person?’ he asked the psychiatrist once.

- Am I an actual person?

But he was sorted now. He had a job to go to. Pete, Pete, Pete. He shook his

head. It emptied for a moment then the voices returned.

pill2

The van waited for him outside New Cross station, its hazard lights flashing warnings at him. He decoded its white letters ‘SNUGFIT DOORS & WINDOWS’ against their flaky blue background. He approached and glimpsed Ray the driver then the squatting figures of Frank and Eddie through the open mouth of the side door. He climbed in, concentrating on Viv’s Tasks For Today. Smile and say hello. It was important to practice for tonight. He hunkered down among the huge rolls of fibreglass padding.

‘Hello Frank. Hello Eddie,’ he said, focusing on one of Frank’s Doc Martens and stretching his lips into a smile.

Eddie nudged him with his foot. ‘Shut the door, Pete.’

‘Right mates. Peckham today,’ Ray shouted over his shoulder and started up the engine.

He watched Eddie offer a rolled cigarette to Frank. Frank took it between thumb and finger and sucked in deep. ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’

He saw Frank’s head jerk in his direction. ‘A bit radio rental.’ Frank winked at

Eddie.

He looked away from them, his eyes irresistibly drawn to the congealed paint splashes on the van’s floor: a woman’s face in profile, a woman’s hair, flowing. Silhouettes jumped out at him then retreated. The world was coming at him in fugitive

shapes. Outlines formed on the misted van windows and in the exhaled jet-trails from

Frank and Eddie’s nostrils. He shut his eyes.

He practised listening to Frank and Eddie. Listen actively. Frank and Eddie knew about things.

They knew about women and football and politics. He looked at Eddie. Eye contact. ‘I’m meeting my girlfriend later.’ He jumped. His own voice felt sudden and loud.

‘In your dreams, mate,’ Eddie said, laughing.

He thought it was definite. But when he was sure about something he would begin to see it in a way that made it something else, then something else altogether, then his first thought would vanish before he could get hold of it again. It was his thinking disorder, his ‘cognitive dysfunction’ Viv called it. Organise your thoughts. Football, he thought. Favourite teams. Contribute your ideas. He looked in Eddie’s direction. ‘Arsenal played good last night.’ He got ready to say it again.

Eddie snorted. ‘Arsenal! Crowd of old women could beat Arsenal!’

A girl on a red mountain bike followed the van. She was close to the back window now and he could see the sheen of her wet cheeks. Her fringe was dripping rain and she was blinking. ‘She’s not old,’ he said. ‘She’s nice.’ He imagined she was a girl in a club and he was snogging her as if he enjoyed it like the guy in Eastenders. The van pulled away again.

He forced himself to look at Eddie. ‘Manchester United are definitely good.’

Eddie wasn’t looking at him. He was saying something about blind old women now and Frank was laughing.

He laughed too to show that he got the joke. He visualised last night’s sports page in the Evening Standard. Wing-backs, four-four-two, flat-back-four, sweepers. He tried to grab unto the words but they were leaking through the gaps in Pete’s brain. He hated Pete. ‘Outside-left,’ he muttered, ‘forward-centre, four-back-flats.’

He felt his brainwaves taking up the rhythm of the music from the van radio. Totten-ham, West-ham, Chel-sea, Ar-se-nal, he mouthed silently.

Pill3

They dropped him back at New Cross station at lunchtime.

He stood by the entrance trying to make eye contact with passers-by.

He squinted through windscreens at drivers heading east for Lewisham. He would tell Viv about his morning. How he had practiced all his social skills and how Frank and Eddie had let him seal up cracks with strips of draught excluder, Eddie measuring it out for him, Frank’s drill drowning the voices in Pete’s head that said Pete, Pete, Pete.

He saw Viv approaching and raised his right arm carefully. ‘That was a good wave wasn’t it?’ he said when Viv was in front him.

‘That’s right, Pete.’ Viv reached up and took his arm down. ‘Not so stiff though, okay?’

He gave a solemn nod and walked down the noisy street along with Viv, remembering to keep his head up. He looked back at the station. ‘Let’s go to Ted Baker. I want to get trousers in Ted Baker.’

They passed a building site and he was distracted by the sight of a man high up above them in the box of a crane. He’s on his own up there, he thought. Toblerone, out on its own, a jingle from the van radio sounded loudly in his head. He heard Viv saying something about budgets as she led him into the charity shop. He saw the name over the door and was distracted again. It reminded him of a word from one of Eddie’s jokes. A word that rhymed with Oxfam. ‘Jam,’ he said. He wasn’t sure whether he had spoken. Sometimes his thoughts were echoes, sometimes his words were thoughts and he was surprised to hear them repeated. He stood in front of the counter. ‘Eddie said to put jam on my shoes and invite my trousers down to tea,’ he said to the man at the till.pill4

In the toilets of the Coburn Arms, he checked the buttons on the fly of his new jeans. He missed the small screech of a zipper pulled firmly into place. He washed his hands then stood in front of the condom machine staring hard at the bright yellow sticker in case it had a message for him. The red letters snapped into focus: Release-any-jammed-coins-using-reject-knob. He pressed the knob three times then he shrugged and walked away. Back in the lounge, semi-circles of people were collecting by the bar. A queue waited to be served from steaming dishes behind a glass counter. He stood beside Viv.

Viv handed him his well-thumbed brochure. He stood staring into the distance. He turned it in his fingers. Viv ordered him an orange juice. The woman beside her took a sip from her drink and left a crimson lip-print on the glass. Viv moved and stole his view of her. A large woman sat in one of the chairs lining the room, flicking lint from her skirt. Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep, he followed the sound of the cash register to decipher its signal. On another chair a man sat in a solemn trance, fractured occasionally by a smile.

He tried to smile too.

The slam of the till drawer made him jump. He held the brochure in front of his face. The letters were hopping on the page but he knew the words by heart.

‘Club-night-at-the-Coburn-Arms-the-comfortable-surroundings-of-the-

upstairs-lounge-bar-with-leather-covered-armchairs-make-it-very-easy-to-get-to-

know-people.’

He murmured this to himself, keeping his eyes on the illustration of the lounge bar. It looked real. Organise your thoughts, a voice told him.

He felt Viv touch him on the arm then she turned to speak to the barman. Leather covered girls. A girl stood by the food bar. Her face curved against the collar of her jacket. Her skin shone as if there was a light behind it. She smiled at her friend. Her face lit brighter when she smiled. Her friend had mousey hair and a hard, shut-in face. Her hostile glances met his stares in mid-air making him blink and lose focus. The bright-faced girl had a lot of sounds in her voice – sometimes light, sometimes low, sometimes like chocolate. She smiled. Smile and say hello. He saw himself chatting her up like on Eastenders.

‘Alright, Pete?’ Viv spoke to someone.

He tried to stop thinking. Sometimes Viv saw his thoughts.

Viv moved away and he watched her disappear through a doorway nearby. There was a tiny silhouette of a crinoline lady on the door, like the ladies on the covers of Viv’s Mills & Boons. She grew as the door swung shut, slowly, as if she was coming towards him. A man came out of the Gents and the door swished closed along with the door of the Ladies. Two small figures danced on the doors, swinging through gaps of bright light: a crinoline lady twirling, in a swish of billowing skirts; a silhouette man, advancing, coat tails buoyant on a current of air. Romance. Happy endings. Viv’s stories.

The girl was definitely smiling. The air between them was sparking with smiles.

He put his glass on the bar and approached the girl and her friend. His vision was playing tricks with him. They were nearer to him than he thought. ‘I’m not

drunk,’ he told them, ‘I don’t drink.’

They were tall and thin and almost touching him. Now they were small and fat and far away. He heard voices again. Red letter day. Listen actively.

The girls turned their heads away from him. Reject knob. He could not hear what they were saying. ‘You don’t look real!’ he said loudly. ‘Do I look real?’ He saw that they couldn’t hear him either, and he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he was speaking or thinking.

He bent closer until his face was inches from the girl’s. ‘Sometimes I see things. Do you ever see things?’

The girl wasn’t smiling anymore. She was moving away with her friend who was dragging her by the arm. A circle of people opened for them then the circle closed again. She was unreachable now, like his own self.

He saw the barman approaching. His stomach tightened and the tightness gripped his entire frame. He navigated his way unsteadily through the lounge, the faces of the guests looming like faces behind magnifying glass.

Inside the Gents he swung on the door of a cubicle. One by one, the voices shouted at him until they were all clamouring at once.

He turned on all the taps. He pressed down the stoppers. He leaned against the washroom wall watching the sheeting water, his back against the cool tiles, his outstretched right hand periodically pressing the steel disc of the hand-dryer.

He kept his left hand over his eyes and hummed loudly to the drone of the machine, drowning the voices in white noise.

He stayed like that without moving, losing all sense of time.

pill4

Occasionally, the bright mouth of the Exit swung open, slipping shadowy figures

towards him from the murmuring crowd outside.

When two of the figures advanced, a half-voluntary movement allowed him to peer through his fingers. He was surprised by the man standing in front of him and by the smell of Viv’s flowery perfume.

His brain, empty of thoughts, registered the rough feel of a blanket against the back of his neck and something sharp pricking his arm.

The familiar cadence of Viv’s voice made him want to sleep. The man’s hoarse voice answered her. Their sentences made no sense. He watched them peel his wet shirt from his arms. He felt a second prick in his arm.

He watched the man replacing items in the open metal box: syringes, needles, several phials.

Viv showed him a piece of crumpled paper before folding it carefully into his jeans’ pocket. The girl’s number! He tried to locate his voice.

Viv reached up and fixed the blanket around his shoulders. He felt its settling weight gathering him in, locating him. He saw his reflection in the mirror, outlined by the grey blanket, standing out against the white tiles, the white tiles standing out against him. He felt the weight of Viv’s hand on his arm, and he felt his own weight against the wall.

He walked outside with Viv. He felt the floor through his soggy trainers. It was dark out at the bar. He blinked to adjust his eyes to the shadowy figures – yawning, stretching; searching for coats. Viv went to get her coat.

He pressed his fingers against his pocket. He reached inside. There was no paper. Fluorescent lights flashed on overhead. He searched his pocket again. It was empty.

He sank into a torn seat near the door.

He stared at the dull yellow paint curling from the walls. He saw the cheap poster advertising the evening’s menu Sellotaped to the door. The shifting of crates behind the bar battered down the silence in his head.

He covered his ears with his hands. He stared at the faded red swirls of the carpet.

Viv’s solid feet swam into focus. He slumped against the stained leatherette. ‘Viv.’

She put her hand on his shoulder. He gripped it.

He held on tight. His voice shook. ‘Viv, I’m Pete.’ he said.

val***********************************************************************

Valerie Sirr won third prize in the inaugural Doolin Short Story Competition in association with the Irish Writers’ Centre. She has published short fiction and flash fiction in Ireland, UK, US, Australia & Asia. Publications include The Irish Times, The Sunday Tribune, The New Writer, The Stinging Fly, The Wisconsin Review. Some poems are forthcoming in anthologies from Revival Press, Ireland. Awards include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council of Ireland bursaries and other national and international literature prizes most recently a flash fiction award (2011) from The New Writer Magazine (UK), judged by British poet and writer Catherine Smith. Valerie’s flash fiction appears on the National Flash Fiction 2012 (UK) website. She holds an M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches creative writing and blogs on writing: www.valeriesirr.wordpress.com.

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