Hennessy New Irish Writing: Circus Music - Elizabeth Brennan
Published 26/07/2014 | 00:00
The windows of the abandoned house look like empty eye sockets.
'Let's go back,' Aidan says. You laugh at him. 'Coward.'
You are both eight years old and it is your first time at the abandoned house. You've given your mother and his older sisters the slip to make the journey from the village across the fields.
You go inside and Aidan follows, as you knew he would. You pick your way over bricks, plaster and rotten wood. Up above you see gaps in the floorboards of the second floor. At the foot of the stairs Aidan forms his mouth into an 'O' and exhales like a reverse hoover. But he follows you upstairs too.
In one of the rooms on the second floor there's a lonely beam that leads to a window. You say you're going to walk it.
'Don't,' Aidan whispers. His fear makes you want to show off your daring. You place your right foot on the beam and put your weight on it. Aidan makes a little noise behind you as you bring your left foot around to the front and press down.
Your body feels balanced, faithful, strong. You focus your gaze on the sky framed in the window in front of you. As you walk you're half aware that you're humming the circus tune. You feel light, and your arms and legs tingle with an energy you've not felt before. You feel like you could take off out the window.
It is only when you get to the other side you realise your heart is beating fast and your t-shirt is wet with sweat.
'Wow,' Aidan says. His eyes and mouth are dark circles on a white background. 'That was like magic.'
Pride rushes through your veins. You grin and take a bow.
After you've both been to the abandoned house to play a number of times, Aidan still doesn't like it. He says he's sure it is full of evil spirits.
'That's crap,' you say. 'There's no such thing as spirits. Or ghosts. Or God even.'
'There is a God. Why did you say that?'
'Okay, there is a God,' you say, because you don't know if there is or not and anyway Aidan looks upset. He's always going on about his mother being in heaven.
Even though you give in he doesn't speak to you for two days.
When you get older your mother sends you to the all-girls convent school in town. This school is filled with psychotic groups of girls, high on deodorant spray and nail-polish fumes.
They watch you with one sarcastic eye, stripping you down to your pants with the snapped elastic, making you feel disgusting, pimply, contagious.
And suddenly it's as if you have locked-in syndrome. You'd like to speak, to join in, but it's not possible. Because you fear the collective eye of the group that is so powerful it could peel your skin off.
The rules have changed and you're the only one who wasn't told. You feel like you're experiencing the loss of something big, though you have no name for it.
You hang around with Aidan in the evenings and at weekends. Every time you go out with him on a Saturday night it seems that one of his friends wants to shift you in a dark corner. But with all the kissing, groping and panting, you feel nothing.
When the disco lights pick out Aidan's face he looks reproachful. He says, 'You don't have to shift them all, you know.'
You and Aidan still go to the abandoned house sometimes. If it is sunny, you sit on the steps of the front porch. But most of the time you go upstairs. You sit where the floor is still intact, looking out a window and across the fields to the village. You drink beer and swap information about the bands you like and the people you both know.
The May you are both sixteen, Aidan tries to kiss you up at the house.
You push him away. 'No,' you say.
'Because we're friends.' You don't tell him he is your only friend.
'But you're friends with all the others too.' He's petulant, a little boy.
'I'm not,' you say.
He puts his hand on your arm and leans towards you. You get up and go downstairs and out the front door.
When school finishes for the summer that year, you get a job as a waitress in Tracey's, the pub in the village. You know the chef Gavin from around. He's older, twenty one or two, and he has no problem criticising you for everything.
'Little tom-boy,' he calls you, which you like and resent at the same time.
You sweat a lot in the pokey kitchen. It's hot work, but Gavin's nearness is also a reason. You get the odd shuddery trickle of sweat between your breasts and down to your stomach. And one night when you get home from work, you peel off your clothes, lie on your bed and think about Gavin. It's the first time you've ever thought about a boy in this way and it surprises you.
After work on a Saturday night in mid-June, you leave with Gavin by the back door. He grabs your arm and draws you back towards him. His kiss gives you a feeling of falling into deep mud rather than crashing into a pile of sticks, which is what you're used to with Aidan's friends.
After that, you're nervous and excited going into work. You try not to show it, to keep things normal. But Gavin follows you into the walk-in fridge or grabs you in the corner of the kitchen and kisses you.
The first time you actually do it, back at Gavin's house, you feel strange afterwards - confused and tired. But as you do it more, you get used to the flat feeling when it's over. But sometimes the build-up is fun, and anyway it's his groan you're waiting for, his shudder.
You've done this to him and it makes you feel powerful.
You and Aidan have always bounced back from your arguments. You still see him that summer, though not as much as before.
You don't tell Gavin about when you're with Aidan because you have a feeling he doesn't like Aidan. You also don't tell Aidan about Gavin, because you don't tell anyone. Gavin is six years older and if your mother found out she'd go mad.
One evening you and Aidan are up at the house drinking a nagon of whiskey and talking about this and that. Aidan is being odd, like he's angry about something.
Then he says, 'You're a slut, do you know that?'
You stare at him. His eyes look unfamiliar, glassy and fierce.
'What did you call me?' you say.
'It's what everyone calls you.' He gives you a kind-of sneer and raises the nagon to his lips.
'Don't call me that name again.'
'Slut,' he says.
You grab the nagon from him and throw it out the window. There are a few seconds when you look at each other, waiting for the sound of shattering glass. But it doesn't come.
After that you ask your mother to tell Aidan that you aren't in when he calls over. You tell her that Aidan has changed, that he's into drugs. You listen in your room as she says, 'I'm sorry, Aidan. She's not here.' This happens three times before he stops calling.
The first time she sends him away, you watch him walk back down the path, his head bent, his hands in his pockets. You realise that Aidan makes you feel heavy inside.
But being around Gavin gives you a piece of the sky you didn't know you could have.
Every day you walk a thin line between excitement and anxiety. You know that one false move could end it all. But the energy that hums in your veins, the sensation of taut lightness to your body - these things make you feel like you can do anything.
Gavin comes into the kitchen and says, 'There's a love-sick pup out in the bar looking for you.' It's a Wednesday in late July, just before Treacy's opens for lunch. The expression on his face gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. He yanks the tea-towel off your shoulder and starts to dry some pots.
You find Aidan sitting in one of the booths.
'What do you want?' you say.
'Will you sit down a minute?' he says. You stay standing. 'Ah, just sit down,' he says.
You glance in the direction of the kitchen door and sit on the edge of the seat opposite him.
He says, 'I just want to say sorry about...what I said. I just want to be friends, I promise....' He looks at you with an uncertain smile. You almost smile back.
An almighty crash comes from the kitchen, as if something large and metallic has hit the tiles. You stand up.
Aidan glances over his shoulder. 'Jesus,' he says, 'what's going on in there?'
'Aidan, you need to go now,' you say. You don't look at him.
'I will if you tell me we're friends.'
'Aw, come on...' he says. He holds out his hand. You walk away, leaving his hand suspended, his smile beginning to teeter.
For the rest of the shift, Gavin hardly talks to you. Without saying a word, he throws out plates of steak and mushrooms for you to serve. You decide you were right not to shake Aidan's hand. You're angry with him for coming to see you at work. What did he think he was doing?
'Order!' Gavin shouts, though you are standing in front of him waiting to take the plates out to the bar.
You wonder if Gavin wants to end it between you. Why can't Aidan just leave you alone? If he would just disappear, you think. If he would just die.
Then it happens, in the first week of August. First he is missing and the Guards ask you if you know where he could be. The only place you can think of is the house.
Up at the house they find Aidan, a novel by Raymond E. Feist and several empty cans. When they tell you that he fell from the second floor of the house to the floor below, you don't understand it. How did it happen? Who pushed him?
No one, they say. He just fell. He was alone and intoxicated.
For a number of nights after this, you have trouble sleeping. When you do sleep, you dream of watching Aidan from behind as he walks unsteadily along a beam. There is no sound, only dead silence. When you wake up your heart is beating fast and your t-shirt is damp.
You go to a music festival with Gavin in the last week of the summer holidays. Being around Gavin is good because he never talks about Aidan.
Aidan is the only thing your mother wants to talk about, and half the village for that matter. Everyone seems to be looking at you funny, perhaps in sympathy, but sometimes your mother's look is hard with unasked questions.
You see a lot of the bands at the festival that Aidan wouldn't have liked. And it's only in the early morning hours, when you're drunk and stumbling about on trampled grass and cold soil, you let yourself think about him.
And you tell yourself you didn't push him off the beam. You weren't even there.
How to enter
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty, is published in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of every month and is open to writers who are Irish or are resident in Ireland.
All stories and poems published in New Irish Writing will be eligible for the 2014 Hennessy Literary Awards.
Awards are made annually in three categories: First Fiction (for writers publishing their first story), Emerging Fiction (for writers still to publish their first book) and Emerging Poetry (for first-time poets, or poets still to publish their first collection).
The winner of each category will receive a Hennessy trophy and ¤1,500. A New Irish Writer of the Year, chosen from the winners of the three categories, will receive an additional prize of ¤2,500 and a trophy.
Stories submitted to New Irish Writing should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to six poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee.
Writers whose work is selected for publication will receive a payment of €130 for fiction and €65 for poetry.
Entries (with SAE) to Ciaran Carty, New Irish Writing, The Irish Independent, 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1, along with name, phone number and email address (where available). Or email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth Brennan's short stories have been published in Crannóg, the Irish Independent and Verbal magazine. She was shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Awards (2012), the Trevor Bowen Short Story Competition (2012) and Over the Edge New Writer of the Year competition (2009 and 2010).
Paul Boyle teaches English and History in C.B.S Kilkenny and when he remembers that he enjoys writing so much more than most of the things he spends his time dong, writes poetry and short fiction. A former recipient of The Sean Dunne Young Writers Award, he is yet to publish his first collection of poetry. He lives with his wife, two children, two dogs and a cat that nobody claims as their own, in Co Waterford.
Child in the corridor of an institution
Such a place encases.
Its deep recessed windows marry cheery yellow paint to antiquated metal; the cloudy, thin panes shuddering above the monstrous heating grills, their pipes smooth gloss, perfect for chains.
Such a place borrows names.
Grandfather shuffled off behind whispers escaping through cupped fingers; hide and seek footsteps along a games board of squares; such a place has more snakes than ladders.
Such a place seats a child in its empty arms.
The cold mahogany pew, heavy and serious; her bare arms clasp its ledge in their small fingers.
Five years old; her little legs too short in every position to touch the chipped tile floor, her raven hair tumbles about her bowed face as she circles her feet, measuring out the distance from earth to sky.
My Father never finished his shed.
He never used the garage door he had carefully saved down the years.
He never helped re-roof my shed or showed me how to bind its splayed walls in a ring of steel and concrete.
He was certain it could all be contained, brought back together.
As I look at it alone I’m not so sure.
Its forlorn roof like a gaping mouth, the weight of time in the very marrow of its trusses; the task seems pretty big without him.
I should have asked him more; about how to keep a