January’s winning story
There is a young woman, wrong, there is not. She’s not yet an adult, but she’s not still a child. She’s in her teens. She wants to consider herself an adult, let it be that she’s accorded that. Begin again.
There is a young adult sitting beneath a tree under a grey-blue sky. There may be a seven-week-old foetus buried inside her, there may be not.
What’s to be said about the tree? Well, first, this is no wind-shook sapling. It’s immense, measured against the young adult, who’s no longer a child but only recently, quietly so. It’s fully grown, compared to the soft changeling who sits cross-legged on damp ground at dusk. It’s a lone, cold-blooded ash tree in the middle of a field. At the first autumnal winds, it’ll shed its leaves, easy, without thought, even while they’re still working green. But, for this evening, its soft new leaves glisten unhindered, twisted hopeful towards an inkling of faded sun. For now, its dark roots bury, disappearing into the earth.
And what’s to be said about earth? Very little can be said with certainty about the ground underfoot. Roots bury, invisible things, etc...
It’s a Saturday, twilight. She sits quiet, a silver stud in one eyebrow, a couple of indigo swallows in flight around a crimson heart tattooed behind her ear. Eight of her nails are varnished blue-grey, the middle two a lustrous yellow. Her Swallows-Circling-Heart tattoo is recent, she had to wait for her 16th birthday. The heart is slightly skewed; the lines don’t quite join up; its blood-red appears to be constantly on the verge of spilling out. But there it is nevertheless, imperfect, behind her left ear.
Jonquille is the name she did not read on the nail-varnish bottle when, as an after-thought, she had pulled it out of her cosmetics drawer earlier this afternoon. Had she read the name, she would by now have decided there was some magical implication to the coincidence of her striding through a field of daffodils to get to the tree, a lush field of bowing Narcissus jonquilla bobbing and swaying around her as she tips the damp yellow flower heads with her fingers. But she has not read it, therefore hasn’t had any thoughts on mysterious happenings, and whether or not there is ever such a thing as an accident.
This afternoon, before pulling out the tear-shaped bottle whose name she didn’t read, she had first varnished her nails with her favourite: a pearlescent blue-grey titled Misty Dawn. Then she’d closed her eyes, stuck her hand back into the drawer, shuffled the little glass varnish containers and drew out a bright yellow bottle; an as-yet unopened birthday present from her best friend (‘because of Yellow Flicker Beat’ her friend had said at her birthday party seven Saturdays ago in TGI Friday’s and, arms locked in the leatherette booth, they’d sung the song together though neither of them knew what it was in fact about).
The unopened yellow varnish in hand, she had closed the drawer with a nudge of her hip, sat on the edge of the bed, and thought of that day, of that night, her 16th birthday party, what she wore, what she looked like, what she hoped she looked like to others. Holding static in her mind an inaccurate image (a drone view of a glitzy birthday-party self circled by friends), she had placed her hands in turn on the top of her chest of drawers and painted her two ring fingers with the glossy varnish, wiggling her nails of yellow and blue-grey until they hardened. Later that day, while walking under an overcasting sky through the daffodils to the ash tree, clutching her phone with one hand and finger-tipping the flower heads with the other, she did not think about her two yellow nails and therefore any potential significance regarding the randomness of colour choice did not materialise.
The straight-grained ash tree is trustworthy, if trust is a want. It has endured alone, in the centre of this fenced field, and may well endure for some time to come. This could be why she has chosen to sit beneath it this evening, surrounded by its fallen winged fruit, could be why she sits cross-legged, pelvis to ground, spine to bark. This possible reason, but if so, not this alone. The hardened tree will or won’t endure with or without her, above and below the ground, mostly below, where it’s certain no light shines, conceiving neither colour nor shadow.
The other reason is that here beneath the tree is not home. It’s close enough to home but cannot be confused with home despite being so near that she could be seen, and maybe summoned, if that Saturday evening unlikelihood was a want. What’s to be said about home? This: she has decided that beneath the ash tree is the only place to make the call.
No, it’s too soon to mention the call. She’s not ready. She sits under the tree, that’s enough.
She has cleared her throat, many times. It has begun to hurt. She clears her throat to overcome the fear. She listens to herself clearing her throat but nothing’s clear and nothing’s clearing. The tree’s not working, the ground’s not working. She looks at her two yellow nails, brings them side by side, considers which one looks best. One nail is sealed perfectly, the lacquer extending in a glossy stripe from nail-bed to tip. The second stripe finishes in a blur; she can see through to the pearly blue-grey beneath. Why are these two nails not the same? Was it not her intention to have them the exact same? It was. Sometimes these unintentional things can just happen. She clicks her nails together, clears her throat again. Looks to home.
Nobody at the kitchen window. What does it matter? Nobody at the upstairs bedroom window. What does any of it matter? Looks to see if she has closed the back door behind her. She knows she has closed the door, but the knowing doesn’t make anything clearer.
She gets up, moves slightly to the left, checks if she can still be seen. She’s already certain there’s no one in the kitchen, there’s no one in the bedroom, she’s not seen. She knows her parent and younger siblings are still in the sitting room at the front of the house, watching some pre-watershed disaster film on Sky; she’d sat silent among them before walking to the tree. She moves a little further to the left. She’s out of sight, or it’s better said that her home is. It is, and will be, until there’s a want, out of sight. Leave it there for now.
Leaning into the trunk, she pulls her knees tight to her, turns her feet in. The branch network overhead metaphors into some kind of inconsistent umbrella; shield-like, it could be said, but letting occasional blinks of slanting light tweak through nevertheless. The tiny shards appear and disappear around her. The hard ground beneath the ash has felt little rain or sun in years, her soles are flat to this firm earth.
Taking out her phone, she checks the coverage, the charge. She knows there is coverage here; this is her private call place. Knows her phone is charged, she didn’t leave home until it was at 100pc. She scaled the fence and headed for the ash primed to be an adult, ready with a wholly charged phone. It’s now cast at 96pc possibility, a 4pc shuttered door to some next thing. Charge is draining slow from the small bright window through her soft core, into the bark, down the trunk to the roots, and beyond, searching a dark equilibrium, maybe an earthly foothold.
Tiny things burying. A thing that wants to be considered good. She thinks she feels the cocooned panic fluttering inside her. Is it a want? What is it if it is not a want?
Tapping one yellow nail off the illuminated screen, she looks at a photo of herself and a young man, an attractive young man, yes, let him be attractive. He’s young, but he’d like to be considered a man and would expect to be described as attractive.
The photo is from her birthday party. Wherever he is now, he doesn’t know he’s smiling at a small her within her phone. She was looking at the camera when the photo was taken. She looks now at herself, sees herself looking back. She looks at him smiling at the other her, and pushes harder into the trunk, turning her face up towards the shimmying leaves, her smile unfolding. There are two halves to think about; the party, and after.
Closing her eyes, she sees the dark of his body forming, him saying her name. Remembers the clearness of it coming from his mouth, his thin brass-link chain falling on her face. Him saying it to the imperfect crimson heart behind her ear. She hears this evening’s breeze sifting through the ash leaves above her and the rustle now binds invisible with her thoughts of him.
Grips the phone to steer this good from draining. Sits up straight, clears her throat, goes to Contacts, taps his name. His profile photo surfaces bright on the top half of her screen, his name in italic letters beneath. She taps the Call icon.
She has spelt his name with an ‘i’ instead of a ‘y’. The phone’s ringing. She’s not sure now if she should’ve spelt it with an ‘i’ or a ‘y’. She’s not sure if he was smiling at her or at something else, something behind her, a thing beyond that she doesn’t know. The phone’s ringing. Should it be an ‘i’ or a ‘y’? She’s not sure. Is he smiling in the photo? The phone’s ringing, it’s possible he’s not smiling, she doesn’t know, it’s possible she spelt his name wrong, it’s possible he wasn’t looking at her, the phone’s ringing, it could be that this isn’t his number, or she dialled wrong, did he give her a wrong number, did she dial incorrectly the wrong number he gave her.
A woman answers, says yes this is his mam who will I say hold on he’s up in his bedroom as usual haha d’ya want to hold on for a moment please thanks he’ll be delighted hold on there sweetie OK?
She listens to a clamber up stairs. There’s a mother, a staircase, a bedroom. She waits, touching a small plastic stick in her pocket, a test branded with two solid blue lines at its tip. The stick contains a little rectangular window which encloses the two lines extending in steady parallel from one end of the window to the other, meeting edge to edge, a silent, a tiny blue truth, beginning in the window on the tip of the stick in her pocket. There were instructions on how to read these two stripes. The empty packaging lies read and re-read on top of the unread bottle of Jonquille at the bottom of her cosmetics drawer in her bedroom.
She leans into the tree. There is an end in sight. If there was now an image presented of her beginning to cry, it’s likely those tears would be made to vanish into the dry ground, ground that has been sheltered for decades by the symbolic umbrella-branches overhead. The field would appear to dissolve her tears as if it was nothing to take them on, just another figure of speech.
So, what’s to be said about this ending? First, she’s not crying. Here she is, waiting, angled into the trunk, gripping her phone, biting her lip, the photo of his face held up to her ear, up to the miniature swallows circling their skewed heart, its red threatening to leak. Her flawed yellow nails bury into her palms. Held close against her temple, the phone’s bright screen will darken by default after 10 seconds.
Niamh Mac Cabe
Niamh Mac Cabe is an award-winning writer and visual artist, published in over 40 literary journals and anthologies in Ireland, the UK and the US including The Stinging Fly, Mslexia and No Alibis Press. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Tyrone Guthrie Centre residency. She has won the Wasafiri Prize, John McGahern Award, Molly Keane Award, Allingham prize, Francis Ledwidge Award and Psychopomp Magazine prize. She lives with her sons in Leitrim.
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to email@example.com. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.