Wednesday 21 August 2019

Short story: Bird on a Wire

A new short story by Joseph O'Connor

Dublin city centre
Dublin city centre

Joseph O'Connor

'You should get the Luas," his wife says. "And you'd need to leave now."

"Stop bossing me around. I'm not one of the kids in your classroom."

"Or the bus. Or the Dart. I wouldn't drive if I were you."

"I'm driving."

"Christmas Eve, you're driving into Dublin? Are you out of your mind?"

"Did I ask your opinion, Siobhan?"

"Donal, I'm not going to fight with you."

"I didn't ask you to fight. Would you stop talking nonsense? Is it a battle of wits you're after, as usual?"

"I wouldn't fight a battle with an unarmed man. Do what you want. I don't care."

Two hours later, Donal Enright turns the car rightwards on to O'Connell Bridge and begins facing through orchestras of sleet. Below him the Liffey is churning like an anger. The sky is darkening, blustering; a December Dublin Saturday in the year the British left Europe and William Trevor died and the recovery was supposed to be here. The whole town is dug up for Luas works. Nowhere to park. Exactly as Siobhan predicted.

The shop he needs to go to, Foot Locker, on O'Connell Street, is literally five metres away from him across the grimy-looking pavement, so close he can see the shining faces of the servers and customers, but he can't abandon the car, not even for a moment. There's a garda in a hi-vis by the news-stand on the corner and she's watching him. The Pepsi truck behind him blares its horn.

He sticks on his emergency clickers and pulls wheel-up on the kerb. The garda approaches. He rolls down his window.

"You wouldn't do me a favour, guard?"

"What would that be?"

"I'm an hour looking for a space. I've to collect something in that shop, just. You wouldn't run in for me? I've the cash right here?"

She regards him assessingly. Her lapel radio crackles.

"I wouldn't ask you," he says, "only it's Christmas Eve."

She shakes her head in mock disbelief. "Stop the lights."

"A pair of Jordan OVO Twelves, white and gold," he says.

"Come again?"

"Basketball shoes. Size 11. The last pair left in Ireland. I said I'd collect them by three o'clock sharp."

She glances at her watch. "You'd want to shift yourself, so. It's gone five past."

"I can't find a space. You wouldn't nip in for me? They're a present for my 16-year-old son. You know the way."

"I'm actually on duty here," she says. "You don't think I might have better things to be doing?"

Sighing, she holds out a black-gloved palm. He hands her three fifties. Half a minute later, she's back.

"They're gone," she says. "Someone else is after buying them."

"What? They can't be. I had them on hold!"

"Here's your money. You'll have to move on."

In the half an hour it takes him to inch around Parnell Square and into the cinema car park, he tries calling Siobhan several times but her mobile is off. Henry Street is boisterous with manic children, rap battlers, baying junkies. Hawkers tout Conor McGregor posters, smuggled tobacco, fake designer handbags, knock-off perfume.

He is 47, out of shape, gone chubby and breathless. He had been medicating throughout 2016 and his sedative of choice has a Russian name, Smirnoff. His weight this year has risen like an anxiety graph, and his infrequent jogging leaves him so banjaxed that he devours half a pack of biscuits on his route home. He's Ed Balls in Strictly, out of place, out of touch. His feet feel like anchors as he hauls himself past the baubled storefronts, past the pound shops and glittered chippers and the lit-up GPO. Commemoration posters still on the walls, of Pearse, Connolly, McBride. Lightning crackles in the sky over the Spire.

His 14-year-old daughter comes into his mind. Is that an actual hairstyle or has someone dumped a plate of cold tagliatelle on her head? How can such a beautiful looking girl perpetually look as though she slept in a skip? And something will have to be done about her appalling diet. It seems to Donal Enright that both his children have three criteria for selecting a meal. (A) It must contain monosodium glutamate and saturated fats, (B) It must be capable of preparation by nothing more than the addition of hot water (from the kitchen tap if necessary) and (C) meal consumed, the plastic container in which it came has to be capable of causing annoyance by being left for someone else to pick up and put in a bin. Keep eating like this and these kids will one day be sorry. Cheese-and-onion crisps don't count as a vegetable.

Through the shoppers and bucket-rattlers and carollers and panhandlers, he finds himself thinking of his son now - a recent fight. About politics or sport, maybe music, he doesn't remember now. But suddenly they had been roaring at each other, the boy's eyes glittering, Siobhan shouting at the pair of them to stop. "Jesus, for once, can't you stop. You're driving me spare! You wouldn't see it from a couple of four-year-olds in a playground!" He had walked away, into the garden, trembling with rage, lit a cigarette from the pack he liked to tell himself Siobhan didn't know he had. A moment later he had looked in through the living room window to see his son, weeping, head low, shoulders shaking. And it had come to him with fierce clarity, like the moment a headache lifts, that the argument wasn't about politics, or sport, or music, it was about the fact that his son was 16 and didn't need him anymore, a fact neither of them was ready to handle.

Foil stars and scarlet snowflakes, cartoon characters dressed as parcels, caricatures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dressed as gnomes. And on he pushes, through drunks, pukers, spacers, chancers, gurriers, gougers and goms. Tinsel reindeer and sleigh-bells in the window of McDonald's.

He thinks about the house, the crappy boiler, the drains, the fridge-freezer that clicks so loud that they have to leave its door open while eating their meals. A struggle to manage the bills next year. He wonders if they have anything they could sell.

What he'd give to be at home now, snug and cosy in front of the fire. 'Hygge', the Danes call it, one of this year's fashionable catchwords, 2016's retort to 'mindfulness'. It's a lifestyle, an approach, a way of being, yadda yadda.

"Dad, it's pronounced 'higgy'," his daughter told him wearily.

"It's pronounced what?"

"The President of Ireland is Michael D Higgy," said his son.

Where do they get their assuredness, their haloes of self-esteem, their bulletproof certainty of mattering? And why, since they have all that, must they talk like they're asleep? Is it simply that they can't be bothered waking up?

Last night's dream is still with him, difficult to shake. He was swimming in Dun Laoghaire, with his first girlfriend, who he hasn't seen since they were 17. She's dead now, lymph cancer, died in London. He pauses and looks at a holly wreath in the fairy-lit window of a florist's. Somewhere, a recording of Fairytale of New York is playing but the speaker is distorted, the sound fuzzed-up and fazing. The dream has been at him all morning, flickering like a moth, an after-image stored on your retina when you stare at blackness in sunlight.

The other evening he went with Siobhan to the school, to help her with the sound and lighting for the kindergarten Christmas play - part Nativity-drama, part fable. The story was set on Christmas Eve. Santy was readying to hit the skies with Rudolph, but the Magic Weatherman was in a huff, with the result that there was no snow. This particular weatherman was no Met Eireann meteorologist, but an easily aggravated wizard who presided over a junta that created the world's weather from headquarters at the South Pole. He was required to have a scowl that would frighten all the gnomes. ("Think Angela Merkel in shorts," the geography teacher, an alcoholic, murmured.)

A girl called Niamh O'Connor was the Magic Weatherman's wife. But it wasn't a marriage made in heaven. The direction required that she often hold her husband's hand. This would have been fine, but Niamh had the runniest nose in all of Bray, which she persisted in wiping with the same hand that she employed to clutch the Magic Weatherman's, whose performance steadily lessened with each clutch. Donal Enright had sympathy. When the only thing bonding yourself and your leading lady is mucus, it's hard to give of your best.

Reverend Mother handed out beards made of tufts of cotton wool, and crepe-paper tunics with glued-on spangles. The effect was Miss Panti meets Osama bin Laden. The reindeer wore beige tea-towels, which made them deeply convincing. Some even had paper hats with antlers crayoned on to them. The more committed vigorously attempted reindeer noises. Since reindeer are not among the native species of Bray, creative improvisation was practised. There were moos, baahs, bleats, hoots, barks, roars and oinks. One little tyke assured Donal Enright, with the unsmiling conviction possessed only by toddlers and Leo Varadkar, that a reindeer sounded "exactly like a bat".

The production was a tinderbox. And along came the spark. A confrontation erupted between the shepherds and the holy family. A shepherd had called the Virgin Mary "lame". She responded with an upper-cut to the chin. It was 'one in, all in'. Never had Donal Enright witnessed such a fisticuff. Reverend Mother was about as effective at halting hostilities as a Celebrity Bainisteoir would be in Fallujah. Driven back in fear for her very wimple, she was helpless before the tsunami of tots. There were thumpings and bootings. Bits of manger were brandished. It was like one of those 19th century Punch cartoons of Irish people enjoying themselves on a coffin ship. Two of the toddlers were singing: "Away in a Manger, No Crib for a Bed, Don't Tell Me You're Full or You're Gonna Be Dead." In the scuffle, one of the wise men proved he wasn't that wise when he was caught spitting at an archangel and snapping a leg off baby Jesus. Baby Jesus was played by Roddy, a doll loaned by someone's sister. He had eyes that looked at you crossways, and was devoid of genitalia, so there was enough on his mind already without assaulting him. Crossing Henry Street now, Donal Enright remembers the baby Jesus getting hurled across the classroom, then being used to bludgeon one of Santy's elves while she was sat upon by Our Blessed Mother. It's an image that stays with you, somehow. A typical Irish Christmas. Whatever you're having yourself.

He considers putting on his iPod ("Oh, you trendy fecker, dad," he almost hears his children mock) but decides against it. There's no music he wants to hear and, lately, the radio news is too grim. Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, all gone. He wonders if they ever get together up in heaven for a bit of a sesh. Couple of jars and a jam. Give us an auld bar of Space Oddity there, David. Cheer up, Leonard, you'll be a long time dead.

It isn't the marriage either of them had hoped for. But it has wound itself around a trellis of tolerances. Coexistence has bubbled up between them like an underground stream; they know the subjects to avoid and when to look away, the little self-sustaining evasions and myths, the white lies and sidesteppings of every functional marriage. At moments he has a sense he and Siobhan made a mistake; that the rebound that pushed them together will bounce the other way in the end. Maybe they shouldn't have married, instead lived together a while longer. But the baby had come along and they'd felt it the right thing to do. And 16 years passed with the change of a traffic light.

Most of the time lately, he finds her unreachable. She accuses him of being uncommunicative, of "screwing a lid" on his feelings, which, to him, is exactly the way to approach a lot of the feelings he has. They have spats about money. He had to take a pay cut at work - he manages a sound hire shop - and there won't be any holiday next year. Well, that doesn't matter. It's actually a relief. Going on holiday with a couple of teenagers isn't everyone's idea of fun. He'd rather go on holiday with Stalin.

The mortgage, the gas bill, the groceries, the kids' clothes, the tax, the car insurance hike, the USC; there's little left at the end of the month and the overdraft is creeping upward. You pay one bill, three more pop up. Ireland 2016, the Republic of Whack-a-mole.

Maybe they should try to sell the car. He sometimes gets the weird feeling that these rows are a coded way of arguing about something else. She says they need to see a counsellor. Maybe she's right. But he wouldn't know what to say, isn't the sort of Irishman who'd be comfortable talking like that to a stranger. It's not that he doesn't have feelings, more that he doesn't have words for them. And who doesn't have the odd argument? Perhaps a couple are rarely as close as when they quarrel. Perhaps bickering is a kind of lovemaking. It would be nice if something were.

Four months since the last time. Lately he's so ground down by all the endless bills that he can barely keep his eyes open through dinner and a rerun of The West Wing. And guilt has a weight too. His unavailability hurts her. He knows it.

At Foot Locker, he begs. But there isn't another pair of size 11 Jordans, not in white and silver, not in any colour at all, and there won't be for weeks, if ever. "To be honest, we don't really do all that many basketball shoes," the guy says. "Try the internet, maybe?" Back at the cinema car park, the barrier is locked, his car still inside. "It's Christmas Eve, bud," the security guard explains. "We close early. I can't open it. I don't have the code." The phone pings. A text from Siobhan.

"where r u?"

"locked out of car park"

"luas home? C U Cherrywood insomnia 6pm?"

She looks weary. She is sipping from a cardboard cup and barely glances at him as he comes in. Around them sit revellers, laughing, exhausted. He is shamefully conscious as he waits for his coffee that he's wishing the fire sprinklers would go off and douse the whole damn lot of them. She permits him to hold her hand. But she is distant, angry. Lengths of gorgeous bunting dangle from the ceiling. Feed the World is playing on the PA.

"I messed up," he says. "I was too late getting in."

"Yep."

"Do you think we could give him the money instead? It's the thought that counts."

"Not when you're 16. It's the basketball shoes that count."

"Siobhan, they didn't have them! What was I supposed to do?"

She sighs and places the box on the table.

"I got the Dart in," she says. "I knew you'd be too late. The last pair of Jordans in Ireland."

At midnight, the Christmas tree lights are flashing in the living room. He has forgotten to switch them off.

He creeps from the bed, pulls the plug and flicks the socket.

In the dark, quiet, stillness, he is thinking of his parents. All the times they struggled for him. What must have been their hopes. A boy and girl photographed on O'Connell Street in the 1950s, besotted, going to a dress dance at The Gresham.

"What are you at?" Siobhan calls.

"Just turning off the lights."

He goes to the kitchen for a swig of wine. There is a newspaper on the table and he flicks through it purposelessly. When he turns to go back to the bedroom she is standing in the doorway in her pyjamas. She's pale, looks distracted, is wearing his slippers.

For a moment neither of them speaks. She looks heartbreakingly beautiful.

"I love you," she says. "Thanks for going into town for him."

"I love you too. I'm sorry I lost the rag."

Close to dawn on Christmas morning she stirs in bed beside him.

He listens to the winter birdsong, to her soft, settled breathing. The kids are up. He can hear them annoying each other downstairs, the muffled thud of hip-hop, the bleeping of their phones, from somewhere else in the middle distance the alleluia of a police siren. He rests his hand on her abdomen. He lies in the darkness, falls back into sleep. Tall ships, comets, the wine-dark sea, camels bringing kings through the desert of his dreams.

Joseph O'Connor is Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. He will present 'Into the Mystic', a programme of seasonal poetry, prose and music, on RTE Radio 1 at 1.15pm on Christmas Day

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