March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
Today I am very proud to have been given by Billy O'Callaghan, Cork, Ireland, the great honor of publishing, in observation of ISSM3, one of his short stories.
Billy O'Callaghan, Cork, Ireland is the author of two highly regarded collections of short stories, among many other accomplishments. I recently read and greatly admired (my post is here) his In Too Deep and other short stories. I am currently reading his other collection of short stories, In Exile and will post on it soon. I am very honored that he agreed to participate in a question and answer session for ISSM3 which you can read here. He offers us lots of wonderful reading suggestions. He has a great love for the short story as an art form and it shows in his work and his answers to my naive questions about Irish culture and history.
Author Data (from his Webpage)
Author Data (from his Webpage)
I was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974, and am the author of two short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008) and ‘In Too Deep’ (2009), both published by the Mercier Press.
In 2010, I was the recipient of an Arts Council of Ireland Bursary Award for Literature. My stories have won the 2005 George A. Birmingham Short Story Award, the 2006 Lunch Hour Stories Prize and the 2007 Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, and have been short-listed for many more prizes, including the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Award, the RTE Radio 1 Francis MacManus Short Story Award, the Faulkner/Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Glimmer Train Open Fiction Award and the Writing Spirit Award. I was also been short-listed in three consecutive years, 2008- 2010, for the RTE Radio 1 P.J. O’Connor Award for Drama.
I am currently at work on my first novel, tentatively entitled ‘Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,’ and am in the process of compiling a new collection of stories.
Over the past decade, my work has appeared in more than seventy literary journals and magazines around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, Crannóg, First City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ireland’s Own, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, Pearl, Pilvax (Hungary), the Southeast Review, Southword, Underground Voices, Verbal Magazine (Northern Ireland), Versal (Holland), Waccamaw and Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing. New work is forthcoming in the Fiddlehead.
a short story by
a short story by
The boundaries of our world here on the island of Cape Clear once seemed defined by rolling seas and oppressive sky, but now a migration has begun. The city lights of Cork or Dublin lure many away with the promise of a life that seems better because it is easier. The O’Briens from across the island, the Riordans and the Murphy twins have all abandoned home to forge other lives, but there was a time when we would play together in the snow until the flesh of our hands turned blue and pinched, and our fingers bled from the cold.
When I was a child – one of twelve in our family – I’d steal away from the others to stand out here on my grandmother’s back porch, and my heart would beat fast with the anticipation of tomorrow, of the fun we’d have, building snowmen, sledding, playing games of war. Now I am twenty-eight, and that sense of excitement remains, even though I can no longer act on it.
Eventually, I’d be missed in the house, and someone would come looking for me. ‘Come inside out of that,’ they’d say, my mother usually, or one of my older sisters, Nuala or Eilís. ‘You’ll catch your death standing out there. Come inside to the fire. The snow isn’t going anywhere.’ I’d follow them in, not realising until I felt the fire’s heat against my face and hands how cold the night really was, and with a smile I’d accept the mug of cocoa that my grandmother offered. She always made the best cocoa.
It is said that, in her day, she was a fine singer. She has sung for as long as I can remember, but the voice I have always known is a withered one, tempered by age. She’d sit there in the corner of her living-room on a small three-legged stool, her back resting against the bare stone of the wall, and she’d close her eyes, incline her head and drift into song. Aching narratives, old island laments for men lost to the sea, or for those fallen in battle. We’d listen, tapping our feet to invisible time, and my sister Gráinne – who had the best Irish of us all, and maybe the softest heart – would cry as the stories took hold. I had enough Irish to follow, and I knew the words by their flavours if not exactly their meanings, but it was the voice that would draw me in. My grandmother’s singing voice was so much stronger than her usual spoken way, which rarely ventured above a murmur. To hear her talk, no one would ever have guessed at the power concealed in those breathy words. When she began to sing, that power was less revealed than insinuated. I was a child and she was already old, and her voice rustled around the words, caressing them as her hard creased hands sometimes caressed my cheek in a moment of affection. I could feel the power, and it was there as I grew.
Now when she sings, the power is finally gone, and the
voice that always sounded both hard and soft to me is a mired sound, muddy and occasionally indulging in shapeless hush. She is confined to bed and, when we sit her upright and support her with cushions and pillows, the effort that it calls from her wizened frame is almost too much to bear. Lying down, she sings rather than talks, singing the songs we all know. We join in where we can, but softly, because it takes nothing at all to drown her out. She also plays games with time, and it can be difficult to keep pace with her.
A few years ago, an archivist came to the island. One of those studious types connected with a university in Dublin, he was part of a group who had set themselves the task of travelling the country to gather and preserve a dying side of Ireland’s heritage. I was at home when he called, on one of my occasional sojourns back from what has these days become my life, working month-on/month-off shifts on the North Sea oil rigs.
He stood tall and drooping in my grandmother’s doorway, a young man of about my own age, but denim-clad and pierced, trying to explain himself in the kind of Irish that they only speak in schools. Some of the men in the village had told him that if he wanted the old songs he’d have to come and see my grandmother. I’d seen the likes of him before, one of those upper-class proletariat types who take a pair of scissors to the knees of their newly-bought designer trousers just so they will fit in with so-called ‘real folks’. His long fair hair bounced in curls around his shoulders and he wore a pair of round wire-frame glasses pushed right up to his eyes. I studied him openly and in silence until his act began to come apart, then I nodded and brought him inside.
From a battered leather satchel, he produced the smallest piece of recording equipment I had ever seen, a little
silver hand-held box that cut the music directly onto a miniature disk, and for an hour my grandmother sat at the kitchen table and sang for him. She held her hands knitted together in the grip of prayer, her entwined fingers bent and red from arthritis, and she alternately closed her eyes or fixed them on me, while the words flowed of their own accord. Between songs she’d mutter the titles, sometimes translating and explaining them so that the visitor might better understand. A small smile of joy stretched the young man’s lips but he didn’t speak at all until it was time for him to catch the ferry back to the mainland, and then he thanked her. After he had gone we found an envelope that he’d dropped under the table. My grandmother’s name was scribbled across the back, and inside, five twenties. New notes, still shining from the bank. He had been too shy to hand it to her directly.
When I hear the way she sings now, lying in her bed so frail and emaciated, I sometimes think of that archivist, and how much he would enjoy this. Not for the voice itself – because that is a whisper of what it had been that day at the kitchen table, and stands as nothing at all against what people say it had been back in her youth – but for the mannerisms and shifting emphasis that old age has brought. It is as though the best lessons were in the act of loss itself, the ones most worth learning. The manner in which she bends the words, tormenting the time-worn rhythms of each song’s structure, makes it into a kind of Island jazz. Certainly, there is that same scatting sensation. A deathbed art is something surely worth preserving, I think, but I am alone in my appreciation. Gráinne cries as she listens, but she is no longer crying for the stories.
My grandmother’s voice is a worn nub of past glories, but in the sacrificed lucidity of the diction there is such faithfulness-
in the sentiment. There are still things worth lamenting.
We spend a lot of time here, my sisters and I, and we’re waiting for the inevitable. The shifts I work make it difficult for me, because it is all or nothing: An entire month spent sleeping beneath this roof, followed by an entire month away, when my only connection is the weekly letter that it has become Nuala’s duty to provide. Every time I have to leave, I lean in and kiss my grandmother goodbye, and I am sure this will be the end. Occasionally she smiles a weary smile of recognition; more usually she calls me Dan, her brother, or Pádraig, her husband. Or other men long since dead to her. It hurts to hear that, but I answer her questions anyway, and then I take the ferry across to the mainland, the flight, and the other boat, until I am cut adrift, away in the North Sea, with a country’s distance lying between me and the island.
The oil rig can be hard work, and the constant back-and-forth journeying between there and home feels, at times, like a never-ending ritual of exile and redemption. But I have been doing it for more than seven years, and a man can get used to almost anything over such a length of time. On the rig, sitting on my bunk while the wind lashes the spew of the waves against the walls and the plastic windows, I tear open the envelopes as they come, fully expecting the bad word that has yet to arrive. I read of the arbitrary news from home, the usual tedium of small happenings in small lives, and tell myself I am glad she hasn’t passed yet, that I want to be there when it finally happens. But actually, I’m not sure that I do. It would be so much easier if the letter did break the inevitable to me, because as things stand, there is no comfort in waiting.
When I am at home, I sit in the corner of the bed
room for long hours, some unread book held open in my lap, and my grandmother lies there among her pillows and sheets, sleeping such a bottomless sleep that it cannot be much different from death. Sleeping, or else singing to the ceiling in that guttural voice. Her eyes are no longer with us, her mind, withdrawn, no longer offering the occasional glimpses and reminders of better times. I sit and watch, and I hate that I am waiting for her to die. But that is the fact. For almost a year, nothing has changed. The details are exactly the same, and I am not sure what I expect to see. ‘A watched egg never hatches,’ Nuala says, when she comes to relieve me so that I might wash and shave and get myself something to eat, and I know that she is right, we all know it, but none of us want the old woman to be alone when her moment finally comes. With every passing day, though, the shell grows more and more fragile, and it has to be soon that the final crack will appear. Maybe it will be a good thing if the news is broken to me by letter, the words easily fitting there among the mundane rest.
The snow is so light, and yet so complete. It fills the darkness, flecks that compromise the sky, and in the morning all that lightness will have amassed a considerable weight on the world. I like to stand out here on the back porch to watch, because it brings the good things of the past close again. In my life, I have spent more nights under this roof than in my own home. Easily lost amid the clutter of eleven siblings, finding room for anything was a struggle. Here though, there was always room, and a welcome. My grandmother lived alone, and she seemed old even then, though until a couple of years ago she was a very able woman. I was company for her, she said, and she told my mother as much. So I was allowed to stay.
Her husband, my grandfather, died before I was born. I have listened to her tales of him, her descriptions of how he was so broad across the shoulders, and though not very tall, possessed of almost legendary strength, and I would have taken her words as fancy except that the stories have been confirmed by other old men of the island, men tucked in the late night snug of Flaherty’s public house, coming alive only when the talk turns to long ago. Pádraig Dunloe, a man to row and row. Pádraig Dunloe, my grandfather, whose name passed down to me.
‘Do you take after him, boy?’ the old men ask. ‘Are you a chip off the old block?’ I shrug my own broad shoulders and let them decide for themselves.
My grandfather went the way of many on the island – yet another lost to the sea. A hurricane, to hear my grandmother tell it, but certainly a storm. Pádraig and his brother Michael, two days off shore, with nothing but a prayer in their little nine-foot skiff. The stories were told of how, after they were thrown overboard, Pádraig had battled the great swell and actually made it to within a hundred yards of the shore before exhaustion finally broke him and he was pulled under. This, at least, is an idea heavily coloured with exaggeration. My grandfather did surely struggle, but no one could have known how close he came to victory since neither his body, nor the body of his brother, were ever recovered. Just a story, but such an end sounded utterly heroic to me, especially given the fact that my own father, Eoghan, had passed in far less spectacular circumstances, the victim of a sudden, brutal brain tumour, when I was three years old. Nobody told stories about him, and when they spoke of him at all it was with the resigned sadness of lost opportunities.
My name, the same as my grandfather’s, might have been the draw to my grandmother, somehow bringing the past alive for her again. Or it may simply be that she enjoyed my company. I certainly enjoyed hers. She could be very shy, and entire days often passed between us with nothing shared but a smile. But the darkness seemed to shield her, and at night she would talk, would tell her stories of times and people past, her words swaying effortlessly between English and Irish. And when talking no longer seemed enough, she would sing her songs for me.
The nights of my childhood were always best. Until it was time for bed we’d sit together in the darkness, just the two of us, and I’d listen while she sang, joining in where and when I could. There were many nights when some of my sisters would come over, and more than a few nights when they all came, my mother included. A feeling of real kinship filled the house then, with everyone taking their turn to sing. Everything we sang was in the style of our grandmother, either consciously or unconsciously. You could hear her influence in the phrasing and in the tone. I remember Christmas time as always having a full house at night, thick to the rafters with song as the rain beat at the window or as the snow fell across the island. It felt good to be surrounded by family, but it felt better when the time came for them to leave, when they rose to undertake the mile-long trek back to my mother’s cottage. The old house had a lovely way of growing suddenly quiet, and we’d sit there beside the fire, my grandmother and I, not speaking, simply breathing in the warm smoky air and savouring the contentment of the moment. Seeing how the snow falls brings those nights back to me as though they were close still, and not lost forever.
I’ve shed my tears for her. To see her this way, ravaged to this uncertain state, does make death seem like a mercy. It was a mercy when it took my mother, some five years ago now, letting us remember something of what she was like before the lung cancer could fully break her apart. But when death will come for my grandmother, I’ll understand that it is for the best, but I’ll still cry because now, whatever her condition might be, I still feel as though she is here for me. I can talk to her and it doesn’t matter that she no longer answers, no longer hears, and I can listen to her gibberish words, the simple blur of sounds to past things. And more than anything, I can hear the jazz-twisted growl of her old songs made properly ancient. She’ll die, and I’ll be glad that her pain is finally at an end, but I’ll cry anyway, and I’ll miss her.
Everything changes. They are building on the far side of the island. On Tadhg O’Brien’s place, there is now a small huddle of summer homes. Concrete boxes with black slate roofs, built for comfort but also for the view. O’Brien’s grandchildren no longer want to farm the land; farming is hard work here and there is quick, easy profit to be had in selling out to the mainland’s rich. Soon that idea will reach us on the western side, and our views are worth even greater cash value, affording as they do the magnificent bloodstained sunsets of late summer, that last hour of a long day when the placid sea blisters and is set alight. When our time comes, we’ll sell too. The past is never permanent, constantly overlapped as it is by the present. The people from the mainland will come and make our coastline home for two or three months of the year, they’ll sit in the old pubs, sipping fine imported whiskeys and glasses of stout, listening with all propriety
and tapping their feet to what must seem like the nonsensical gabble of the old songs. Going native, they’ll call it, their way of unwinding until it is time to return to the mainland and the stresses of their city work. A few of the old stock will linger, press on and endure the usual winter toils, but they will become the exception rather than the rule, and they’ll come to rely on the summer economy for their survival.
Such changes are coming, and quickly, but whether they will happen in my own lifetime, I can’t say for sure. Certainly though, my grandmother won’t live to see them. She may linger a while, but eventually she’ll go, and sooner rather than later. She’ll pass away and we’ll mourn her, and there will be nights when she’ll come to mind as nothing more than a vague sadness, because time heals that wound even as it brings others. She’ll go into the ground with those of her people who have gone before, another finished seed for the stony dirt of the sloping hillside. And maybe a day will come when they will be digging a hole in that ground for me, or maybe I’ll have long since said my good-byes to this place.
All of that is ahead. For now my place is here, waiting for another end. Standing on this back porch, watching the snow, the night has a calm and timeless sense about it. The sounds that make it through from the kitchen are the sigh of the kettle and the barely whispered talk of Eilís and my youngest sister, Cait. They are making sandwiches for yet another long night, and they talk about things of little or no consequence. The big issue, the reason for everyone to be here, goes unsaid, because there is no longer any need to speak of it.
End of Guest Post
I offer my great thanks to Billy O'Callaghan for allowing me to share this story with my readers.
You can learn more about his books on his Amazon Page
As much as I can I will follow the writing career of O'Callaghan.