Short Story Mark Two: The Visit

This week, I’m sharing another short story with you. The Visit was published in Crannog Magazine in October. I’d love your feedback, as I finished it and sent it off without showing it to anyone.

The Visit

I was wearing my new dress. It was supposed to be for Nicola’s party. But I was wearing it for William instead. I spread the dress out across the seat, to stop it from creasing. When Mummy and Daddy went to visit William, I stayed behind with my aunt Miriam. But not this time.

“Why do I have to go?” I asked, as we pulled out of the driveway.

“I told you. He’s feeling much better,” Mummy said. “It’ll do him good to see you.”

I didn’t think that was true.

The dress was yellow, with white lace on the edges and a white collar. It was the same colour as my hair, the colour of butter. Mummy gave me a white hairslide for my hair and washed it with special shampoo to make it shine, like hers.

Daddy drove the car like it was the tractor. He held the wheel tight and looked straight ahead. And all the other cars on the road passed him out. We drove past Nicola’s house. Her mother was in the garden, filling the paddling pool. She waved at us. Everyone in the class was going to the party. A hot, sour ball squeezed my throat shut. I chewed my bottom lip.

“Don’t do that, Abigail,” said Mummy. “You’ll destroy your lips.”

Mummy could see me through the mirror.

The air in the car was hot and tasted of dust. Mummy didn’t like the windows open, because the wind messed up her hair. And there was no sound, except for the engine. Mummy let me hear stories in the car, but not when Daddy was there. Daddy needed to concentrate on the road. I pretended I was splashing with the others in the paddling pool. My legs swung back and forth and hit the back of Mummy’s seat. She turned her head.

“What’s the matter now, Abigail?”

“Are we there yet?”

“In a little while.”

That was what she said every time I asked her. So I stopped asking.

*

The hospital didn’t look like a hospital. It looked like a house. Like our house. There was ivy all over the walls, with bits of cream paint underneath. The car made crunching sounds when it went up the avenue. I liked that. When we got out, my legs were stiff and sore. I made them go backwards and forwards until they straightened out. The sea was at the back of the hospital. The sun made little sparkles on the water.

“Can we go swimming?” I asked Mummy.

“Maybe later.”

Mummy took a handkerchief out of her bag and rubbed Daddy’s suit with it.

“There, it’s gone,” she said. “Just a bit of grit from the car.”

“It’s too hot a day for this get-up.”

Daddy put his finger under the collar of his shirt.

“It won’t kill us to make the effort.”

There was a crinkle in the space between Mummy’s eyes.

“Sure, it’ll be grand, Caroline.”

“Of course it will.”

She didn’t sound like she meant it.

The door opened and two people came out. One was wearing a nurse’s uniform. The other one wore a white shirt and grey pants. His hair was the colour of sand. It was William. I forgot how tall he was. He stood right in front of me. His lips moved, but no sound came out.

“You’ll be all right now, won’t you, William?” said the nurse.

William’s head jerked up and down. Mummy clapped her hands together.

“Well, this is very nice, isn’t it? All of us together again.”

Her voice was different: slow and loud.

“Say hello, Abigail,” she said.

She pressed down on my shoulder, a bit too hard.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Abby,” said William. “Your dress is pretty.”

He used to call me Abby. He was the only one who did. The only one who was allowed to.

“Right, we’d better get going,” said Mummy. “We’ve to have you back at four. What would you like to do, William?”

William didn’t say anything. He just looked at the ground.

“Are you deaf?” I said.

That was what Mummy said to me when I didn’t answer her.

“That’s enough, Abigail. We’ll get into the car and then we’ll decide.”

It was always Mummy who decided.

*

We drove away from the sea, towards the town. William pressed himself against the door. He put his hand on the handle above his head.

“Are you comfortable, William,” Mummy asked.

“Yes.”

“We’re going to have a lovely afternoon together.”

As we drove, William’s lips started moving again.

“Who are you talking to?” I asked him.

He whipped his head around. He looked surprised that I was there.

“No one,” he said.

Mummy said William was in the hospital because of his headaches. But maybe it was because he talked to people who weren’t there.

*

In the village, we passed a big white building.

“Oh, there’s the hotel,” said Mummy. “We’ll have our lunch there. It’ll be nice and quiet. Then we can go for a drive later.”

“That’ll be grand,” said Daddy.

There were tables outside the hotel. They were made of iron and each one had its own umbrella. The umbrellas were yellow and white, like my dress. I bounced up and down on the seat.

“Let’s eat at the tables, Mummy?”

“It would be better if we ate inside. Not so much noise.”

“But I want to eat outside. Why can’t we eat outside?”

“Don’t whine, Abigail.”

*

The dining room was big and full of echoes. The floor was made of flat stones. We sat at a table in the middle. There were only a few other people in there. I sat beside William. He sat very straight; his back didn’t touch the chair. A man in a suit glided up with menus. Then he glided away again. Mummy opened a menu.

“What’ll we have?” she said.

“Bread,” I said.

“You’ll have the chicken. You’re a growing girl. And what about you, William?”

William shook his head.

“You’re not hungry?”

“No.”

He said it in a whisper, in case someone might hear.

“Well, you have to eat something. You won’t be having your supper for hours. Why don’t you try the chowder?”

The waiter came back and Mummy told him what we were having.

“And to drink?” said the waiter.

“Just water, thanks,” said Mummy.

“Maybe the young lady would like some homemade lemonade?”

“Can I? Please?”

“Certainly not.”

Mummy didn’t like me to have sugar.

“Oh but I want some. It’ll be like the party.”

“Ah, let her have it,” said Daddy.

Mummy looked startled. Daddy never talked unless people talked to him.

When the waiter went away, William started playing with his napkin. I played with mine too.

“Stop fidgeting, Abigail,” said Mummy.

She didn’t give out to William. I pulled a face at him. He didn’t see.

When the food came, I saw why Mummy ordered the chowder for William. It was white. William only ate white things. I remembered now. When Mummy made roast lamb for Sunday lunch, he threw it on the floor.

I took a sip of my lemonade. The lemonade was pink, with bubbles that went up my nose. William swirled his soup around, but didn’t lift the spoon up to his mouth. It rattled against the side of his bowl. All the time, he kept talking to the people who weren’t there. I chopped my chicken into little pieces. Mummy was too busy talking to eat much of her food.

“The Galvins are always asking for you.”

The Galvins were Nicola’s parents. Mummy always told them William was away playing at concerts.

“And the O’Reillys. You played so beautifully at their garden party. They have a new conservatory now.   Andrea’s at university and Michael is planning to join the army. You used to play such games with him, didn’t you?”

William stared at Mummy. His eyes were round.

“You don’t remember? Oh, never mind. It was a long time ago now.”

The waiter opened the window. Mummy was right. The garden was full of noise. People were talking and laughing. And there were violins. William sat up straighter. He started to shiver, even though it was hot outside. William didn’t have a violin any more. He smashed it one night. I heard it in my sleep. When I ran to the window, it was half bright outside, so I was able to see the wood splintered all over the patio.

*

The chicken made me thirsty. I put my hand out towards my glass. William put his hand out at the same time. It bumped off my elbow. The glass fell out of my hand. The lemonade flew out of the glass and made a pink puddle on my dress.

“Look what you did,” I shouted at William.

“I didn’t mean…I don’t know.”

“You spoil everything. I hate you.”

William stood up so fast, his chair fell over. But he didn’t pick it up. He walked away. I waited for him to turn around, but he didn’t. He just kept going, taking little rushing stops, like he was walking on hot sand. We stayed sitting in our chairs and watched him go. I tried to dry the puddle with my napkin.

“Aren’t you going after him, Brendan?” said Mummy.

“But sure, I’ve to get the…”

“Don’t worry about it. Let me sort it out. We’ll wait for you at the car.”

“Mummy, I need to clean my dress.”

“Not now, Abigail.”

Mummy hated it when my clothes got dirty.

*

On the way out, I told Mummy I needed to go to the toilet.

“Fine. I’ll wait for you outside. Don’t dawdle.”

I knew where the toilets were. They were in the hall beside the dining room. There were black and white diamonds on the floor. I hopscotched across them. The door of the men’s toilets was open. There was a person crouched on the floor. It was William. Daddy was standing over him.

“Are you all right?” Daddy said.

William’s lips were moving again. This time, sounds came out of them, louder and louder. The words all ran into each other, like prayers at Mass. Daddy looked frightened. I never saw him frightened before. Not even when the bull charged at him.

“Will we bring you back, to, y’know?”

William didn’t answer, but he stopped making the sounds. Daddy reached down, put his hands under William’s armpits and lifted him up. William lifted me up when he came home from violin school. He twirled me around on his shoulders, so I could see the world. When William and Daddy walked out of the bathroom, I saw that they were the same size.

*

On the way home, my eyes kept opening and closing. I stretched myself out on the seat. There was a big stain on the front of my dress. But it didn’t matter any more.

 

 

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Time to Share Some Writing

Thought I’d give you all a glimpse of my writing style this week. This short story is called Gone and it appeared in From the Well, an anthology of the top 20 stories in the West Cork Literary Festival Short Story Competition. All feedback is welcome. An outside perspective is always useful to a cloistered writer.

Gone

Cool air caressed Esther’s face as the doors closed behind her. It smelt of damp and car oil. To her, it smelt of freedom. She broke into a run, a glorious mess of limbs. The wind whipped her hair across her face; her bag banged against her hip. But she didn’t notice. She was free of the yellow bedroom, the glugging noises Daniel was making. The yellow bedroom tried to be normal. It had sunshine walls, a wooden bedside locker with flowers on it and an armchair in the corner. But it still smelt of antiseptic.

*****

The railings slapped into Esther’s belly. Fire spread through her ribcage, expelling the air from her chest. She bent over, gulped lungfuls of air, held it in. Breathed it for both of them. When she looked up, she saw a clumsy pile of bricks and glass. A black and white sign told her in block capitals that this was a library. Daniel loved libraries. ‘Repositories of knowledge,’ he called them. ‘Windows on the world.’

She pictured him sitting at a big wooden table, reading an encyclopaedia. Daniel’s mind was an encyclopaedia. But he couldn’t give her any answers now. He wore the red hoodie she bought him, with jeans and a Bob Dylan T-shirt. His spider-legs stuck out; one of them jumped to the rhythm of his latest song. Even now, in the yellow bedroom, he couldn’t stay still.

*****

Esther lunged at the door and it caved, pushing her inside. The high ceiling made her dizzy. The library clattered with noise: feet on polished floors, bleeps from the issue desk, paper rustling, voices murmuring. The noise of people. There were too many people now. Every day, they came in a procession. They clustered around him as he sat in the armchair, wrapped in the sunburst quilt from their bed. He entertained them with anecdotes about the doctors and nurses, eloquent rants about the health system. Their attention and laughter brought a hint of the old crackle back into his voice. They ruffled the fuzzy cap of hair that clung to Daniel’s skull. Chemo chic, Daniel called it. It never failed to make them laugh. But Esther didn’t get the joke. She was the one who had to break up the party. They left him hollowed out. She had to help him back into bed, tuck the sunburst quilt around him. It clashed with the walls.

*****

The library was covered in mist. Esther dashed her hand across her eyes to wipe it away. Her legs wobbled as she moved past neat stacks of books. A seating area appeared in front of her. She groped for a chair. The handles pressed into her hips. ‘Lish,’ she heard Daniel whisper. Their code word, short for delicious. He whispered it to her on a bus travelling through the Bolivian night, in bed listening to the rain, in the quiet moments before they took to the stage. She felt his hands wind in and out of her curves.

Her phone chimed from the depths of her bag. She dived in, stopped it mid-chime, shook swags of hair out of her eyes. The seating area was a sea of colour. Children played on a yellow mat with numbers and letters printed on it. They wriggled and squealed with laughter. A woman bent over a little girl and wiped her hands. The little girl said something and the woman laughed. Esther closed her eyes. Babies danced on her eyelids, babies with Daniel’s dark hair and wide faces with upturned mouths, like hers. She opened her eyes and the children’s bodies split into fragments. Blinking away droplets of moisture, she prised herself off the chair and stumbled away.

*****

Sunlight slanted through the windows and made puddles on the floor. The beams pressed into Esther’s back. She pulled at the window clasps, but they didn’t open. Just like the ones in the yellow bedroom. A leather couch was propped up against a wall. It sighed as she plopped onto it. Her phone chimed again. She took it out and counted the chimes until they stopped. On the screen, she and Daniel played to a sea of waving hands, tiny figures smeared with orange light. When was it? It could have been any one of a thousand nights. She brought the picture closer. Daniel held his guitar in a loose embrace. The guitar that grazed her leg that evening on the bus. The light reflected the intent glow of his face. Her mouth formed an oh; her eyes were closed as she reached for a high note. Daniel’s eyes were open, fixed on her face. She was the singer of Daniel’s songs. He wrote in a fever, guided by her voice. ‘Has no one ever told you what an extraordinary voice you have?’ he told her that first night, his warm lips tickling her ear.

*****

An old man lowered himself onto the couch next to her. The exertion made him splutter. The cough was dark and sticky; it burrowed into his chest. Beads of sweat ran down Esther’s back. Her teeth tingled as she waited for the next cough. But the fit stopped; the old man wiped his mouth with a grubby handkerchief.

The doctors had words for coughs like that, words that splintered when Esther tried to say them. Their words filled her head with screams. And they made Daniel shout at her.

*****

The man began to cough again. Esther got up and leaned against the wall, resting her cheek on its cool, pitted surface. Teenagers passed by in giggling clumps. Middle-aged women flicked through books and discussed them in loud, important voices. She watched them through a pane of glass. The phone rang again; its chime was louder now, summoning her back to the yellow bedroom. But Daniel wasn’t there. The drugs had taken him far away.

There was a chorus of clicking tongues.

‘You know you’re not meant to use a mobile in a library,’ said one of the loud, important women.

Esther opened her mouth to form words of apology, but none came.

*****

On the other side of the wall, there were more shelves. These ones were filled with rows and rows of CDs. Esther never knew libraries had CDs. One of the CDs teetered on the edge of the top shelf; she reached over to catch it before it fell. Neil Young stared up at her. He clutched a guitar; his wild hair struggled to escape his blue peaked cap. The words below his guitar spelled freedom. Rockin’ in the Free World topped and tailed the song list. The crowd clamoured for it while they waited for Esther and Daniel to come back out on stage. It was what they came to hear. The chimes pierced through the mist. Maybe he wasn’t all gone. Maybe there was still a bit of him left. She stood up, began to run again, this time running towards.

*****

Esther skidded to a stop at the entrance to the yellow bedroom. She held onto the doorframe to regain her balance. The people melted away, leaving a space for her to squeeze into. She perched on the edge of the bed. Daniel’s eyes fluttered open. They were dark moons; their edges coated with sleep. She could see every trace of stubble on his cheeks: burnt blades on a chalk field. ‘Es-trrr,’ he rasped. An idea hovering at the edge of her mind took form. She cleared her throat. This was her only chance.

At first, she faltered, lost without Daniel’s guitar to act as rudder. But soon the notes flowed in a steady stream. Her raw, yelping voice filled the room. Keep on Rocking in the Free World. The layers of protest were stripped away, exposing the ache at its core. She didn’t look at Daniel until the last notes died away. There was a silver trail on his stubble. It was the only time she had ever seen him cry. She felt a faint pressure as his fingers curled around hers. And she knew that he had heard.