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.
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.