'In A Heartbeat' (short story) soon to be published in Rattletales Anthology
My short story 'In a Heartbeat' was shortlisted for The Brighton prize. Visit the website to read more about the competition. www.brightonprize.com
Wake is a short story of mine which won the 2011 Frome Festival Short Story Award and was placed second in Words With Jam writing magazine 'First Page' competition 2014. It was then published in 2015 in The Needlewriters anthology
Lying on your back under a coffin is not the ideal place to eat a chocolate biscuit. I had two primary concerns. One: I hoped I wouldn’t choke. Two: if I did choke could I do it quietly? I’m not usually allowed to eat lying down, but I wouldn’t normally be lying under a coffin at 6pm in someone’s front room. I’d be home having my tea, sitting sensibly at the kitchen table with my dad and brother. But dad had always taught us to make the best of any situation you found yourself in, so I licked the smooth chocolate off the top of the biscuit and allowed my tongue to find its way through to the creamy mint centre. I then sucked at it quietly whilst examining the swirly patterns in the wood grain above me.
Did you know that the underside of a coffin is nowhere near as fancy as the top? This makes sense to me, because if you think about it, how many people are ever going to find themselves underneath one? This was a big cherry wood affair with fancy brass handles and sculpted patterned panels. The satin inside was so white it was hard to look at under the fluorescent lights in Aunt Sarah’s front room. I know – who would have fluorescent lighting in their sitting room? Aunt Sarah has no time for interior design. She grew up on a farm (as if that’s an excuse) and always says, “I’ve got no truck with fancy nick knacks”. I wanted to point out that most people don’t consider comfortable chairs, washing machines and soft lighting as “fancy”, but I was biding my time until I was older.
I didn’t think she’d listen to a thirteen year old giving advice on home décor. But I have an affinity with cushions, colour charts and fabrics. Last year, when dad redecorated our house I was his interior designer. I made fancy mood boards the way I’d seen them do it in magazines. They looked really professional. Aunt Sarah’s choice of coffin for Uncle Frank surprised me. I thought she would have buried him wrapped in rough Hessian in a cheap veneer box, but here he was, laid out in the fanciest coffin I’d ever seen and before you get all cocky and ask “how many coffins could you have possibly seen given you’re only thirteen?” I can tell you confidently – quite a few.
I don’t keep detailed records or anything but if I looked back over my journals that I’ve been writing since I was eight, I reckon there must be at least a dozen wakes mentioned in there. It’s what we’re famous for in Ireland, along with civil wars, potatoes and “tar and feathering”.
I wrote that in a school essay once.
I have a ratings system for wakes: you get points for finger food and quality chocolate biscuits, not for boring biscuits the old dears can dunk in their tea and eat even if they haven’t got their teeth in. You’d be amazed at the number of old people who forget to put their teeth in for going out. I’ve made a mental note to myself to never, ever do that when I’m old. My bum was getting a bit numb lying on the floor but so far I hadn’t choked. I just had to tackle the now moist biscuit base. Should I just shove it all in at once or take the risk and bite it in half and hope the crumbs didn’t backfire all over me. I held the biscuit up above me and weighed up my options. I spotted a splintered piece of wood dangling from the coffin and wondered what would happen if I picked at it until it created a hole. Would the whole thing eventually disintegrate until Uncle Frank fell through and landed on me? I’d be squashed, that’s for sure. My Uncle Frank was really fat: probably obese.
I stretched my free arm up and ran my fingers over the wood, it was jagged and uneven but I couldn’t feel it sagging in any of the places I could reach. I just wanted to be sure that Uncle Frank wasn’t coming through, ‘cause if he was, I’d take my chances out in the open.
A strong, warm smell tickled my nose; a shiny hip flash was just inches from my face. It was being offered by a man with a partially toothless grin. I shook my head and his grin widened and his blue eyes twinkled. ‘A little drop would do you good,’ he whispered. ‘No thank you,’ I whispered back.
He tipped his head back and took a long swig. When I’m older I’ll drink champagne from a long fluted glass and make sure to hold it by the stem so the liquid stays chilled. I’d clipped that idea from a magazine and placed it in my dream life file. I already knew exactly how I was going to decorate my new build, three storey, mock Tudor Townhouse set in a landscaped garden.
That’s where I’d live when I left home: me and my husband Sam and our Persian cat Tabitha. I ate the biscuit base whole and didn’t choke and Uncle Frank hadn’t crushed me. I had just cheated death twice. Dad smiled encouragingly at me from across the room. I gave him a little wave back. He was lying next to Aunt Sarah on the cold, vinyl flooring. She didn’t look too upset at the fact that Uncle Frank’s wake had been interrupted by the fighting and gunfire outside in the street. In fact she looked quite happy lying on her front, propped up on her elbows and enormous bosom drinking a mug of tea. All the mourners were lying on the floor surrounded by spilt cups of tea and plates of squashed sandwiches. Aunt Sarah’s fat little dog Buster was scuffling around enjoying his own wake buffet, making the mess even more disgusting. It wasn’t attractive flooring but I could see the benefits: cleaning up would be easy. The gunfire and yelling was right outside the front door now but the heavy curtains were drawn so no-one could see in. I wasn’t scared. I’d grown up with “the troubles” and lately it had been quieter. We talked a lot about “peace” in our history class. Dad said he’d believe it when it really happened. He didn’t sound hopeful.
I liked school. I was good at every subject and in a higher grade than the rest of my age group. I was precocious. That’s not my label, that’s how Sister Beatrice, our head teacher, described me to dad. I wasn’t supposed to be listening but I was. Dad said. ‘Is that something I need to worry about? Can she be treated for it?’ Sister Beatrice smiled and said. ‘Your daughter is one of the brightest pupils in the school, we’d like to offer her a full scholarship and help her get to university.’ There was a pause and dad said. ‘We don’t know anyone who’s gone to university.’ She told him not to worry about that; she’d get it all sorted for me. That’s how my future came to be decided. I didn’t mind. I was a bit worried though that they may not let me do design or craft work anymore and make me concentrate on chemistry, physics and maths: subjects I was really good at. But I was passionate about design. I liked the other subjects but passion is what gets you on in the world. I’d read that in a magazine too.
When the fighting finally moved on and the street was quiet, dad said it was time to go. I wriggled out from under the coffin and was glad to stand up and stretch. We said our goodbyes quickly and left. Dad gripped my hand and almost dragged me along the street. It was eerily quiet now and even though it was freezing I was glad to be moving and to be in the fresh air.
We didn’t live too far away and at the fast pace dad had set, we’d be home in about ten minutes. We didn’t speak. We saved our energy for listening and walking. You never knew when the fighting was going to erupt. We were only a couple of streets away from home when the bin lids started clanging. It was a warning.
I hated the bin lids clanging.
Dad pulled me into a tight, dark alley between two boarded up shops and we hid there amongst empty cardboard boxes and overflowing bins with our backs pressed to the wall. Dad held one of his big arms across my body, keeping me pinned against the cold bricks. I felt the dampness seep in through my thick duffel coat and tried hard to stop my teeth from chattering. My breath puffed out of my mouth in short bursts, hanging in the gloom before dispersing. A machine gun rattled nearby followed by shouting and more firing. I covered my ears, partly because they were cold and I’d forgotten my hat and gloves, and also because I didn’t want to hear the violence. Flashes of light flew past the alley and my bare hands couldn’t shield me from the deafening rat a tat sounds the guns made.
The sound of breaking glass reverberated against the alley’s brick walls. Dad pressed me even tighter against the wall until I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I started reciting the twelve times table backwards in my head - the repetition helped me control my breathing and stay calm. A single pair of footsteps rushed closer to us out on the street and then suddenly stopped. A figure stood crying at the entrance to the alley. Dad moved quickly. I tried to see what he was doing but it was too dark. I just knew he wasn’t next to me anymore. I was about to call out and then I felt him beside me again. He had brought the crying person with him. It was a woman. Dad pushed her gently into the space next to me. Even in the dim light I could see her huge stomach sticking out.
She was pregnant.
Dad stood in front of her stomach and covered it with his body as best he could. He then reached out and put one hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I couldn’t see either of their faces clearly in the dark. The three of us stood like that whilst the violence raged on in the street not far from our hiding place. We didn’t move or speak. I listened to the woman’s uneven breathing and sniffling in the dark and hoped her baby wouldn’t choose this moment to make its entrance into the world.
Eventually the street was silent again. We waited until the stragglers had run off into the night, their voices unintelligible as they moved further away from us – until there was nothing to hear except our own ragged breathing. We walked out of the alley timidly, stepping carefully around the broken glass and spent shells. An acrid tang hung in the night air. It smelt like the science lab after a chemistry experiment.
While dad was talking quietly to the pregnant woman, I picked a shell up and slipped it into my pocket. It was still warm. Dad waited until she was safely inside her house before we turned to walk the short distance home. If we’d been in a Hollywood movie the woman would have asked me and dad our names and when the baby was born it would have been named after one of us.
But this wasn’t Hollywood, it was Belfast and the woman had never asked. My brother Tom was waiting for us when we got in, his thin face white with fear. Dad gathered us both into a tight hug and we stood there, clinging to each other. When he finally let go, he ushered us onto the gold velvet sofa and stood staring down at us. We watched him expectantly and I wondered if it was finally time: if the words I’d been dreading for three years were about to come out of his mouth. Dad looked nervous and I was sure it was time. I knew that people did weird things in times of crisis.
I clutched my brother’s hand. Dad took a deep breath. ‘How would you fancy going to live in Australia?’ he asked. I released my vice like grip on Tom’s hand in relief. We were okay. There was no stepmother coming to live with us yet. I looked beyond dad’s eager, lined face and tired green eyes and stared at the shiny urn behind him on the mantelpiece. I wondered what Mum would think of us moving to Australia. She’d always loved the sunshine. I fingered the warm, spent shell in my pocket, enjoying its smoothness. It would be my new lucky charm. I smiled at dad and wondered if mock Tudor was a common style in Australia.