Bernie McGill lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland. She has just been named as a supplementary prize-winner in the Bridport Short Story Prize and her story 'Home' will be published in the forthcoming Bridport anthology. In 2008, she was first prize winner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US). Her short fiction has been broadcast by BBC Radio Ulster and published in The Belfast Telegraph, in Fortnight, Verbal, Brand and Northern Woman magazines and anthologised in The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona and in My Story. She co-wrote The Haunting of Helena Blunden for Big Telly Theatre Company in 2010 and she wrote The Weather Watchers, a play for young audiences for Cahoots NI in 2006. She is the recipient of two Individual Artist Awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Her first novel, The Butterfly Cabinet was published in the UK and Ireland in August 2010 by Headline Review, is about to be published in translation in Italy and the Netherlands, and will be published in the US by Free Press in 2011.
Second Prize in the 2010 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition.
The first time I saw my father after he died, I was in the shower, hair plastered with conditioner, when the water stuttered and turned cold. He was at the sink in front of the misted-up mirror with the tap running, his back to me. It was two weeks after his funeral. His things were all where he’d left them.
‘Them tiles would need re-grouting,’ he said, and pointed his razor at the salmon pink mould that was growing below the mirror.
I stared at him through the circle I’d wiped in the shower door. ‘I didn’t know you’d be able to do that,’ I said.
‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘any decent tradesman would sort that out for you.’ The twitch of a smile; thran as before.
He looked more or less the same. When he turned his face to scrape the razor along his jaw, I could see that the scar was healing well, where the surgeon had removed the growth from the side of his nose. His skin was more yellow maybe; more so at the nicotine-stained finger tips.
‘Are they treating you well?’ I asked him.
‘So, so. The food’s not great. Nothing seems to have much of a taste.’
‘I suppose you empty the salt cellar over it still?’
‘What harm’s it going to do me now?’
I looked at him, at the thin white hair curling at the back of his neck from the steam in the bathroom; the earth under his fingernails.
‘I’m getting cold,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, bending to splash water on his face, his knees creaking, ‘I’m going now anyway,’ and away he went.
The next time I saw him, I was on the train, on the way to Belfast sitting opposite a girl in a green bobble hat, when his face appeared in the window to my left. I looked back at the girl in her small round glasses, breaking off squares of chocolate with her teeth, at the umbilical iPod threading its way from her ear to her pocket. But outside, reflected in the glass, it was his face skimming over the fields. It was early December; there was a skin of snow on the hedges, green showing through; a slick of ice on the flooded grass. A bad time to spread slurry, he would have said. I’d never been on a train with him before.
‘We used to ride to Knockarlet,’ he said smiling his crooked smile, showing a bottom row of neglected teeth, ‘me and your mother. Left the bikes at the station and took the train to the Port for the Big Sunday. It’s years since I was on a train.’ He spoke the way he had always spoken in his later years, like he was suppressing wind. Like the next sound that emitted from his mouth might be an involuntary one. People used to finish his sentences: he made them nervous of what was going to come out.
I loved that photo we had in the house, the pair of them strolling down the Prom arm in arm, her in her swing coat and curled hair, him in his wide lapels, a cigarette hanging off his right hand. They looked like film stars; the ghosts of their young selves. I used to pore over it as a teenager, wondering who they had been then, before me and then Robbie were born into their lives; before we wrenched love from them, and left again.
Above his head in the train window, were mirrored the orange letters of the information screen: ‘Attention please. Passengers without a valid ticket please purchase one from the conductor.’ He looked up, stuck out his elbow, nudged no-one in particular, winked in at me: ‘Never let on you saw me!’ he said.
Christmas week, I was invited out to dinner with Thomas’s parents. Situation vacant: prospective daughter-in-law. I watched them process my details: a good lecturing job, attentive, soft-spoken, a bit long in the tooth for grandchildren, possibly, but these days you never know. They were far too middle-class for religion to be an issue. The restaurant was over-heated; I’d gulped down too many nervous glasses of sauvignon blanc and had stepped outside for a breath of air. Daddy legged it out from a bus shelter on the far side of the road; dodged over between breaks in the headlights, a greasy brown paper bag in his hand.
‘Are you going to marry thawn boy?’ he said. Not so much as a ‘Hullo’.
‘You know his name, Daddy.’
‘Are you going to marry him?’
‘He hasn’t asked me.’
He sighed through his nose, and his breath came out in two puffs of mist. ‘I never knew you were that oul-fashioned,’ he said. The smell of chip fat and vinegar.
‘What’s in the bag?’ I said.
‘You didn’t answer me.’
‘Neither did you.’
A couple came out the restaurant door; a blast of voices and heat, garlic and alcohol.
‘He’ll never set foot on my farm,’ he said.
‘He’s a Maths teacher, Daddy. He doesn’t want your farm.’
‘He says that now,’ he grunted. ‘But they’re all the same: hungry land grabbers every last one of them. He’ll not get it. Not after what we went through to keep it.’ He wrung the paper bag into a twist, fired it into a nearby bin.
‘Not everybody’s after your land, Daddy.’
‘Have you forgotten what they did to your brother, Annie? The way they left him, lying on the road like a bag of rubbish the binmen had forgotten to lift? What it did to your mother, to see him like that?’
I gritted my teeth: ‘It wasn’t Thomas did that.’
‘Him or his kind. I make no difference between them.’ The spit flew out of his mouth. Then he turned on his heel and strode down the street, some loose change heavy in the outside pocket of his green fleece, banging against his thigh, altering the hang of him. It had never occurred to me that the dead could be bitter still, could still feel loss.
My brother Robbie wasn’t the son my father had had in mind for himself. Daddy was a teetotaller all his life: the only drink we ever had in the house was a drop of poteen he kept for a sick cow. And my father was quiet, rarely raised his voice, except maybe to curse at a referee, or a traffic warden. Robbie, on the other hand, was loud, drank too much, lost all his money on poker machines, stole fags out of Daddy’s coat pocket, took no interest in cattle rearing. He had a great sense of himself as unquashable, shot his mouth off when the rest of us knew how to stay dumb; had never learnt caution the way most people had in our uneasy mixed community. Some of the time I admired him for it; wished I could speak without looking to the left and right of me first. He wasn’t involved in anything, people round here would have known that: if he had been, Daddy would have knocked it out of him himself. All he wanted was to join a rock band and ‘get the hell out of this backwater’. The eighties were a nervous time, and things were worse after something big: Loughgall, Enniskillen, Milltown, Ballygawley. Those were the times when people walked about careful, eyes to the ground. Robbie never eyed the ground. You’d think, then, he’d have seen it coming, what hit him in the face. A mallet, the coroner said, the type that was used to bash in fenceposts. They never found it.
Strange thing, though, he walked like Daddy: shoulders forward, great loping strides. Three years younger than me, and every step of his was one and a half of mine. I could never keep up with him. He was seventeen and built like a stick and mad about his guitar. He’d just failed his driving test and had called in the pub, where he shouldn’t have been, and was walking home. They must have followed him out. It was December, dark by four and bone-cold. The coroner said he thought a car had hit him: after the beating, he said, when he had been left on the road. He couldn’t be sure but there was evidence the body had been dragged. It was a neighbour that found him, picked him out in the car headlights. Daddy insisted on an open coffin, despite Robbie’s eyebrow like a burst plum, his buckled nose, the rainbow of bruises that spanned his battered face. Despite Mum saying, ‘Let people remember him the way he was.’
‘No,’ he’d insisted. ‘Let everybody see what they did to him. Let everybody look and know what savages we’re living amongst.’
They never got anybody for it, but ever since, there’s been neighbours of ours that couldn’t look us in the eye. Mum lasted six months of barely speaking, food hardly passing her lips. She dropped like a stone one day in the kitchen; never spoke again. ‘Your mother,’ Daddy said to me, like he had to apologise for her leaving, ‘… her heart never mended.’ Then it was just me and him, for nearly twenty-two years, until his lungs gave way, and the breath left him too.
In one of the bad times, around Hallowe’en, a month or two before Robbie was killed, I was home from University and Mum asked me to go in the front room and bring her in the sewing basket that she kept under the bed. I knelt down on the burgundy carpet, lifted the valance sheet, and there was the shotgun, quiet as you like. Daddy had always kept one: he and Uncle Joe went shooting for pheasant every Boxing Day. And if there was a wedding in the townland, he’d take it out, shoot a cartridge or two in the air to send the bride off. But the rest of the time, he kept it locked up in the built-in wardrobe. He was normally very careful about it. I carried the basket back in to the kitchen.
‘Why’s the gun under your bed?’
‘Thread that for me, will you?’ she said. She sat with Daddy’s good trousers on her lap, pressing the unravelled hem between her finger and thumb. I held the needle up to the light, laced the grey thread through. ‘Two or three times,’ she said, ‘a car has driven into the yard at night. No lights: we hear the wheels on the gravel.’ She took the needle from me, wound a knot into the end of the thread. ‘Your father says if any of them tries to get in, he’ll shoot first, ask questions later.’
‘Why would anybody…?’
‘There’s people, Annie, that needs no excuse. We’re the wrong sort for them, that’s all; in the wrong place. They’d like to see the back of us.’ And she pushed the needle into the hem and started to sew.
I was glad to get back to Belfast. The threat in the city never felt personal. A bomb scare on University Road and everybody piled back into bed: lectures cancelled for the morning. The night the explosion went off at the Lisburn Road police station, the whole of our rented house shook. Eight girls on the landing in their pyjamas and then down to the kitchen to stand bare-footed on the cracked, snail-slimed lino, warming our hands around cups of tea, listening for the sirens: second-hand drama. Not like a dark car in your own yard at night; not like a shotgun under the bed.
The next time I saw my father after he died, it was night and I was driving over the bog road near Castlenagree with the windscreen wipers doing battle against the rain, and Bob Dylan on the radio, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. I’d turned the music up full and was giving it welly: ‘How does it feel…?’
‘What’s that oul’ shite you’re listening to?’ he said, and near put me off the road. A twitter of a laugh: ‘That would deave you,’ and his arm reached out, and turned down the dial. There was a green light off the dashboard; my fists tight on the steering wheel. ‘What happened your hand?’ he said. A small black crescent of soot ingrained above my knuckles.
‘You know rightly what happened it,’ I told him, ‘putting the life out of me in the coal house last night. I hit it against the shovel.’ He was silent. The sound of his skin-roughened finger and thumb, rubbing together. ‘Knocking the door against the back of my heels,’ I said. ‘You know I don’t like the dark.’
‘It was maybe the wind.’
‘There wasn’t a breath. You needn’t deny it. I smelt Benson & Hedges.’
‘I’ve given up the smokes,’ he said. ‘They were a shocking price, getting.’
‘Your timing’s not great.’
The rain was coming down harder, troughing water along the sides of the road. I could smell the damp wool of his jacket, drying in the fan, and something underneath it, something familiar, coal tar soap.
‘Does this seat not go back?’ he said, grappling for the lever at the side, ‘That Thomas boy must be a right short-arse. My knees is killing me.’ I was silent, not rising to the bait, and then, ‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘the night you swallowed the two p bit?’
I did. I was five, six maybe. I can still feel the chink of metal against my teeth; taste the copper, feel the wrong shape of it slide down my throat. I don’t know what upset me more: the swallowing of it, or the disappointment at the loss of the money. I hadn’t made the connection between food and waste: was stunned when Mum said I wasn’t to flush the toilet till she was sure it had passed. And every morning, the same line from him and Robbie…
‘Any change?’ he said in the seat beside me, his whole body shaking.
That was the night he told me the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. And when he said the part about the robbers hiding in the urns, I didn’t know the word, so he said, ‘You know, urns, big containers, like tea chests. That’s what we’ll call them. The thirty nine robbers hid in the tea chests and the captain went into the house.’ It was nearly worth swallowing the coin for: the candy-striped sheets in their big bed, and the light coming in under the crack in the door and ‘Ali Baba’ in his turban and the blind cobbler and the clever servant-girl and the robbers in the tea chests. And the burst-open brother they had to sew back together again.
‘You know, Annie. I would never scare you like that. That wasn’t me at the coal house door.’
I kept my eyes on the road as we rounded a bend. Then I said, ‘Daddy, do you ever see…?' but when I turned my head, the seat beside me was empty.
He needn’t have bothered with the jibes about Thomas: we didn’t last. I think it was Thomas’s confidence I fell for: his belief in my ability to love him back; his faith in the world’s acceptance of us both. He never questioned his right to be anywhere. He was entirely without arrogance but he stood and talked and put one foot after the other with absolute unshakeable conviction. I think, maybe, if I’m honest, he reminded me of Robbie. It was never going to work. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up the suitable daughter-in-law show for a whole lifetime.
Daddy made occasional appearances after that. One Tuesday afternoon after the Spring term had started, I looked out from a Lecture Hall of second-year students who cared little for Molière or the Commedia dell’Arte, and I saw him, intent, climbing a grass bank, heading towards the University Arboretum with a hazel stick in his hand, his corduroy trousers bagging at the knees. I got the impression he was following someone.
Then one night in May at the Opera House, a staff outing to The Bartered Bride and me bored witless, I tore my eyes away from Marenka in her embroidered apron and glanced up at the boxes and there he was: good grey suit, opera glasses in his hand. He who had never set foot in a theatre in his life.
‘What are you doing here?’ I mouthed up at him.
‘Keeping an eye on him,’ he said and he stuck out his elbow and nudged the man beside him: Robbie, in an over-sized bow tie, with his face back the way it used to be. ‘I told you it wasn’t me at the coal house door.’
Robbie was scanning the audience. ‘There she is,’ he said, and pointed to a small woman, three rows ahead in a turquoise dress with winged shoulder pads. The woman turned and looked up and waved: Mum out in her finery. Neither she nor Robbie looked at me.
‘You found them,’ I said.
‘I did,’ Daddy said.
‘They look well.’ He nodded and smiled. ‘Will you leave me alone now?’ I asked him.
He looked down at his hands. ‘I was right about thawn Thomas boy,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t your match.’
‘I won’t be told who to love by you,’ I said.
I looked around at the packed auditorium, at Mum’s shining eyes, back up at him and Robbie. ‘I’ll see you then,’ I said.
I could see his mouth move. ‘You know where we are,’ he said, and then the song ended, and the audience rose up in applause and blocked my view with their bellowing elbows and the backs of their nodding heads.
©2010 Bernie McGill
'Sleepwalkers': McGill short story in Zoetrope
'Islander': short story in Verbal by McGill
Review of The Butterfly Cabinet in the Financial Times