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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
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PAULA CUNNINGHAM

 

 

 

 

Paula Cunningham

Paula Cunningham was born in Omagh and lives in Belfast where she works part-time as a dentist. Her poetry chapbook, A Dog Called Chance was published by Smith/Doorstop in 1999. She has also written drama and short fiction. A short story appeared in David Marcus’s Faber Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-2005. In 2011 she won the Hippocrates Poetry Prize. She was placed third in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition in 2013. She currently holds an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Her first full poetry collection Heimlich's Manoeuvre is due from Smith/Doorstop this summer.

 

 

 

The Hyacinth Under the Stairs

Essay

 

 

 

My father is wearing a hat, a grey hat; this much I know to be true.  One of those hats worn by seventies salesmen, grey with a narrowish brim, a front-to-back dent in the crown, a band with a bit of sheen in a similar colour.  When it’s not on his head it hangs on a hook, high up near the top of the hallstand.  It being a Monday his shoes will be buffed to a shine.  We waken each Sunday to eight polished pairs on the lino in front of the paraffin stove in the hall.  It could be a Tuesday.  This much I do know: he sells frozen food for a living.  First Birds Eye (we’re reared on fish fingers) and then some time later he moves on to HB ice-cream. 

 

This morning he’s driving to Derry, a journey of forty-odd miles.  He’ll pop in on his customers as he goes by, take orders, ensure that their freezers are full, and he’ll stop at the pool in Strabane for his mid-morning swim. 

 

My father has had a long day and he’s on his last call.  Already he’s hungry and thinking of dinner at home.  He’s in a wee shop in the Bogside, it’s gone half past four, when the old lady owner, named Mrs McCann, says “Jesus Christ Jimmy, you’re fucked.”  He stares at her then he’s known her this years he’s never heard her swear like this before.  She motions, the slightest of sideways nods, outside where the brand-new Avenger is parked.  It’s a brassy gold colour that none of us like.  We long for our old red Cortina estate; my wee brother Joseph who sits up in front on the handbrake complains the Avenger’s is thinner, sticks into his bum, despite the red cushion my mother has made.  She calls it his saddle and teaches him ‘Home on the Range’. 

 

My father’s been filling an order, head down, but he straightens up now and turns round. Through the mesh on the window, he makes out two men with their hoods up. They’re both wearing balaclavas, and sunglasses too.  A still of my father before he steps outside.   He’s played here by Elvis Costello. 

 

It’s raining, it’s snowing, it’s the hottest day of the hottest summer on record for fifteen years.  My father frisks his pockets.  Unable to find his sunglasses, he steps out into the glare.  He squints towards the Avenger, his right hand shielding his eyes.  A thick Derry accent, the taller man shouts:

“Mr, is this your car?” 

“It is, aye.” 

“We need it.” 

My father is cool as a choc-ice or frozen fish. 

“Not as much as I do lads,” the sales course on empathy coming in handy, “I’ve a job to do, I’ve a wife and six children expecting me   home, could youse not find somebody else’s car to lift.” 

 

The other young man looks twitchy, he’s standing a yard from my Da.  When my father smells sweet sticky sickening fear, he assumes that the reek is his own.  But then it moves closer, a slow sideways step like a crab.  Your man’s side to side with him now, and slightly behind.  His right hand deep in his anorak pocket, he presses against my Dad.   

 

“I’ve things in the car, can youse help me?  (This is the second time Daddy’s said yousewe’re killed if we say that at home.) The frightened man pushes him harder, he jabs at Dad’s ribs. The other one sighs but comes over to Dad, and together they start to unload, while the one with his hand in his pocket stands stiff as a palace guard.  My Da sees him trying to light a match with one hand, and he stifles a smile as he spills them all over the ground.  The heads of his Swan Vestas matches a red dot-to-dot. 

 

The boxes they shift contain posters, stickers for freezers, incentives for soon-to-be stockists, rewards for the loyal, additional order books.  It takes them two trips to completely shift the pruck. My father remembers his manners, says thanks to the man, rips open a box, and hands him a couple of packets of felt-tip pens, T-shirts with Captain Birds Eye on the front, a couple of Come Home to Birds Eye Country mugs.  Handing over the keys to his company car, he remembers the black leather grip with his wet swimming gear.  The grip was his Dad’s; he retrieves it before they drive off.  I picture him frozen there clutching his bag, watching his car disappear through the heat haze, the blizzard, a boy who has missed the last bus.

 

Mrs McCann has wet tea but my father now craves something stronger.  He asks can he use her phone and goes out to the hall where he calls an acquaintance, Pat Boyle, a doctor in Derry who went to the College of Surgeons with Uncle John.  He reminds my father to phone the policethe insurance people will need a detailed report.  My father thanks Mrs Mc Cann who refuses point blank to take cash for the call.  The shop suddenly fills and she tells him to put his stuff out the back, and to leave through the hall when he’s done.  As he does so he passes the telephone table, and he slides a shiny new ten pence piece just under the telephone book.

 

My father meets Pat in the pub he suggests, not far from Mrs Mc’s shop.  He’s the one pint of Guinness, a brandy for shock, or that’s what he says to my Mum.  “Look into the car-park for us, will you, Jimmy.”  There are four or five beat-looking cars, a sore thumb among them the sheen of the brassy Avenger, its come-and-get-me English registration.  Wee Joseph’s red cushion’s been tossed on the parcel shelf.  Pat Boyle’s stony-faced as my Dad scans the bar.  “Now, Jimmy, just finish your drinks.  You’ll come back to the house and we’ll get you a taxi to Omagh.”

 

When my father arrives two hours late for his dinner, he slurs.  Our mother’s been pacing the room.  “Your tea’s in the oven, it’s ruined, sit down, for God’s sake, and have something to eat.” 

 

She goes out to the scullery, banging the door but he follows, she shouts then they whisper, she sends us up early to bed with our homework half-done.  Myself and my sister tiptoe back down and we listen a while at the door.  They’re still talking low and we hear ‘balaclava’ and ‘young’, and when Sheila hears ‘gun’ she coughs and my mother comes out.  She chases us back to our beds where we whisper and dream.

 

My father wore a hat when I was little

we lived in Omagh O-M-A-G-Haitch or Aitch

as tribally decreed.  He was a travelling salesman

for ice-cream; a Dublin firm Hughes Brothers or HB

he was their Northern Ireland diplomat.

 

He knew his clients wella studied discipline,

some would not buy HB ice-cream on principle.

My father’d done his homework;

to some he’d sell Haitch

B, to others Aitch B.

 

            One day in Derry/Londonderry my father’s car was hijacked.

The men wore hats pulled down with holes for eyes and mouth,

They held a gun, they nudged his hat,

They asked my father where we lived

            And ordered him to spell it.

 

I’d honestly thought that this version was true.  When I find out it didn’t quite happen like that I am gutted; I feel that I’ve let people down.  I can only suppose that I pieced it together from whispers, and dreamt up the rest in the silence which fell on that day. 

 

But silence is not a deep-freeze.  A silence breeds stories, like hyacinths under the stairs.  Secrecy’s soil for their roots, but for flowering they need warmth and light.  My father’s surprised when the poem is published and tells me what actually happened.  Or I should say his version, refracted through memory’s prism, and time, and the love of a story, well-told.  He can neither refute nor corroborate anything now.

 

But that isn’t ever the end; there is always at least the one postscript, perhaps if we’re lucky a joke.  The next day my father remembers his shades.  He needs them for driving, Dr Scott made them up to my father’s prescription, they cost him an arm and a leg, and they’re bugger-all use, he says, to anyone else.  He reckons they’re in the glove compartment of the stolen car.  He phones up Pat Boyle.  Postmarked Londonderry, by Friday the glasses return to my father by way of Her Majesty’s mail.

           

The Chrysler Avenger is found, burnt out on a housing estate.  A shiny new pillar-box red Ford Cortina’s delivered the following week.    

 

 

©2013 Paula Cunningham

 

 

Author Links

 

Audio of poems by Paula Cunningham at PoetCasting

Poems by Cunningham in Penduline

Article in Guardian about Cunningham's win in the Hippocrate's Poetry Prize

Paula Cunningham at SmithDoorstop

 

 

 

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