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COLM McDERMOTT

 

 

 

Colm McDermott

Colm McDermott was born in 1988 and grew up in Clane, County Kildare. In 2010 he completed a degree in Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin and worked for a time in the pharmaceutical sector. In 2014, his short story 'Absence' was shortlisted for the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award and was subsequently published in Davy Byrnes Stories 2014 by The Stinging Fly Press. In September 2015 he will begin an MA in Creative Writing in UCD.

 

 

 

Hollow

 

 

 

They pull up outside the nursing home in Grace's Micra. Philip, her husband, is behind the wheel. Ever since the bingo incident, years back, when Grace drove three miles with her father-in-law's prize walking stick on the roof, she's refused to drive him anywhere. He makes her jittery, she says. It's as though every time she turns the wheel she's afraid it'll come off in her hands. For weeks she'd to listen to the old man bang on about how careless she was, how her head was hollower than a coconut. She wasn't putting up with that again. Now, whenever they're visiting him, Grace sits in the back with her daughter Eve. Today they're joined by a large wicker picnic-basket on which Eve is playing with her toy soldiers. It's the old man's wedding anniversary and they've agreed to spend the afternoon at the North Sea.

The nursing home is a low-slung, red-brick building, where soup is forever being made. Grace pictures it dished out in metal bowls, steaming. She knows it's the cheap stuff, the kind of soup that froth floats on, like pollution, and has to be scraped off. It stirs up memories of her childhood, of scrubbed knuckles, potato peel, water boiling. Philip leaves the engine running and goes inside. Like Grace, he's keen to make a quick escape.

Only once has Grace accompanied Philip into the home, that first time, when she helped him carrying in the old man's things. She's reluctant to do it again. The people there reminded her of mannequins, half of them rooted to the spot, by the radio, and the other half roaming aimless in the corridors. All of them grey. All of them searching for something. Love, most likely. Any love. Past or present. Real or imaginary. Not that they'll find it. Their blank faces stared right through her, through walls and through time, seeing nothing. Grace knew that any one of them would have happily jumped in the Micra and gone home with them. She remembers one woman, in her forties, who spent the morning papering the walls of her room with post-it-notes, sad-faces pencilled on every one.

The old man materialises in the nursing-home doorway, propped on his walking stick. His resemblance to Philip is striking, Grace thinks. The same steel glare. The same Neanderthal brow. What distinguishes them is their mouths. Philip's is narrow, and kind, the sort of mouth you see on a doll, whereas the old man's mouth twists to one side. Today he's adorned with pork-pie hat and shining black suit, neatly pressed for the occasion. There is a red rose pinned to his lapel. Once outside the home the old man takes a deep breath. He swells up, straightens, and strides down the ramp towards the car. Philip shuffles after him, trying to keep up, the old man's suitcase in one hand and his mother's pink dressing-gown in the other.

“What's in the case Dad?” he asks, shaking it. It rattles, but the old man doesn't answer. In his world, secrets are a form of currency and, like currency, each parting is mulled over, begrudged. 

“Morning Veronica,” he says, pulling open the car door. He's always insisted on calling Grace by her real name. She's convinced he does it deliberately, to irritate her.

“Morning Graham,” she says. “Fine day.”

Making a show of not putting his stick on the roof, the old man gets in.

“Wouldn't know,” he says. “I've been waiting.”

Grace glances at the clock: 9.43. They'd agreed to meet at nine. Part of her wants to apologise for the delay, to explain to him that Eve had lost her blanket and refused to go anywhere without it. Not unlike a certain old man and a certain dressing-gown, she thinks. Eve didn't take her notions from the wind. In the end, she says none of this. She waits for the moment to pass, its shadow moving out from the car. When it's gone Grace congratulates herself on her restraint.

It's seventy miles to Brancaster Staithe, most of it motorway. The old man spends the journey plucking the sleeves of his wife's dressing-gown and griping about Philip's driving, which he says is either too fast or too slow, depending on the road. The fact that his own license was taken from him, in 2008, for knocking down a cyclist outside Sleaford, is never mentioned. They pass signs for Syderstone and Sculthorpe. The old man mouths the words as though they're written in a foreign language, working each syllable like a morsel of food around his mouth. He doesn't know it but Grace sees his face reflected in the wing-mirror. She smiles at the sight of this wonder, his cold eyes bright and buzzing with the new. It reminds her of the silent conversations he and Martha used to have, in the hospital, when they wanted privacy. They'd known each other so long they were beyond words.

As they're driving down the A148 Philip thinks they've gone too far.

“Dad,” he says. “Can you see if there's a sat nav in that glove box?”

The old man opens the glove box and pulls out a small screen. Attached to it is a cable. He hands it to Philip and Philip plugs the cable into the cigarette lighter. The screen illuminates and the old man's eyes widen in its light.

“There were no sat navs in my day,” he says turning from it.

“That's because you never went anywhere!” Eve says. She covers her mouth, shocked at hearing the words aloud. She'd meant them as a whisper but somehow they'd slipped out, like an unexpected belch, the reverberations filling the car, silencing it. The old man squints at her in the rear-view mirror. He's angry at her, but also, in another way, hurt, that she'd say it, that it was true and she'd say it.

As they drive on Grace watches Eve, her face nestled into the crook of her seatbelt, and  wonders what type of person she'll become. Her hair is long and red and straight as wheatgrass. It reaches down to her flat little chest. Eve is not yet ten but already she is braver, and more stubborn, than Grace would ever be. She stares out the window attempting to spy the sea between the trees, her face truculent, defiant, as though with enough resolve she could make it appear. There's no sign of it yet, and Eve's impatience at its absence is clear to Grace, who longs to reach across and tap off some of her daughter's frustration.

A few miles later the Garmin finds a signal. They take the exit for Little Snoring and continue driving. At Great Snoring they turn for Barsham, crossing the River Stiffkey, where a crowd of cyclists are stopped, lunching. The old man leans over and bips the horn. “Get off the road!” he shouts, before leaning back, satisfied.

After that it's back roads to the B1355: acres of shorn wheatfields, hayricks, the stubbled earth blazing in the sun. Grace imagines what it would be like to stroll barefoot through them, feeling the thin, rigid spikes of trimmed wheat, like syringes, sinking into her skin. The sensation of being delicate, insubstantial: one wrong step enough to split you open. She dismisses the thought, goes back to watching Eve. So compact, she thinks. Her firm, sunwarm, irrefutable body like a boulder, or like clay in the shape of a girl, totally real, totally of this world.

They arrive at Burnham Market; a Sunday mart is in full tilt. An articulated lorry has parked next to the stalls, open, and inside it slabs of grey meat hang bleeding from hooks. That one looks like the old man's leg, Grace thinks. She's seen it enough times, the leg, at picnics and barbeques to which the old man insists on wearing knee-length trousers. “I'm not ashamed of it!” he'd shout, belligerent, cane in one hand, hacking aside their protests, whisky in another. Grace remembers seeing the purple, knotted mess of his calf for the first time – the veins clambering over each other like ropes of bloodied ivy – and thinking how awful it must be to have a burst leg. The thought comes to her again, vividly, only now she sees it floating on cold sea water, unbodied, the salt pickling its wounds.

They pass through Burnham Deepdale. Beside the road the land is flat yet there's no sign of water.

“You sure that sat nav knows where it's going?” the old man asks.

Grace can see Philip's patience unravelling. Like the sleeves of that old dressing-gown, she thinks. Frayed. Soon there'll be nothing left. Philip remains silent. He grinds his teeth, biting down on the words, chewing them, swallowing them, pressing on. A mile later they pull into the car park in Brancaster Staithe next to a sign that says on it the word BEACH under which someone has painted an arrow pointing to a row of dunes.

Grace feels Philip's relief.

 

“Guess the sat nav was right after all?” she says, unloading the old man's suitcase which, to her surprise, is almost weightless. But her words are lost, scattering like spindrift in the wind. The old man is standing next to the car, at the base of the dune, eyes shut, inhaling the zesty fragrance of a sea breeze. His hat blows off and, for a second, Grace sees a younger man, a stronger man. She recognises her father-in-law's good looks, his movie-star profile, and dark, lustrous hair, which Philip has inherited, returned now to him by some trick of light. Eve cries out. “Mam!” She's up on top of the dune, stretching out legs gone lazy from sitting, the wind strewing her hair horizontally backwards. “You better come look at this.”

 

Panels of sea-water shimmer along the shore, which is more than a mile wide: too wide to walk. To Eve the puddles are like giant footprints striding out to sea. “Or coming from it,” Grace suggests, determined to prove to Eve there is another way of seeing the world. In the distance, a narrow pencil-line of surf is discernible, a sort of green, rheumy haze where the spritz has yet to settle.

“You sure about this Dad?” Philip asks, when they are back down at the car. His hand is planted on the Micra's roof. 

“Of couse I'm sure,” the old man snaps, and revs the engine. “Unless any of you have a better idea.”

“Okay Dad,” Philip says, standing back. “Just take it easy.”

 The old man spends a long time adjusting his seatbelt, and the angle of the rear-view mirror, before finally lowering the handbrake. He releases the clutch, and the car lurches forward, then cuts out. This happens twice more before he finds the biting point. He jams down hard on the accelerator and the car rockets half-way up the dune, sashaying left and right, gouging deep loops in the slope. And there it halts, slithering. The tyres buck and bore into the land, coughing sand back in thick clouds. “Now!” the old man cries, and they dash to the car. They start pushing and, slowly, it rises. Pretty soon Grace can see above the crest of the dune, past the marram, to the water puddled on the foreshore. Like a mirror, she thinks. She's read that lightning can turn a beach to glass, that the heat causes the sand particles to melt together. She wonders if that's what happened here. She heaves the Micra the last few feet over the top, until it's caught by gravity, and starts to roll on its own, onto the white flat on the far side, the salt crust crackling under the tyres.

 

They park near the water, past the wave's reach. The ground is damp and they wait for the Micra to cool before spreading their picnic on its bonnet. Eve changes into her swimsuit, a blue-and-white one-piece, and runs squealing into the surf, her bare feet slapping the beach, leaving their imprints in it. Grace watches on, admiring her hardiness, her ability to brave the cold.

After a while Eve returns, breathless, her limbs purpled and goosefleshed. Grace drapes her blue blanket over her shoulders and pours tea from a flask. Eve is trembling. She presses the plastic cup to her chest so that its warmth passes into her. The old man tells them he's going for a walk. Not far, he says, though he doesn't want them following him. He picks up his suitcase and dressing-gown and hobbles off down the beach.

“Where's Grandad going?” Eve asks, curious, after he's gone.

“He just wants some privacy,” Grace says.

Satisfied that this is code for Grandad needs a wee, Eve discards her blanket, challenging Philip to a swimming race to a buoy and back. Philip accepts. When they're gone, Grace tidies away the picnic and loads it in the car. The sun is dropping now; a pink wash courses down the sky. Grace thinks of home, of the roads that will be busier going back, a weekend's worth of holiday-makers to contend with. She thinks of Eve's inevitable tantrum, borne from travel-weariness, which will need defusing, her own weariness, too, and the melancholy that accompanies the end of long trips. She hates going back to an empty house but then, she thinks, who doesn't? That feeling of life on hold, the long thawing-out of accumulated silences.

It's worse for the old man.

He must know how late it is, she thinks, looking at the sky. A murmuration of starlings flourishes low inland. There's nothing left of the day. She walks back, away from the shore, along the beach, imagining that it is a giant sheet of glass, a window into the earth, and she's a fly strolling along its surface. She's not looking for the old man exactly though not avoiding him either and, in the end, spots him standing behind a rock groyne, hidden from view, knee-deep in the waves. The dressing-gown is in his hands and his hair is blowing loose in the spray. Behind him, on the sand, his suitcase lies open. A line of jars stands next to it, filled with sea water. Souvenirs. Grace wants to open her mouth, to let him know she's there, watching him, but she's convinced he wouldn't hear. After a while she realises that his lips are moving, but there are no words coming out. She's about to leave him when the old man tosses the dressing-gown onto the waves, like he's casting out a fishing net, and it floats there, for a moment, on the air, mysteriously, as if there's someone in it.

 

On the way back it starts to get dark. The sky clears; stars blossom. Philip and Eve are on the back seat, sleeping, worn out by the swim, and Grace is driving. The old man is beside her but she doesn't mind it now. There's something peaceful about night driving, she thinks. The cat's eyes lighting up in sequence. Passing galaxies. Except for a few snores the car is silent, but it's an easy silence, comfortable, and Grace is happy to have it.

 

The nursing-home drive is long and crooked and the Micra's headlights strobe through the trees, glossing their trunks a ghostly silver. Like inmates, Grace thinks. Their pale nightgowns standing out in the dark. Slowly, they approach the doorway of the nursing home. Grace smells soup being made. The old man is tight now next to her like a rusted spring, ready to snap, and Grace can feel his stare burning into her. Like a sad-face on a post-it-note, she imagines it. He can't look away. Grace says nothing. He says nothing. And just as the car is about to stop she presses her foot on the accelerator, gently: the engine swells.

 

©2015 Colm McDermott

 

 

Author Links

 

Davy Byrnes Award: judge's comments on Colm McDermott's shortlisting

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The Irish Times review of Davy Byrnes Stories 2014

 

 

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