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MARK CZANIK

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Czanik was born and raised in Herefordshire near the Wales England borderlands, and currently lives in Bath.  He was educated at Bretton Hall College, Bath Spa University, and the University of Glamorgan, where he gained his MA in Creative Writing. He works as a writer, gardener, and on a reception at a tennis club. His stories and poems have appeared widely in journals, including Wasafiri, Cyphers, Route, The Moth, Planet and Riptide. He recently completed a novel set in Australia during the Bicentennial. He enjoys swimming, daydreaming on buses and trains, gardening, telly, cooking while drinking wine, listening to his Teach Yourself Hungarian tapes, going for long walks, and almost anything else that gets him away from his desk. Most of all though, he enjoys being at his desk.  

 

 

 

The Swimming Pool

 

 

I had him in a half-nelson inside the penalty area. The crowd was pressing in on us. Jack and Dylan, Windy, Fester – they were all out there, chanting, baying for blood. The ball was forgotten.

 

     ‘Scrap-Scrap-Scrap-Scrap...’

 

     It was hard bringing him down, like wrestling a calf to the ground, but I managed to hook a foot behind his leg and tip him onto his back. I sat on his chest, holding his hands down. ‘Submit?’ I said. When he didn’t answer I pressed his wrists harder into the grass and said it again. No response. I pressed harder; I didn’t know what else to do. What I’d seen some boys do in this position was torture their victims, sprinkle cut grass over their eyes or let a string of spittle slowly lengthen like a stalactite until it reached the trapped boy’s face. The crowd became restless for something to happen.

 

     ‘Let him up.’

 

     ‘That’s not fighting.’ 

 

     ‘Maybe he’s scared.’

 

     I was listening for my best friend Jack’s voice, afraid he would join in. Mostly, though, it was Dylan I could hear. ‘Submit?’ I said again, feeling his pulse ticking under my palms. He lay there staring up at me, his freckled face growing redder by the second. A bubble of snot kept appearing from one of his nostrils and then retracting without popping, like some kind of shy sea creature.

 

     The game started up again without us. I began to feel stupid, especially when the play came ploughing towards us and the ball got tangled up in our legs. I wanted to get back to the match. I could be humiliating Dylan now, running rings round him. The football pitch was the one place I had any power over him. We had a ref today, too, little Corryn’s big brother Paul, who was actually training to be one. It had been exhilarating the way he ran up and down with us in his shiny black kit, screaming on his whistle every time there was a foul or an off-side, yet the moment Steggles and me had gone down he’d started chanting just like everyone else.

     A cloud shadow passed over us and slid away across the field. My house wasn’t very far away. I could see it on the other side of the tennis courts, next to Steggles’s. All this time living next door to him and we’d never once had an argument before. The fact he was an epileptic didn’t make it any easier.

 

     ‘Had enough now?’ I said.

 

     No answer. It was making me nervous, his not speaking. Why didn’t he say something instead of just lying there, staring up at me like that? But he wasn’t just lying there. He was trying to fight back, his left hand pushing against mine. Steggles was left-handed. I know it shouldn’t matter which hand you use – part of me even envied him – yet it still made my skin crawl. ‘I never shake hands with a left-handed draw,’ Johnny Logan says in Johnny Guitar. It was surprisingly powerful, too. I had to use my whole bodyweight just to hold it down.

     There was a cheer as someone scored at the other end, but I didn’t dare look round. ‘Look, Norm, submit and I’ll let you go, okay. This is ridiculous. I don’t even know what we’re fighting about.’

 

     Those tiny dead black pupils went on boring horribly into mine.

 

     ‘Come on, we’re obstructing play. This isn’t fair on the others.’ But then somehow he had managed to get one of his hands free. I watched his fist coming towards my face. There was nothing I could do to avoid it, not without letting go of his other hand first. It exploded onto my jaw, and the next thing I knew he’d bucked his hips, twisted out from under me, and we were on our feet again, breathing hard.

 

     Instantly, the circle reformed. Steggles’s face was puffy and crimson, his hair a sweaty mass of porcupine spikes.

 

     ‘Go on, hit him, Norm’.’

 

     ‘Smash his glasses, Norm’.’

 

     Norm’? Why were they calling him Norm’ all of a sudden? He was Steggles, not Norm’, remember? Eppo. The kid who lay jerking his limbs about as if he was conducting an imaginary orchestra and threw stones at swans and laughed when his dog nearly drowned. I stood there, fists clenched. Wrestling him to the ground wasn’t an option anymore. I had to fight.

 

     ‘Norman, Norman, Norman …’

 

     I caught a glimpse of Jack. He wasn’t chanting but the glint in his eyes gave him away. Somebody said the word ‘half caste.’ Somebody else said ‘dunce.’ I was jack-knifed forwards. I screamed at them to stop, only to be shoved in the back again. Steggles took another swing at me, and I saw sparks and felt a wing of my glasses crack. The lens brushed my eyelash like a butterfly kiss. I blinked back the tears, unsure what to do next. One thing was for sure: if I let him, he was going to hit me again.

 

     So I ran. I blasted through the crowd and ran without looking back: across the field, leaping through the gap in the hedge, sprinting up Outlook Walk, vaulting the blue gate to my door, taking the stairs three at a time. I ran as if I were the head of the race, the one everyone was watching, everyone was rooting for. The crowd’s cries following my every sorry, gut-wrenching, sickening step. 

 

*

 

I hardly saw Jack at all that summer. A couple of times playing football in the fields with the others. Even though we weren’t friends anymore, I still couldn’t help admiring the way he turned his man so well. One morning I forgot myself and seeing him from my window tying his shoelaces on his porch on his way out for a kick around, I was actually half way down the path before I realised I couldn’t anymore. It’s funny, up at Marshlands we used to play superheroes. Jack used to be the Hulk and I used to be Spider-Man. Other than our pretend battles, which were usually how our games began before some greater foe made us join forces or we had to hold a skyscraper up to stop it crushing everyone in the playground, we hardly ever argued. The only thing we disagreed about were the endings. Jack always wanted us to die when the whistle went, whereas I insisted we should walk away together slowly into the mist, wounded and bloody, our tattered costumes showing off our muscles in order that we could live to fight another day.

 

     It was going to be a long and lonely summer.

 

     Then in the third week of the holidays someone came to call for me. I looked out of mum and dad’s bedroom window into the garden and there was little Corryn ringing the bell with a patch over his eye. Corryn lived in Pigsney Close. He was about ten. I didn’t know him that well but I’d always liked him, even if he annoyed me sometimes by not taking football seriously and thought nothing of slipping off half way through a game for a grass fight or to play rolling down hills. He was always bursting into dying fly hysterics. Admittedly he was a bit young for me, but he wore glasses the same as mine, and I knew what it was like having to go around wearing one of those patches.

 

     I unlocked the front door, then the porch door, pulled back the security chain.

 

     ‘Oh, hi, Corryn, alright?’ I said, trying not to sound too pleased to see him.

 

     He looked up at me, his one visible eye narrowing to a venomous slit. ‘I reckon I could ‘ave you,’ he said.

 

     I shut the door in his face.

 

     Little Corryn kept ringing the bell over the next few weeks, asking for a fight. He was very polite about it after that first time, but I kept turning him down. After his fifth or sixth visit, though, I did agree to play football with him a couple of times up at Marshlands – on the condition that he didn’t turn it into an excuse to start a scrap. Predictably our games were full of interruptions. We’d never have played for long before he’d take it upon himself to accidentally-on-purpose kick the ball onto the school roof or send it soaring over the fence and rolling down Outlook Walk, so I had to bolt after it before it gathered speed. He loved it when the ball went where it wasn’t supposed to go and he laughed so much it was impossible to be angry with him.

 

     Still, he didn’t give up challenging me. Eventually, I agreed to fight him on the condition that it would just be pretend. So we went right to the top of the fields near the old stables, miles from anywhere stopping for a few minutes on the way to admire a couple of bad tempered jays tearing up the conker tree – and took our jumpers off and hung our glasses on a branch and shook hands and went over the rules again, and then I swung him around by his fists and dangled him upside down by his ankles and threw him over my shoulders and lifted him above my head like an uprooted tree, and sent him crashing into the bushes, all the while making sure to keep it a game.

 

    Corryn admitted I was a better fight than him on the way back. I told him not to worry. In a real scrap with a proper crowd cheering him on, he would easily have beaten me – which sounded less farfetched than I wanted it to. But it must have bothered him because he stopped calling for me after that.

 

*

 

I was lying on the carpet watching telly. Dad was sitting in his chair behind me, his legs outstretched on the pouffe I was resting my head against, but I wasn’t talking to him. I wasn’t sure why exactly anymore, or even if he’d noticed he was being punished, but I wasn’t the kind of person to break a promise to myself. This particular silent war had lasted for almost a week now. Things were looking up tonight, though. In a few minutes The Magnificent Seven was on. Both of us had seen it before, but it was still one of our favourite films. We liked all Westerns, but especially spaghetti Westerns and ones like Apache and Chato’s Land that Dad praised for telling the story from the Indians’ perspective for a change, and not the bloody Yankees. Watching these films together in the front room, a kind of deep memory-less peace would settle between us as if we had never been enemies.

 

     It started. The unmistakable music. The ragged blood-red letters filling the screen. Cowboys on horseback. I nestled back into the cushion. For the next two hours everything would be fine.

 

     Then Dad was getting out of his chair. ‘Come on then, Charlie,’ he said. He only ever called me Charlie when I was in his good books and I hadn’t thought I was.

 

     ‘But the film’s just starting!’

 

     ‘Never mind a film,’ he said, reaching for the off switch.

 

     ‘Where are we going?’

 

     ‘Swimming.’

 

     ‘Swimming! But it’s The Magnificent Seven.

 

    'We already watched it right across before. Life is not a movie-go-round. Go get your trunks.’ He left the room and went upstairs, leaving me staring at the screen as the white dot faded to nothing. Had he gone mad? Every second he went on behaving like this we were missing valuable moments. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, and asked him which pool. 

 

     ‘A swimming-pool up a school,’ he called down.  

 

     ‘But it’s closed. I don’t even know if there’s any water in it.’

 

     ‘Well, let’s go and find out for ourself.’ 

 

     ‘But what about the diker?’

 

     ‘Never mind a diker.’ There was no use arguing. A few minutes later, disbelievingly, he was closing the front door on Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of them, and I was hurrying after him down the walk.

     For the past few years Evesham swimming pool had been open during the summer holidays to the families of kids who went to the school, and since my big sister Eva went there, and now me, we’d gone practically every day. We would take sandwiches and pop, and spend the whole day there. It wasn’t heated, but you soon got used to it and the deep end was a treasure trove of dropped pennies and marbles. There was a high wooden fence around the pool, and a row of sentry-like pine trees skirting three sides so it felt private. Recently, though, Paxo, the headmaster, had closed it down. He hadn’t given a reason; just got one of his lackeys to give an announcement in assembly, while he wafted about the dangerous corridors in his long black heavy robes like some balding, moustachioed, never-smiling angel of doom.

 

     We set off across the tide-lines of newly cut grass. It was strange walking with Dad; he never walked anywhere. I’d given up on my vow of silence. I kept saying it wouldn’t be open, only half hoping I was wrong.

 

     The gate was padlocked. I pressed my face to a gap in the slats. A bench splattered with bird crap. A lifebuoy hanging outside the toilets. I found a view of the lip of the pool, but it was impossible to tell whether or not there was water inside. Coils of barbed-wire ran along the top of the fence – Colditz tinsel, Jack called it. I tried to appear disappointed. But if we turned back now we could still catch the last hour; the real action probably hadn’t even started yet.

 

     But Dad didn’t want to go back. Instead he started walking round the fence, following the bank. I went after him. Did he have no idea the risk we were taking? What would happen if the diker caught us snooping around here with towels rolled up under our arms. On the other side we came to the back of the shed where one of the larger ferns grew. Dad surveyed the branches, the lowest of which overhung the shed and he could only just touch. There were big speckled blisters of fungus collected in the crook.

 

     That was it, then. Yet as if given a bunk-up by some unseen hand, he had grabbed hold of the branch, scuffled up the fence, hooked his leg over another branch and pulled himself up. He stepped over the barbed-wire onto the shed roof. I’d never seen him climb a tree before, let alone scale a fence. ‘Come on, then,’ he said, looking down.    

 

     ‘Is there water?’

 

     ‘Never mind a water, just concentrate what you doing, look.’

 

     There was nowhere to get a foothold and the soft bark was sticky with sap. Still, I couldn’t fail now. After several attempts, I managed to find a knot in the trunk, so I could push myself up to grab the branch. From there I was able to winch myself up until I was hugging the branch. Keeping clear of the fungus, I stood up by slow degrees, my feet tingling, and stepped onto the shed.

 

     There was water in the pool. Clear blue, sleeping water just waiting for us to wake it. A cloud of swirling pollen from the fern trees hung over everything. We shimmied down onto the grass and started to strip. We had our trunks on underneath so it was alright, although by the time I was ready I’d somehow started to have doubts. I tucked my glasses into one shoe, then the other.

 

     But Dad was already running towards the pool. There was the momentary thud-thud of his feet on the path, then a skipped heartbeat before the silence exploded.

 

     What else could I do but follow? Before he had a chance to surface, I ran at the water and dived. The cold water seemed to strip me of a layer of skin, and a warped graph of silver-blue tiles slipped beneath my open eyes. Panic gripped my throat when I came up. I was alone. Then I was being seized and pulled under. I kicked away, laughing through castanet teeth. He lunged after me and hoisted me up, little animal whimpers and sighs escaping him, before throwing me up so that every part of me left the water. The splash I made had me worried about the diker again. But Dad was more than a match for any diker. I lay on my back listening to my breath as a bat stroboscoped the early evening sky.

 

     The sun was almost down by the time we started home. I skipped round him, amazed by the long-shadowed people we’d become. How could I have doubted him? As we walked I began planning the next time. ‘What about next Sunday?’ Next Sunday would be fine, he said; so long as we kept it to ourselves, we could go every Sunday if I wanted. The pool was there to be enjoyed. Swimming every Sunday! A whole pool to ourselves! If there was a catch, I couldn’t think of one. That evening I told my little sister Tabatha. Unfortunately, she couldn’t come, I said. There was a tree and barbed-wire.

 

     ‘I don’t wanna go anyway,’ she said.

 

     The following Sunday I was afraid Dad would make the usual excuses. I needn’t have worried. When the time came we set off again, full of the promise of that secret, untouched water. This time, though, as we approached the pool we could hear voices coming from inside. Kids splashing. We skirted the fence cautiously and climbed onto the shed.

 

     People were in there, moving about in the granular half-light; other dads with their sons. Girls, too. They watched us as we clambered down the shed onto the grass as if we were the trespassers, not them. I recognised some of the faces. Jack wasn’t there, to my relief, but I still felt their eyes on us as we got undressed and slipped in at the shallow end. We didn’t stay long.

 

     The next Sunday there were more people at the pool. The Sunday after that, more still. Somebody brought a rope-ladder. Then on the fourth Sunday, the day before the new school year began, we climbed the fence only to find the pool had been drained.

 

©2017 Mark Czanik

 

 

Author Links

 

'Dolly' in The Learned Pig

'On Comics and Commerce' in 3:AM Magazine

 

 

 

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