Bogged Down by Ciara Duffin
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our short story competition, Legends of the Fall. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Bogged Down:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Bogged Down is a very well paced, pyschologically convincing, and moving story. The character of the father is particularly well-drawn. All the relationships - father-son, mother-son, boys in school - are well observed. It’s a tightly constructed, nicely focused, story which lingers in the memory long after it’s read. Powerful.
Donal Ryan: This moving story serves as a cipher for society: helpless witness being borne to injustice, blame being assigned almost randomly. I love the narrative voice, angsty and sweetly earnest, a perfect evocation of teenhood.
“Can I give you a lift, James?” said Mr Kelly, as I walked out the school gates onto the main road. “Nah thanks, I’m grand walking,” I said cheerfully. “Are you sure?” says he. “I’m going that way...save your legs?” I looked down at my worn Reeboks with the soles hanging off them and felt my cheeks redden. “I could do with the exercise,” I said then, and he seemed to understand. He meant well, Mr Kelly. I’d taken a lift off him before, when it was raining so bad you could hardly see the road. His car always smells of cheese or fast food, and the seats are so full of crumbs you have to shake yourself off getting out. He isn’t a very clean man, Mr Kelly, but he is a kind one.
It would take me a good 30 minutes to get home, but I was glad of the interlude. “Do you think I have the money for petrol for chauffeuring you places?” my father would say. “Gone are those days, boyo”. I know those days are long gone. I know we haven’t the money we used to. Nobody does. Even the rich farmers are suffering. I heard Tommy Whelan saying they’d no money to take on the foreign lads they usually do to help with the silage this year, and he was recruiting his mates to help out for free. Gobshites. You wouldn’t catch me working for that Whelan upstart even if you paid me, never mind doing it for nothing. Him and his Honda Civic with the luminous green spoiler, you can see him coming for miles if you don’t hear him first. He sped past me then, his car full of school mates, all jeering at me as they forced me into the ditch on a bend. I could feel wet muck seeping through into my socks as I climbed back up through the nettles and weeds.
I passed Mrs Mahon outside the newsagents on the way. She was watering the hanging baskets above the shop, standing on one unsteady leg, balanced on a chair. She said hello to me and waved, almost toppling herself. I nodded back at her, keeping my hands in my pockets. She looked guilty then, I thought. Felt sorry for me, I’d say, with my torn jeans and wrecked Reeboks. I miss that paper round something rotten these days. I was up and out of the house early then, just me and the bike and a big sack of newspapers. I always did the same route, start with the Kennys and end with the Ryans. It meant I could cycle past Siobhan Moran’s house on the way back. Sometimes I’d see her out playing with the dogs on her front drive before school. I’d give her a salute as I sped past on my bike and she’d smile, and look embarrassed. I think that’s a good sign. That I embarrass her.
I could hear my parents arguing from the bottom of the driveway when I got home. It wasn’t unusual. There was always a row over this bill or that, the cost of living is something ridiculous these days. We didn’t get oil for just half the winter last year and I thought I was going to die of the cold. This year we may have to go the whole winter without it. “That’s what jumpers are for,” my father would say, when my mother or sister were denied their request for the electric fire he kept in his wardrobe for emergencies. I hoped to sneak past them all unnoticed, and leave them to their quarrelling, but my awkward body language stood out. “Don’t bother taking your coat off,” my father said to me. “We’re going out”. My mother gave him a look I’ll never forget. She said nothing to me and started folding laundry in the corner of the kitchen. My father held the back door open for me, waiting. “Where are we going?” I asked, trying to sound casual. “The bog,” my father said, without meeting my eye.
In the car my father started whistling, so I turned on the radio and he grunted, but said nothing. He isn’t much of a conversationalist, my father. He would never ask you what kind of day you had or inquire if you had a girlfriend yet. His topics of interest are limited to hurling, card games and the weather. He watches the weather forecast every time it’s on the telly, as if he’s playing some pathetic game of spot the difference. He also watches it to check out Úna in her gúna, apparently to see what “kind of a holy show she’s making of herself today”, but I see the glint in his eye when he sees her. And so does Mam. She can be quite pass-remarkable herself about Úna, says her hair is too “severe looking”, whatever that means?
“I thought you finished harvesting our plot last week?” I said to my father then, as we swerved all over the bog road, avoiding the potholes. “That’s right,” says he, unflinching. “So what are we doing here then?” says I, confused. “You’ll see,” he grunts. We didn’t park in the usual place. My father camouflaged the car between two rows of trees and turned off the engine. Silence. An unbearable silence. “What is this you’re planning?” I said, unable to resist, “some kind of ambush?” I laughed. My father looked at me solemnly, then looked at his watch. I could see little beads of sweat appearing on his skin and his neck was turning slowly scarlet. I became anxious then and started looking around for clues as to who we might be waiting for. I didn’t want to be part of it. Whatever it was. Sensing I was about to get out of the car, my father grabbed my shoulder firmly. “Just do what you’re told for once, will ya?” he ordered. “Fine!” says I, resigned to my fate. “Put the radio back on then,” I said, disgruntled. He put on some local station, probably hoping to catch the weather forecast, but instead there was some fella bawling about how he’d just come home from his holiday in Spain to find his whole house had been burgled. I mean, his whole house. They had even dug up his floorboards to rip out the copper piping to flog. His home was like a building site, he said. Poor fecker. What kind of low life would do a thing like that, the man wanted to know? The presenter of the show said it was a “sign of desperate times”. The whole thing agitated my father even further and he switched it off, declaring there was too much talking shite on the radio these days. Back to that unbearable silence.