Short story winner: The Sweet Forbearance in the Streets
Hundreds of you entered our competition to write the final short story in our series about the consequences, public or private, of the end of the boom. This is the winner
Illustration: Seán Hillen
There’s a good chance if she’s nervous she’ll tell This Thursday about the place called Mount Buggery, for she tends to burst out with things like that, things like its being next to a peak called Speculation, and how she found them on a list back in the months when she ate all of Australia off the internet. This Thursday wrote of himself that he loved to travel when he had the wherewithal, and she was impressed by wherewithal, something she’d put in the bucket of notwithstanding and irrespective, words you needed to run up to with a pole over your shoulder. Like Sergei Bubka, the first and only man to vault over 20 feet. She loved him 20 years ago when he said even after clearing 20 feet he had done some things wrong, his run, his hands, even the jump itself, which she had thought of as a lovely pleat of body over bar. She loved Bubka for being so tough on himself.
She’d love to know if This Thursday has pals who egg him on, tell him he’s entitled to a good woman, to perfection even, that he shouldn’t settle until he gets what his voluptuous appetite wants. She knows her own tuttlers want the best for her too, with their approving talk of mid-length haircuts and dermal fillers, how she was finally doing herself more favours now she’d let go of Big Ber. They had despised him for keeping her a living widow, and they brought her to a sea-town hotel, dinner, drinks, a big bedroom with two double beds where they all crash-landed in baubles and finery at three in the morning, two days after the funeral eight years ago. Big Ber is dead, they said at dinner, and she said, Long live Big Ber, and they swore in the struggle with the rubber cork on a Grüner Veltliner, told her she needed more, and would she ever cop on to herself. They were never more appalling than when they called the waiter over to tell him he was a fine young Italian stallion. He said he was from Poland, and they said they’d hardly believe him, with his swarthy looks, but it didn’t matter, for a fine thing was a fine thing and things of that nature crossed all borders.
This Thursday is what she calls them, even though they have their own false names, because she’ll only meet them that day of the week. The kind of day you do things like bank and fish counter and phone bill, but a day that nonetheless softly taps the accelerator to the weekend. There have only been three This Thursdays, over the throw of four months, and the girls are calling for less discrimination and more trawling the plentiful fish. They’re saying even Jesus couldn’t have made the abundance. All the haystacks, the lawkies, the chancers, the semi-solids. They’re calling it the gift of choice. They say she can throw back the pike and tench. They’re loving that she’s doing it and not they. And they tell her Small Ber would be chuffed, entrepreneur that he is, mover and shaker, go-getter and all. Little grasper, she’s tempted to tell them, grasping little nit.
Early on it was both sad and lovely, both lonesome and heartening, Small Ber gone to Australia, not sure how long for, not knowing if there’d be work, all of the unknowns that made it a thrill for the two of them. She told him it would be no shame to come home. She took pride in the first night she slept without the landing light. She sent him money by wire transfer. She Googlemapped his address and was vexed by the wide blowsy tree obscuring the door, the four-wheeled motorbikes with small stout tractor wheels, the feeling that 50 people were living in there. Every blind in the place was down.
He worked in nearly the biggest shopping centre in the country, mobile-phone promotions, glib speak and the sell-sell she heard when he tried to wind down calls with her. They Googlechatted when it was convenient on his end, which meant sitting in a blanket for an hour, more, watching satellites and stars sail across the Velux window until he pinged. Sometimes she drank a second glass of merlot, knowing full well it’d entail a metal clapper in her forehead the next morning, but it was worth it for the dark bouquet, the stiffening of the tails of her nerves.
She told Small Ber about the strange place names she found, how that Australian novelist she liked was from a town called Bacchus Marsh, only she couldn’t remember his name, and that was the fault of the place name and not the books, which she loved and recommended and gave as presents. Small Ber looked at something outside the screen, said those names were hardly any weirder than Ogonnelloe. She had the feeling of someone else there, several, an audience, hands over their mouths not to burst out. His hair was longer, rat-quilled on top. Highlighted it looked, frost tips they called it, or maybe just the sun in the kitchen in Doncaster. Blatant good weather, like her Teint Touche Éclat, making all things better and brighter. She asked him if he’d thought any more about coming for Christmas. He said by the time he got from Melbourne to Kuala to Dubai to Glasgow to Dublin to Clare he’d only have time for a turkey-and-stuffing sandwich before turning around again.
She told her first This Thursday about it, how it didn’t gut her but made her proud, having a son that long of a haul away, a son doing well for himself, better than most, an assistant manager, with maybe promotion to regional manager down the line. A son taking in this amount, a son with that number of people working under him. This Thursday said she would be well looked after down the line, then, a son that capable, an economy like Australia, and the respect, he emphasised, the respect for basic decent working people. He said he’d have gone himself, only he didn’t have a chance among all the young bucks. He tried to sell her a heating system for her house she could zap on and off from her mobile phone, even if she was on the other side of the country. She pictured a plumb line going right across the country. Arklow. He lamented all the robberies lately, the copper piping stripped, water cylinders ripped out, the lack of respect for basic decent folk. He tried to sell her an alarm system she could zap on and off from her mobile phone. She finished her coffee and poppy-seed cake and told him she had to go home, to barricade the doors, she thought to say, to stay inside and wait for them to come, as come they would, if his world view had a say in the matter. She tongued poppy seeds from behind and between her teeth and left €1 under her cup for the cheery pregnant girl who served them.
The girls think Small Ber looks gorgeous with a bit of a tan. She thinks he looks like a bit of a pimp. The girls are wowed dead by the good looks of his girlfriend. She knows he’s not coming home any time soon. Australia does that to them all, whether they go there from Ogonnelloe or Galway or Dalkey. It stops them being able to come home. They’re always off on another trip, hours of driving, often days, just to reach some rock formation or waterfall others said they just had to see, not to leave Australia without experiencing it. She doesn’t understand all the talk about experiencing things, flinging somewhere far, doing something daft, taking a photo. Never shutting up about it, like her cousin who was in Sun City when Frank Sinatra sang there, who clanged on about apartheid and boycott and how it was wrong that Ol’ Blue Eyes sang there, but how he’d never have seen him otherwise, so it was worth it as an experience.
Her second This Thursday assures her he gets it. She can tell he wants to get it, all the soppy detail he doles out, the only daughter who went to Canada and brought her two children with her, how she emails photos of them every few months. They panic him, he tells her, with their height and good looks and white teeth and radiant optimism. He wonders if they think of him much at all. He’s dramatic and morose, This Thursday, looking out the restaurant window into the Ennis rain as if it held gentle answers, saying he’s probably just an envelope containing money for their birthdays. He’s forward, too, in spite of the melancholy, or maybe because of it, suggesting she’d be better off staying the night in town, saying the Auburn Lodge had a hot tub, reaching across the table as if to take her wrist but stopping at the sachets of sugar.
She’d tell the girls about This Thursday, and they’d be titillated, shrilling she should’ve gone for it, a roll, a frolic, a bed and a breakfast. What was there stopping her? Fifteen years ago they all watched the programme about Brit expats in Mall and Maj and Minorca, all shrank back at louty fiftysomethings at pools’ edges talking about fisting one another. They castigated the state of them, awful disgraces altogether, no shame, more money than sense. Now they were vetting for her, choosing from passport squares as glum as Soviets or a red-faced wedding snap with someone’s attempt at the Rachel visible on his tux shoulder.
Small Ber tells her he needs a top-up, says it’s so he can go to Alice Springs for a training-and-motivation course that’ll help him climb the ladder faster. She looks up Alice Springs and doesn’t think there can be much going on there, unless the course sends them into red rocks and blistering sand for endurance and breaking down. She tells him she’s not flush at the minute, that the felt has to be replaced on the garage, and the fridge isn’t defrosting properly. She tells him there’s talk of flexitime at the pharmacy, which everyone lip-reads as cutbacks. Truth to all of it, but she’s firm in herself that she needs her bit for refashioning, hair, jackets cut natty on the bias, travel.
Her latest This Thursday has run to three Thursdays, and she’s nearly ready to take him up on the Christmas trip to London, the West End, the musical about Frankie Valli, a Mayfair hotel. She tells Small Ber the camera isn’t working on her laptop, so can they just talk instead. She tells him she hasn’t the money to hand, but might she give him a portion of it instead, would that go towards, mightn’t it cover the travel to Alice’s Springs? Alice Springs, he growls, not Alice’s. Not like the restaurant, then, she says, and he starts the ramp-down to goodbye.
She’s fairly sure she won’t make the trip to London, but the courting towards it, the coo-talk of restaurants and museums, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate, sweetens her enough to let it run awhile. This Thursday telephones every night after the news. She’s sorry now she agreed to the phone calls. At the time it seemed the decent thing, the natural progression, and she does like his voice, the coffee-ad timbre, the throat click announcing a change of gear. London, some French restaurant where lunch costs £65, but it’s starred, and it comes with wine by the glass. He recaps on the headlines, and she lets on to mull them, humming and hawing agreement about tribunals and Merkel and cuts to the bone, even though she hasn’t tuned into the nine o’clock since the start of austerity.
Bed will surely come into the picture if she goes to London with him, and she’d be ready if it did, ready, she’d like to think, in a sweet and pliant way. Ready like a cigarette, prepped to be flared or broken in half. He asks if she read his email with the hotel photos, and she did, but she won’t mention his caps-locked note about THE BOWER ROOM, all tapestries and walnut, and the fact that he used the word irregardless, which even the best pole vaulter in the world would break his back on. He wrote that he would go to London irregardless of whether she did but that nothing would please him more than to enjoy the city with her. The straight arrow disarmed her and made her queasy. She’d never tell the girls.
It’s only that it’s easier to think about going than going itself would be. It’s kinder not to mention the senselessness of irregardless. If Small Ber were to stay in Doncaster, marry the leggy nurse, children, sprogs she thinks the Aussies call them, and decided they needed her near, she wouldn’t. One of the girls’ brothers cajoled their mother into decamping to the US. She was back in Aughinish after a month and a half in Palo Alto. She couldn’t, she testified, she just couldn’t weather the sweet forbearance in the streets, everyone wanting everyone else to go ahead, you first, they insisted, please, you first.
To read all the shortlisted stories click here