Speaking Without Words by Stephen Fitzpatrick
Ten stories have been selected for the shortlist in our short story competition, Legends of the Fall. We will publish two per day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Speaking Without Words:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: “Highly original concept – the emptying of a repossessed house, the story of the family who used to inhabit it told by the objects which remain. Repetition used very cleverly; ‘the light clicked off and the door closed’ is repeated like a deathly drumbeat five or six times in the short piece. Macabre. A cross between a story and a poem, expressing with subtle, understated passion the tragedy of contemporary eviction. To allow the ‘property’ to speak is absolutely appropriate.”
Donal Ryan: “This story is beautifully constructed and has a menacing, macabre quality. Darkly atmospheric, wonderfully economical.”
Speaking Without Words by Stephen Fitzpatrick
They rapped, rapped, rapped on the door then froze and listened for unexpected sounds or squeaks, roared defiance, or worse, shadows crouching, dull-eyed anger damning consequence. They squirmed slightly, anxious to get inside, away from the street, away from prying, judgmental eyes. The house squatted silent and empty, so the keys, still shiny and new-cut, appeared and they settled into the daily routine, their thoughts drifting to home and tea and women lovely.
They pushed on the official notice, laminated and sealed on all sides; the well-kept door swung open, no need for sweat or axe, and they stepped over the small mound of envelopes clogging the hall, the product of leaflet-droppers too lazy to read the home-printed sign soggily plastered beside the polished door-bell. The door shut and they began to scavenge.
Most of the rooms lay bare, empty, stripped of what they contained leaving pockets of deeper colour where a television, a couch, a pram used for storage, had sheltered the paper and paint from ravaging light. They’d seen many a house cannibalised by its former owners, lightbulbs wrenched from sockets, wiring torn out of the walls for scrap, water stopped and plumbing removed, traded for untraceable cash or just grim satisfaction at a paltry and partial vengeance. This was different.
The walls were unblemished, the floor immaculate, every light potentially incandescent. Where items had been left, for lack of value, or merit, or function, they lay in neat piles, order reigning. In one corner of one room, designated the living room by the rectangular shadow of a television burnt on one wall, opposite a longer rectangle where a couch had laid, four shallow dents in the floor denoting where the legs had exerted countless hours of their owners’ pressure, there sat three black towers of VHS tapes. They had obviously lain, festering and outdated, unwatched but well-remembered, in the owners’ cupboards for years, only to be woken at the end and placed in millimetre precise towers in the Sun, only touching at the corners, the empty triangle in the centre dark as night.
Beside that tower of dead tech, there squatted a square tape-player, flanked at each corner by a small tower of cassettes; on top of the player, faded, torn, but uncreased, sat the thin instruction manual, a simple many-folded sheet of paper, two decades old at the least. Down from the cassette graveyard, towards the wall, there was an original Gameboy, surrounded by five game cartridges, one at each corner and the final one resting at its head, a washed-out red Pokémon still visible.
In the centre of the floor, opposite the door and given a wide berth in an already almost empty room, there lay a worn DVD of the Morbegs.
There was silence, heavier than normal, broken by one of the men: “People go weird don’t they?”
“I mean, in the end…when it’s all done, they do weird things”
There was further silence and then a sigh from the other, followed by a grunt and back-handed chin-scratch: “let’s get on with it”.
The cassettes went into black bags without comment, to be unceremoniously dumped as obsolete; the Gameboy and cartridges into a backpack, for a nephew, a blind-eye turned to a victimless crime. The towers of tapes were demolished, speedily hurled into bags, another job waited elsewhere that day if they were done before lunch; the towers fell, faster and faster, until a sudden freeze in work; there, standing at the bottom of the empty triangle, still surrounded by a few shallow layers of tapes, was an little toy Indian, brightly-painted and barely an inch high.
The back of his neck had been melted, allowing the head to be bent back so the eyes stared straight upwards; it had been stood in the dark well at the centre of the tapes for months, yearning upwards at the triangle of light with its half-melted face framed by a twisted headdress.
“Ah, now” whispered one, “Ah now, that’s a bit much”
“One of ‘em probably had OCD, couldn’t leave a mess” said the other, pointedly ignoring the contempt on the others face. “Just keep going, the lads’ll get a laugh from it later - remember that lad who left a note saying he’d hid fifties in some of those black-sacks? Some people just want to make us dance.”
They demolished the towers into the bags and buried the maimed soldier in the rubble, emptying the living room utterly. The light was clicked off and the door closed.
The toilet provided no surprises, already emptied of everything but a single half-finished roll of paper and a can of air-freshener, the can standing in the dead centre of the cistern lid. The room was sacked in two deft movements, both items in bags in seconds, so swiftly that no one ever saw the faint impression of a smiling face, merely three circles and a curved line, stamped onto the roll. The light was clicked off and the door closed.
The door to the kitchen opened and they stood suspended, suddenly unwilling to cross the threshold. There, in the middle of the blue and red interlocking tiles of the floor, in an otherwise immaculate room, a glass of foul, curdled milk and a plate of mouldy cookies sat like Newgrange, eternally waiting. Before them, stuck to the ground on one end and bent so as to be readable from the door, was a small piece of yellow paper, on which, in heavy black pen, someone had printed in thick letters “WELCOME”.
Reminding themselves that the occupants had been gone months, that people were weird, that the food had probably been grand when they left, that the lack of dust was only due to the lack of humans shedding skin, that they were in the right, that people make their own choices, that there had to be consequences, that there was help out there, that there was enough light that if the electricity went they’d still see, that this was just another property owned by a sullen man that…desperate comforts flooded and swam and swarmed as they got to work.
Tempers gone, they tore through the kitchen. The plates on the bench, two large, two smaller and one tiny, each neatly flanked with size-appropriate cutlery and guarded by a drinking glass were identified as cheap and hurled in bags. The presses were banged open and triangles of half-empty condiments broken, the squares of round jars flanked by triangular soup packets ripped apart in the still-powered fridge; across the kitchen patterns and shapes were destroyed without mercy, hours of driven work destroyed in frantic minutes; dust and pieces of shattered plates soon marred every bench-top while untidy and leaking bags piled up at the door, soiling the spotless tiles. Then the work was done, and they left the kitchen empty, dirty and used. The light was clicked off and the door closed.
The next room, empty already except for the thin, rickety desk in its centre, too valuable to casually trash and so, the first item that had, with groans and curses, to be heaved into the van. Upon the desk were six books, the first five lying face up in an interlocking circle around the final hardback book, propped open to keep it propped up in the centre, its author and title readable from the door: ‘Simak’ and ‘City’. The books were trashed without compunction. The downstairs done; the light was clicked off and the door closed.
The upstairs rooms went faster, the beds and mattresses and linen taken, too costly to be left for any casual purpose. The odd photo graced the oddest corners, an open closet floor or impaled on a hanger, always of locations, never any faces, any humans. The hotpress contained only a single pair of white socks, ironed flat, and lying on the wooden slats of the centre shelf in silent rebuke. Quicker than could be imagined, with breakneck speed and no small amount of anger, all but one room was done.
A rectangle of brighter paint on the upper part of the door showed where a name plate had hung, marking it a child’s domain. The door swung open into a soft blue room. Dolls and teddy bears and toys of all shapes and sizes and colours faced the door. They sat in accusing rows and denouncing circles, some holding little Irish flags, some propped up with matchboxes, puppet strings fastened to a high shelf, all bolt upright and recriminating, their heads swivelled ever so slightly upwards, glaring at the entrance. A vast and cold and lifeless jury, they stared sightlessly at the two stricken men with their limp sacks and stained clothes, and endlessly condemned.
A half hour later, the light was clicked off and the door closed.
The young family that moved into the fresh-painted house gave no thought to its provenance and knew nothing of its history. They knew nothing of strange patterns and odd shapes, of deformed Indians and resentful tribunals, of anger tempered by pride. They knew only of a new life and a new home and new dreams living within their means.
Stephen Fitzpatrick has engaged in creative writing as a hobby for many years . In UCD, while studying Politics and Economics, he served as a committee member of the English Literary Society. He is a practising barrister. This is the first time he has submitted his fiction to any publication.