Conga Lines Later: November’s New Irish Writing winning story
A new short story by Seán Kenny
Illustration: Raymond Farrelly
He gripped the steering wheel, watched the road zip past, grey fringed with green. He and Caroline had been to many wedding receptions together. And was this one so different, really? He felt sure it would play out just the same in the end. Caroline’s mother, Mary, was sitting in the back seat. Queenly in her hat and coat. The cloy of her perfume carried though to him in the front. He was glad of the little distance, glad of the wheel under his hands, a place to settle them.
He felt stifled in his suit and tie. His wedding self. Nonetheless, he had a role to play, and this was his costume. He focused on the windscreen wipers, their schwump-schwumping, their swipe and retreat.
A steady wash of words as he drove: the women talking. The wedding, the weather, their work. A change in pitch, in tone, a new reaching for lightness perhaps, caught his ear. Mary was speaking.
“Hard to believe it’s six years since your own big day, isn’t it?”
“Six years; we’d be eligible for parole in another year if it were a life sentence,” said Caroline.
He thought – not without admiration – of how clever his wife was. Her agile barrister’s mind, alert always to threats to the agreed position, and how they could be defended against.
Mary gently slapped her daughter’s shoulder. “Oh, she’s wicked, isn’t she?” Everyone laughed.
“That was such a lovely day, though,” said his mother-in-law. Mary’s husband still alive then. Plying his new son-in-law with whiskey. (Swallowed dutifully, wincingly.) Not quite a year till his death, though they couldn’t have known it.
“It was, yeah,” he said, hoping he had got the tone – fond remembrance cut with just a hint of wistfulness – right.
They drove on. Overhead a new lightness was silvering the clouds’ edges. The white noise of the tyres on the rain-slick road.
Earlier the church had been damp, frigid. Few, it seemed, had foreseen the chill, perhaps trusting to the season (it was the time of year known as summer). The women’s bare arms dappled with gooseflesh. From their pew he felt nothing but the coolness, and a slight boredom. Suddenly he missed believing in God, the comfort that might be gleaned from it. From determinism. The grand plan. Things happening for a reason. Things being for the best in the long run. His wife, she believed in God.
With everyone else, he clapped as the priest completed the formalities, but could not bring himself to whoop, as some did. He watched a tear make a thin track through Caroline’s make-up. She dabbed it neatly away. The moment passed.
Everything ends eventually.
The decision was recent; this was neither the time nor the place to make it public. On this, at least, they could agree.
Speed ramps as they entered a town. The first he took at a reckless clip, the car bucking, groaning in complaint. An involuntary Oh! from Mary, a Jesus, slow down! from his wife. The ramps were unpredictable, pocked variously, of differing heights, some worn more than others. The next he took at a tortuous crawl, the following too fast, the next again too slow. He felt at his back the press of the car behind him, its driver’s coiled and mute impatience through the windscreen.
On a roundabout, a sudden pale emergence of sunlight caught Caroline’s vintage emerald ring. It was a paste emerald. She had no story about it. She simply allowed others their assumptions. It was emerald, after all. In colour if not stone.
They would have to speak to the bride when they got to the hotel, of course. A possible bump in the road there. The bride often brought up the speech he had made at his own wedding on occasions such as this. A lightly humorous dismissal of her praise, he thought, would be the best approach. In any case he could largely predict the conversation. Always it was a rerun of the last time.
He would pay her the kind of compliment that left him feeling sticky with smarm. The kind of compliment required by the occasion. He would raise his glass. “To the breath-taking bride.”
“Breath-taking indeed?” Possibly the bride would nudge Caroline and gesture towards him. “You can keep this one.” She could say this, or something like it. He had to be alive to the possibility. He would be on his toes. They would laugh through it.
He could even hear the music, taste the food, in his mind. A Snow Patrol power ballad played by a string quartet. Canapes: filo pastry, king prawn.
The bride might turn to him, then. “These speeches today have a lot to live up to.”
“Oh?” he would say, stoic, prepared. His voice neutral.
“Oh, come on. That speech you made. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Well, maybe a few of the oldies, but that was probably medical.” (This joke she always made.)
And how would Caroline react? Probably she would nod along, ushering the conversation to its conclusion. Like a brief she didn’t believe in, it would pass.
He could begin to reply but the bride might well brandish his words at him like a court exhibit. “Caroline is the most brilliant star in my night sky.” She might fan her face theatrically. (She often did, at this point.) “Be still my beating heart.”
“Well, I must have got a bang on the head that day or something.”
“Oh, you’re very bold, and me paying you a compliment and everything.” The bride might slap his wrist but the small hurdle would be cleared.
That should do it. It would end. Brilliant stars and night skies. Jesus Christ, he thought. The heady charge of their first few years together.
Everything ends eventually.
Back on country roads following the concrete interlude of the town they passed several abandoned houses. Grass fingered their flaking, birdshit-spattered windowsills. Rooves had collapsed.
“Sad to see houses left like that,” said Mary. “You’d wonder what happened at all to leave them in such a state.” Caroline made a small sound, a kind of philosophical grunt.
“The music in the church was lovely, wasn’t it,” he said, to kill the press of silence that came. Everybody agreed that, yes, the music was lovely. His mind had locked on the champagne reception, docking at the temporary safe harbour of alcohol.
The bride was pregnant. This Caroline had vouchsafed to him one evening during a particularly pained lull in the dinner they were still sharing (they had forgotten to turn the kitchen radio on). Mary, he was sure, with her foxhound nose, would catch this. If she had not already. Mary would present it to Caroline as news: a woman who was not Caroline, who was pregnant. He knew too the conversation that would flow from this, like dirty stormwater runoff. He knew its variants through the years, knew its pauses and its sighs, its ending, unresolved. Glancing in the rear-view Mary’s eye was waiting there for his. He fixed on the road.
“Notice anything about the bride?” she might say.
He could visualise Caroline’s dumb show, the round shape of her open mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she only drank half that glass of bubbly. And she keeps rubbing her lower back as well.”
Caroline’s eyebrows, standing high for a moment on her forehead. “Do you think?”
“Oh, speaking of the bride, I see her parents over there. That’ll be lovely for Pat and Maureen.” A gap then, left to grow fat with meaning. “Their first grandchild.”
“Don’t what? I didn’t say a thing.”
“You didn’t have to.”
His wife, a woman with no child, would flush slightly whilst a good portion of her mother’s face disappeared in the direction of her glass.
“Right, well I’m going over to say hello to them,” Mary might say. And with a brisk clopping of heels she would be gone.
It would go something like that, because it always went something like that.
He could see it all, how it would play out. A sign’s arrow told him where to turn, informed him that they were close to the hotel now. The sign was homemade, neatly laminated against the rain. Exclamation marks. A smiley face. The road was narrower here, bumpy, a green mohawk of grass splitting its grey.
What else, when they got there? The dinner. Meat or fish. Potatoes. Red or white, sir? He would be seated beside some uncle by marriage or some colleague’s husband. The man would have opinions, many of them, about Brexit or the government, or Man United’s manager. He might allow the time slip from him by silently counting as high as he could in prime numbers. He would want to stop the other man’s talk through frank rudeness, but would lack the nerve. There would be bets on the length of the speeches. Either the winner of the pot would buy drinks for the table. Or they would not. The speeches would end.
Everything ends eventually.
He pulled into the hotel car park. The swishing crunch of the rain-dark gravel. There had been a further lifting of the morning’s grey and a weak sun now shone on the large puddles that littered the ground. They kept their wedding clothes clean, all three.
And later – less easily envisaged from behind his steering wheel – this:
Chairs adrift from tables littered with crumpled stained discarded napkins. Ties loosened, a few, yes, wrapped around foreheads. The newlyweds taking to the floor for the first dance (The song: Have I Told You Lately? by Van Morrison). Gradually, other couples beginning to drift towards them, starting to dance in turn.
Mary saying, “Go on up, you two.”
Caroline shaking her head. “Nah.”
The dancefloor becoming more heavily dotted with slowly swaying couples.
“Jesus, you sound older than me. Go on up and have a dance for God’s sake.”
“I don’t want to, Mum. Just leave it.”
A new silence then between the three of them. Mary beginning to chew a polished fingernail on her left hand. Scratching, with her right, at a food stain on the tablecloth.
The beginning zig-zag of a hairline crack in his day’s performance. Drink behind it, fatigue too. Him saying this: “Mary”. Extending his hand. “Would you do me the honour?” Mary turning towards him, her mouth slightly open. His wife at this moment rising from her chair, making for the dancefloor. His mother-in-law: “Go.” Breathing, rather than saying the word.
He and Caroline dancing. The song soon ending. Applause and cheers. The D.J. shouting with aggressive bonhomie, “All right! Let’s get this party started!” Whooping. Celebration by Kool and the Gang. The song progressing along its light funk beat, everybody sing-shouting, Celebrate good times, come on, and a steady snaking line of newcomers approaching the floor. The bride catching his eye. His grin, his thumbs-up sign. He and Caroline bobbing their heads along with the rhythm for a short time. The emerald that is not an emerald glinting on her finger under the disco lights. The song ending. The two of them, turning, re-taking their seats. His troubling visions of conga lines, later.
Seán Kenny is the winner of a Hennessy Literary Award and was named Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. His stories have appeared in Over the Edge and Hennessy anthologies, Banshee, Crannóg, The Irish Times, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman and Southword in addition to being broadcast on RTÉ Radio One. He is working towards a first collection of short stories.