Design No. 108, a short story by Adrian Duncan

Taken from Midfield Dynamo, several variations of a far from blissful bungalow home

Adrian Duncan, award-winning author of Midfield Dynamo

Adrian Duncan, award-winning author of Midfield Dynamo

 

When we were very young my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our sitting room and peer out at the world. Our house, I should say, is pure Bungalow Bliss, straight from the book, design number 108, ‘The Hazels’. Except for one tiny difference: the builders got the front living-room window all wrong. It is massive.

One night when my parents went out drinking all over town, a storm blew in. The wind grew to a thunderous roar. My brother and I looked out through the wobbling single-glazed window and we held each other tight. With one particular gust, the pane of glass bulged and burst in upon us. A whole world of dust, leaf, branch and tree surged in and gathered us up in a confounding swirl, wherein I could see my brother being hurled towards a mirror. He hit it head first then he fell to the floor, as did I. I clambered over to him and shouted through the gale: ‘Are you serious, sir?’

He looked blankly back at me. A large shard of glass protruded from his cheek. I removed the glass, dragged him to the kitchen, closed all of the doors, pulled him onto the table, grabbed my father’s chloroform cloth, knocked my brother out and operated on him. I cleaned the blood from his face, stitched his cheek together, rubbed saltwater into the wounds and left him there to rest.

Days later, with the wind still bellowing around our sitting room, I roused my brother and we left through the back door of our house into a calm and sunny autumnal day. We ran to the museum where we usually found our parents after their binges, my father passed out on the steps and my mother sitting bolt upright. My mother gathered my brother and I up into her bosom and held us close.

Many years from now, I will sit at my lamp-lit study desk and notice a large red blot of ink in my ledger – a blot absent-mindedly made with an old bingo marker unearthed from a box, after I had moved house, at the end of a lifetime of many painful divorces – and I will think of my dear brother’s face.

*

When we were very young my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our sitting room and peer out at the world. Our house, I should say, is pure Bungalow Bliss, straight from the book, design number 108, ‘The Hazels’. Except for one tiny difference: the builders got the split-level floor joists all wrong.

My father, a builder and salt merchant, once came close to complete ruin. After many visits from a young bank manager whose manner was kind, my father was forced to sell his warehouses by the sea, his residential properties, all of his trucks, vans and lorries and most of his salt stock. What was left of the stock was deposited, one morning, outside of our house and covered over with a sheet of white plastic. My father spent four months in bed. The autumn day he chose to re-enter the world was so clear that I was sure he would cry when he saw it. But he simply sat at the kitchen table and drank a cup of steaming coffee, in a strange, deliberate manner. Eventually he called the family to the table and said: ‘That, out there, under that tarpaulin, is all I have left.’

Adrian Duncan reads Design No. 108

We turned and looked at the white quaking mound.

‘Underneath that sheet of plastic is three tonnes of salt brick,’ he said, ‘and,’ he said, ‘we must get it indoors before the winter comes.’

The three tonnes of salt were stacked on the upper part of our split-level home where the builders had built the joists incorrectly. And, some creaking weeks later, the whole ziggurat of salt and timber and nail and dust came clattering down, crushing my dear brother, my mother and me. As for my father? I have no way of telling what he did next or where he went.

*

When we were very young my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our sitting room and peer out at the world. Our house, I should say, is pure Bungalow Bliss, straight from the book, design number 108, ‘The Hazels’. Except for one tiny difference: the builders, unpaid for weeks, decided to construct it with substandard blocks.

When my father noticed cracks all over the house he invited an engineer to carry out a survey. The engineer found the walls had been built with cavity blocks cast with a large percentage of salt in them, and were ‘criminally substandard’. Armed with this report my father and his solicitor tracked down the builders, and threatened to sue them ‘into the ground’. They agreed to reconstruct the walls of the house inside the existing walls of salt block. I remember the hammering and churning and cursing and smoking around our abode, the strange men, their smells, their breath, their rough hands, the close quarters. The foreman on this job was handsome, and over the course of this rebuild my mother’s appearance and manner changed. You don’t need me to describe her lingering around the site, the flirting, the predictable exposure, the schism, the confusion, the unfinished walls of our house and my father’s flight to the sea, his moon-glimmered thrashing, flailing, roaring, gulping, etc.

*

When we were very young my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our sitting room and peer out at the world. He would lean forward, touch the window with his fingers and then count from one to one hundred – over and over again, as if by doing so he could make the window disappear. I would ask him to stop. He would ignore me; then we would fight like small beasts until one of us bled.

‘How is this sore for you?’ the victor would cry. ‘Tell me now: how is this sore for you?’

*

When we were very young my brother and I used to stand in front of the window of our sitting room and peer out at the world. Our house, I should say, is pure Bungalow Bliss, straight from the book, design number 108, ‘The Hazels’.

Each Saturday morning my brother, barefoot, would take to the roof, and I to the attic. He would lasso around the chimney pot a harness he had fashioned of rope and tyre tubing. Meanwhile, just below in the attic, I would sit and listen, and my mother beneath in the sitting room would kneel at the hearth and begin building the house fire. My brother would begin abseiling around the chimney, it by now issuing skyward spirals of smoke from the fire in the hearth of the sitting room below. Round and round my brother would go thud thud thudding upon the clay tiles. He, this great centrifugal god of the skies, while I, in the attic, listened. I watched the tiny haphazard dumps of dust falling down from the battens, felt and trusses each time his feet struck the roof – until these puffs of dust settled, all of them, in little piles upon the boards of the attic floor, among the toys and tat and rubbish. Then I would hear my brother sitting on the ridge tiles breathing heavily, and my mother would call up at me through the oblong of light in the floor of the attic, telling me I should come down for breakfast. I’d hear her go outside and call my brother down, but he would just tell her to ‘do one’.

One winter’s morning, the whole place crusted with frost, my brother’s harness gave way and he slipped from the roof. For a moment he was exorbitant, untethered from the sky and the earth, until he landed in the yard on his head. He slept for ten months. On the afternoon he woke, he leaned over to one side of his bed and threw up into a gleaming metal bucket endless – thunderous – strings of blood-yellow bile. Then he lay back, closed his eyes and smiled, and the autumn sun, shafting across the galaxies of boiling dust, through the hospital blinds and onto his red glistening lips, bounced and finally came to rest upon the backs of my gaping eyes.

My brother then sat up and announced to us all that he could no longer smell anything, and that whatever invisible filament of connection to the world we all enjoyed, he no longer had it, or wanted it, and, he said, that he felt sorry for us all still so bound to the very things we wished to flee.

Design 108 is taken from Midfield Dynamo by Adrian Duncan, published by Lilliput Press. Michael Cronin reviews it in The Irish Times on April 10th.

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