Hennessy New Irish Writing: May 2018’s winning story - Bird by Bird
By Trisha McKinney
Illustration by Gavin Connell
The Year began on a bright note with a flock of Waxwings displaying their magnificent plumage.
The same can’t be said of the brother. The light was being sucked out of the day when he was last seen heading in the direction of a good time. The cheek of him, wearing my good tweed jacket, permission not asked or granted.
A Golden Eagle was spotted, and reports reached us of a pair of Red Kites high above the mountain road.
Still no sign.
A grey morning but our little group was soon rewarded with a large flock of Barnacle Geese.
When I got home he was tucking into a greasy fry. He’s fond of his sausages, eggs and bacon, and our good mother is steady pleasing him. There’s no point insisting he should have to wait for dinner. I’ve a sneaking suspicion his exploits provide the sort of entertainment my birds will never match.
‘That’s some jacket,’ he said.
We both knew what that meant. There was quite frankly the unmistakable look of sex about his person. Of course, he has a history. A reputation.
‘I owe you,’ he says.
He does owe me and he will pay one of these days. I’m quite certain of that.
A combination of gale force winds and torrential rain forced us to stay home, though it didn’t stop himself.
I woke to the sound of music and mother’s laughter. It’s obvious now he’s met someone.
His New Year’s Eve girl, Jess, has been invited for dinner. Mother is insisting on the Sunday roast. After some discussion, Rory has agreed, provided we serve a starter. Dessert on Sunday is apple crumble and ice cream. There’s no way round that and I for one am not in favour of changing it any time soon.
The New Year continues to surprise and delight with the reported sighting of a male Hen Harrier near the lake.
I was forced to cut my outing short. A sacrifice I was none too happy about at first.
‘You can skip the birds for one day,’ mother said. ‘It won’t kill you.’
We compromised in the end; with the morning given over to me, the afternoon to Jess.
I was in the hall when the door bell rang. She is a slight thing, small head and quick eyes. The red hair is a new departure; we normally go for brunettes.
‘Hi,’ she said and then kissed me on the lips. It was only a few seconds but long enough for me to catch the smell of ginger and lime, and from her mouth, burnt coffee. She pulled away first and looked at me like I had two heads.
‘He hasn’t told you then?’
‘No. Are you Jack?’
‘I am indeed. Nice to meet you Jess.’
‘That’s debatable,’ I said, stepping aside to let her in.
Rory came rushing out of the kitchen. Through the hall mirror I watched her watching me as he kissed her. I couldn’t resist. I winked. And so we shared our first secret. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon until Rory ruined it by leaving shortly after six. They spent the night at her place.
A dark and cold outing with few rewards.
Jess and Rory got caught in a downpour and came in soaked to the skin. They could be heard changing upstairs while mother and I waited in the kitchen. Jess appeared in an old pair of Rory’s jeans and one of my shirts which must have found its way into his wardrobe.
We got into a discussion, an argument really. She enjoys a good fight as much as I do.
Saturday 7th February
She is such a joy to watch.
High in the sky Sparrowhawks performed their romantic overtures on this Saint Valentines’ day. A short distance further on, we watched one chase and kill a Chaffinch, and thought of Jess.
There are daffodils everywhere. I picked a bunch on my way back to the car and made a small detour on the way home.
‘You’re boyfriend’s here,’ the girl at the counter shouted.
She took a minute before she spoke, ‘he’s not my boyfriend.’
‘Getting better I see. I wanted to give you these, to apologise for last weekend.
‘There’s no need, but thank you; they’re gorgeous.’
She looked stunning in a bright scarf tied tightly around her throat. What a smile!
It will be a long road, but I’m quite sure I’ll have my turn.
We were entertained by the delicate serenade of the Goldcrest to its chosen one.
Today a kestrel manoeuvred over its intended prey.
Jess has become a regular visitor. We share an interest in music and she and I have exchanged books. She mustn’t have mentioned the daffodils. Rory is silent when I share my knowledge of the area with her and in particular, the woods.
‘There’s nothing to see,’ he says, giving me a look.
‘That’s because you don’t know what to look for.’
‘We could all go.’ Jess said.
And so it was decided, the three of us would make a day of it.
‘We’re not starting all that again,’ he said when he got me on my own.
‘That was years ago’.
‘Good. You can find your own girlfriends.’
At school, we took turns. It was fun: swapping and comparing notes, until Rory decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.
Her name was Opal. I didn’t know it was her first time.
Rory broke his hand in the fight. I escaped with only a bruise on my forehead. Opal wouldn’t go near him or me, and our arrangement came to an end.
Our first threesome!
‘You better not be up to something,’ Rory hissed, as soon as she was out of earshot.
’Relax. It’s not me you have to worry about.’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘Nothing I haven’t seen before.’
‘Stay away from her or I will fucking kill you this time.’
He kept her close all afternoon and they spent the night at her place.
Near the green, a flock of Barnacle geese.
I woke to the sound of Rory and Jess next door. It may have been, one room, one brother removed, but I was as good as inside her myself. What a night! I am even more determined to move things along. As luck would have it, she was on her way out as I was packing the car.
‘Leaving the scene of the crime?’ I joked.
‘I have to be at work by nine.’
‘Do you want a lift?’
‘Well, yeah that would be great.’
To think only hours before, she was on the other side of the wall. There were a few awkward moments, but that is only natural. I drove her straight to the door and thanked her.
‘I should be thanking you,’ she said, ‘for the lift.’
Perhaps I should’ve held back, but progress won’t come of its own accord.
‘I meant for last night.’
She seemed disoriented as if I had thrown her a punch. Her whole face and neck lit up. There was a moment when I thought she might challenge me, but no, she couldn’t get out of the car fast enough.
We had our first reports of a swallow. I feel spring’s return.
Rory was waiting for me when I got home. He’s very strong I’ll give him that. He had me up against the wall of the house.
‘It was a misunderstanding. ‘
‘No it wasn’t. Back off.’
‘I was just having a laugh.’
‘Leave her alone. I’m warning you.’
Two steps forward, one step back. I haven’t seen Jess now for a week. I may have unnerved her slightly and Rory is keeping her from me. It was a harmless remark considering how it was me had to listen to the bed post banging against the wall over and over again. How it can take him so long, I don’t know.
We were entertained by the Fulmars as they performed their hypnotic aerobatics and a Peregrine Falcon terrorising a pair of Ravens.
Dark skies and heavy rain set the tone, and for once I was pleased when today’s meeting was called off.
Jess joined us for dinner. Rory wasn’t too happy when I presented mother and Jess with Easter eggs. The four of us watched a movie afterwards. They had the two-seater. Mother and I got the sofa. Rory spent the night at her place.
He is not making it easy for me.
He may have found her, but she is not his. Besides, it is much more civilised to get to know a girl first.
I persuaded Jess to join me for lunch.
We had our annual meeting and a lovely meal in the adjacent hotel.
We spent the day on the cliffs. The wind would go right through you, but it was worth it for the bluebells. I filled the boot of the car and left them outside Jess’s flat.
Jess stayed the night, but all was quiet. We shared breakfast while the others slept. She was hesitant at first but she had two cups of coffee and half my toast and scrambled eggs. The early bird catches the worm after all.
‘Four months is about Rory’s limit.’ I said.
‘Maybe not this time.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘He’s besotted, that’s why.’ She laughed.
‘He’s not the only one, but I think you know that.’
‘I don’t know whether to feel flattered or scared.’
‘I would say both. Most girls can’t tell the difference.’
‘But you’re not the same.’
‘Then why did you kiss me?’
‘That was an honest mistake.’
‘And was it different?
‘It was ... Stop. I don’t want to have this conversation. It’s weird. You’re weird.’
‘You must be curious.’
‘I would be. I’d want to know.’
‘Well I don’t.’
She has quite a stare, so I let it go and told her about the Dawn Chorus instead. How it’s my New Year’s Eve.
How I’m counting the days.
A white-tailed eagle was seen soaring high in marvellous sunshine. As one species leaves another arrives. There’s never a dull moment if you know where to look.
I persuaded Rory to come out for an hour.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘The match is on the big screen. I’m buying.’
There was a good buzz. His team won. The night flew in.
I told him I found it difficult to meet girls these days. He was full of encouragement, gave me tips. He told me everything I needed to know.
‘She’s really something.’ he said.
‘Let’s drink to that.’
And he did most willingly. He has a taste for it, always did, ever since the first time. I could see the greed was in him. When he went to bed I switched phones. The password was easy. I read back over the text messages. Every word gentle and poetic.
He’s too nice that’s his problem. ‘Tame,’ is how the others described him.
‘R u awake?’
‘Need to c u.’
‘C u tomorrow.’
‘Can’t wait 4 tomorrow.’
‘What u wearing?’
‘Take them off.’
‘Go on. Have surprise. Bottoms first, then top.
‘Will have to pull them off myself.’
‘Open the door.’
From the moment she opened the door, I made it all about her.
‘What’s got into you?’
‘You,’ I said.
She was wet before we left the hall.
It really does pay to get to know a girl first. I’m steady telling that to Rory, but he never listens.
Once you start, there’s no going back. I saw recognition flash across her eyes, but it was dismissed in favour of the here and now. If she was uncertain, she didn’t act on it.
I heard bird song as soon as it was over. ‘A blackbird,’ I said.
‘The dawn chorus.’
‘What have I done? ‘
‘It’s just instinct. Nothing wrong with that.’
‘You ...’ she screamed and raised her hand to my face.
‘Relax. I won’t tell if you won’t,’ I said, grabbing her wrist before the slap.
She attacked as best she could and we did it again.
‘Say my name.’
‘Say it. Say Jack.’
She cried out. ‘Jack.’
She was full of remorse of course. It’s always the same. The disbelief.
‘Don’t cry because it’s over,’ I told her. ‘Smile because it happened.’
She might have pretended the first time, fair enough, but she couldn’t deny the second.
It was my turn to celebrate. One by one, the blackbird, the chaffinch, the jay began to sing. It takes more than one voice to make a chorus. Song thrush, wren, woodpecker. A musical extravaganza: sparrow, willow warbler, mistle thrush.
Trisha McKinney lives and works in Dublin. Her stories have appeared in Boyne Berries, Southword and Crannog magazine. In 2013 she was the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition winner, and was shortlisted for the Bord Gais short story of the year award.