New Irish Writing: A Little Cloud by A Joseph Black
January’s winning story
Illustration: Kate Martin
It’s not really a day for the beach. The forecast says “dry spells between pulses of rain”. I must tell him that. He loves the new ways they come up with now to describe the same weather 300 days of the year. But it has to be today. Derek, a porter at the hospital, has been so helpful. I need to have Daddy back by two o’clock or Derek will be in big trouble. He’s bringing Daddy out, by a side door only used by hospital staff, to get him into the car.
Derek’s already there when I arrive. He disappears and reappears a few seconds later, pushing Daddy in a wheelchair. It’s the first time I’ve seen him out of his hospital bed in weeks and it’s a shock. He looks painfully thin, swaddled in the greatcoat and blanket I brought last night. Day by day, I’ve watched his bulk just melt away under the hospital blankets. I pull up and Derek lifts Daddy from the wheelchair into the passenger seat.
“Thank you so much for this Derek, I -“
“Thank me later, Bronagh. You need to get going. And I have to get back to work.”
He puts the collapsible wheelchair in the back of the car and slams the door. I buckle Daddy in and pat his hand. His paper-dry skin whispers to my touch.
“Right Daddy. We’re on our way. The forecast says ‘dry spells between pulses of rain’. That’s a new one, isn’t it? ‘Pulses of rain’. I think it means showers. I’m sure they’d just have said ‘showery’ before. Don’t you think?”
The sky’s darkened by the time we reach Glencloy. I’m worried one of those pulses of rain will arrive and spoil everything
Daddy doesn’t answer. I’m wittering, I know, but I mustn’t stop. If I do, the silence will rush in and I’ll start thinking about everything again. The idea for the trip to the beach only occurred to me yesterday. I’d been at the hospital with Daddy all morning. Derek was there too. He stayed after his shift finished. Later I went home to pick up some things and back in the house where I grew up, I noticed something for the first time. There are photographs on the walls, on the mantelpiece, on shelves. But Daddy isn’t in any of them. There’s photos of me on my own, of me with aunts, with uncles and cousins, even a few older ones of me and my Mother (which I put away once, and Daddy put back). But there isn’t a single photo of just me and Daddy.
I told Derek my idea last night when I went back to the hospital. I think I was hoping he’d talk me out of it. Instead, he looked at me for the longest time.
“Okay. But let me help you Bronagh,” he said finally.
I glance at my handbag, to check I’ve remembered the camera. Today a photo will be taken, a photo of just me and Daddy. It could be taken anywhere I suppose. At home, or even at the hospital. But I want it taken at Glencloy beach. That’s where we’d go on the sunniest summer Sundays when I was wee. There, Daddy would lavish me with attention, making up for the six days a week he worked at the brick factory. I can see him now, arriving home on a Saturday evening, his huge outline filling the door frame. There’s a puff of brick dust as he takes off his cap and a little cloud – our little cloud – as I run crashing into him and he sweeps me up into his arms. After eating he’d check the next day’s weather forecast in the paper. If it was fair, he’d go into the room off the kitchen, where he’d strip to his vest and have a big wash and shave – a sure sign we were going to the beach the next day. I’d buzz around his legs, all purposeless energy and excited noise, until he’d pretend to shave my cheek with the back of his razor.
Daddy’s quiet as we drive to Glencloy. I can’t help hoping he’ll spot something on the way to trigger a memory, to make him say, “Remember the time we sat on that wall, and the wind blew the ice cream clean off the top of your cone? God, you cried sore. I had to get you another one.” But instead the journey passes in silence.
The sky’s darkened by the time we reach Glencloy. I’m worried one of those pulses of rain will arrive and spoil everything. I get the wheelchair from the back seat and pop it open, pushing it round to the passenger door.
“Right Daddy, let’s be having you.”
I lift him from the car into the chair. He’s light as a prayer. It seems absurd that I’m lifting him. I remember the days at the beach when he’d pluck me off the sand and hoist me on to his shoulders. He’d run toward the sea, holding my hands as we charged into the water, my screams lost in the roar of the surf. Now, the water looks cold and grey-green, already wearing its winter coat. I pull his collar up around his chin and straighten him in the chair.
“Right so. That’s us.”
I push him along the wide promenade that runs by the strand and we reach the steps down to the beach. As light as he is, I don’t think I can lift him down them. So we continue to the slipway, where I can push the chair down on to the beach. A watery yellow sun emerges from behind a dark cloud.
“Ah, there we are Daddy. I knew the sun would come out for us. Just knew.”
We reach the slipway and I push the chair down. I have to hold tight. The thick seaweed underfoot is treacherous and I can’t bear the thought of slipping. I lean back as I inch down. I see a young family – father, mother, toddler – on the sand. The man starts half walking, half running toward me.
“Do you need any help?” he asks.
“No, I’m fine, honestly. Nearly there.”
“I’ll help,” the man says as he approaches, and takes the handles of the chair. He leans down towards Daddy. “I’ll get you down safe, sir,” he says.
“He’s not well,” I tell him, an edge to my voice. I’m ashamed of how it sounds. “I just want to take a picture,” I almost whisper.
“Do you want me to take the picture? Do you have a camera?”
“Well, yes, but I can take the picture.”
“I’ll take the picture,” he says, smiling. “Of both of you, okay?”
“Oh no, no. There’s no need for that. I’ll do it. I’ll just grab a quick snap, and then we have to go.”
“I’ll take it for you, sure,” he repeats, his smile unwavering.
“Okay, thanks. That would be great.”
I fish the camera from my bag, switch it on and hand him it.
“You just point it and click here.”
He raises the camera to his eye. I found a pair of Daddy’s old sunglasses in the house last night and I put them on him as we squint against the low sun. I swipe his hair with my hand, flattening it to his head against the breeze. I try to think of other days, happier times.
“Big smile now, Daddy,” I say and straighten up to face the camera.
“And . . . click!” the man says. “That’s it. Can you see it on here?”
He hands me the camera and I call up the picture on the little screen. It’s perfect. My smile is natural, unforced, and Daddy looks well too.
“It’s perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Your dad looks very cool in his sunglasses.”
I laugh and the man returns to his family. I look at the picture again. Actually, it’s quite beautiful. I stand behind Daddy, looking out to the sea, my hands tight on the handles of the chair.
“You know, Daddy,” I say. There’s something I’d always meant to tell him and I never did because I was worried how he’d react. That he might be hurt, or insulted. Angry, even.
“It was better after she left. I know how awful that sounds. I know she was my mother, and your wife, but she was just so unhappy. All the time. And I don’t think that was our fault. It’s just how she was. Who she was. Did you ever hear from her, Daddy, find out where she went?”
There’s no reply, but I knew he hadn’t. I have to keep going now.
“It wasn’t your fault, Daddy. She didn’t leave because of you. There was nothing you could have done to make her stay. I absolutely believe that and I always have. She made her decision and she went. If I’m honest . . . if I’m totally honest, Daddy, I was glad when she left.”
I think how shocking this must be for him to hear, how confusing. He must have loved her more than I did, known her in ways I never did, or could.
“So there you are. I want you to know, Daddy, that it didn’t ruin my life and it wasn’t your fault. It was her decision to leave us. I hope that she found the happiness we couldn’t give her, wherever she ended up. I really hope that. And that’s what I wanted to tell you.”
He doesn’t answer.
“We have to get back now, Daddy.”
I push the chair back up the slipway and along the promenade to the car. I lift him in, stow the chair in the back and drive off.
“Sorry for the rush, Daddy. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we can’t. I have to get you back.”
I glance over at him. He’s leaning forward in his seat so I reach across and straighten him up.
“There now. Comfortable? I just wanted to have a picture of us, Daddy, of you and me. Just you and me. Silly really, but we don’t have one. Not a single one. Can you believe that? You were always the one taking the pictures, so you’re not in any of them. Before today anyway. Now there’s one at least. I’ll get it blown up and put it in a nice frame, on the mantelpiece. What do you think?”
The rest of the journey passes in silence. The rain starts and I listen to it thrumming on the car roof and the tyres sizzling on the wet road beneath us.
Despite the rush to get back to the hospital, I feel oddly unhurried. Even these silent minutes together in the car are precious to me. As precious as the time spent in the room off the kitchen, watching him shave, knowing we were going to the beach the next day. We arrive at the side door of the hospital right on time. Derek’s there and his relief when he sees us is obvious.
“Jeez Bronagh, you cut that fine. The undertaker’s due in half an hour.”
“I know, sorry, Derek.”
“It’s okay. I’ll take him back now. By the time they get here no one’ll be any the wiser. Did you get the picture?”
“I did, yes.”
“Well, that’s the main thing, right?”
Over his shoulder a bank of dark cloud is rolling in, carrying another of those pulses of rain.
About the author
A Joseph Black is from Carnlough, Co Antrim and writes short stories and flash fictions. Over 30 of his pieces can be found online, in literary magazines, and in print anthologies. In 2017 he was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and in 2018 was runner up in the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award. His short stories By the Lake’ and Nora have been published as chapbooks in Australia. He is currently working on his first novel.