New Irish Writing: May 2019’s winning story
The Envelope by Niall Bourke
‘She sees you letting that slip of paper ruin your life too’. Photograph: iStock
Mam’s proudest boast was that she never owned any paper before she moved to Galway. “Not a single scrap of the stuff,” she always said, “not a permit for my gun or even one solitary licence for over two hundred caribou.”
It was always a winter evening when she’d dig this out of the tomb of her youth. Dad would be doing the washing-up in the kitchen and I’d be with Mam in the living room, nestled in front of the smouldering coal fire and blowing a skin onto my hot chocolate. More often than not the rain would be driving a cold counterpoint on the window as she spoke so I suppose it was the weather triggered it, that it reminded her of home. There would always be a pause after the thing with the caribou, a long draw on her cigarette with the fizzing of the white paper burning down. Then she’d grab up the poker to agitate the coals, angry sparks racing each other up the flue.
The poker was a gnarled snake of iron with a worked brass handle. It had been in the house longer than me, but now it was bent and warped from all the times I’d used it to lever up the heavy grate when clearing out the fire. Mam hated that I’d bent it so I could never look at her when she was poking the coals. Instead I’d fish up a waxy disc of cooled milk onto the tip my finger and dangle it high over my mouth. I wasn’t supposed to lever the grate, you see, I was supposed to use the poker to help sieve the ash down into the hearth and then scoop it out from below with a small blackened shovel, sifting out any of the clinkers good enough to be reused. But it was the one chore I couldn’t stand. I detested the squalors of the ash, the penury of reusing the coals, and each bend I jemmied into the poker became my little victory against it all, against what I saw as my parents’ gross selfishness in deciding to be poor.
“The state of this poker,” Mam would mutter, twisting in her chair.
But, trying always to be a better child, I knew to chime in just after the fire was stoked.
“No paper at all, Mam?” I’d ask in a sickly voice like the juice left over in a tin of peaches. “Not even a passport?”
She’d sigh, her face stretching far away. “We’d followed the seasons from Murmansk to Trondheim for a thousand years, long before important men sat in conferences and drew crooked lines across their maps. How could they now give us a passport? You might as well try give one to the melting of the snow.” Then, with her brow rippling, she’d roll back the huge capstone that kept her life before I came into it locked away, sealing her memories down again somewhere in the damp vaults of her earth.
“Right, off to bed now,” she’d say, dusting down her lap, “and don’t forget your chores in the morning - or I’ll be down with the water again.” She’d slip out of the sitting room and I’d wait for the soft click of the front door to signal she had headed out for one of her strange late-night walks.
When I was younger I always bolted straight up the creaky staircase as soon as she left. I’d catch her from my bedroom window, just before she disappeared around the bend in our road, stopped under the orange helmet of the street lamp and lighting a cigarette. She seemed such a mystery to me out there with her crimped and angular frame set hard against the crammed rows of pebbledashed terraces, her alien implacability abutting the plain greyness of another mizzled Galway night.
But as I got older I didn’t bother running up the stairs anymore. Instead I’d finish my hot chocolate alone with the fading embers of the fire marking out red chequers against the dark of the room. All would be silence save the sound of my father in the kitchen doing the washing-up. There I’d sit, listening to the clanking of the scabrous pots as I’d try to decipher those strange and lunar orbits of my mother’s love.
It was a week after my seventeenth birthday before I got the full story.
On a warm Saturday in May, Dad came into the sitting room hunting for the needle-nose pliers. I’d packed in school a few months earlier to take a temporary job as a bike courier, one which was fast becoming permanent, and I’d sworn to him I’d be moved out by now. But after the deductions for the courier pack and the agency fee and then the bike rental and insurance, there was precious little left each week. Now here I was, caught with my arm squeezed down the crack of the couch and fingers grazing the monstrous teeth of the springs as I groped for loose coins. When Dad saw me he stopped his search for the pliers, shook his head and disappeared.
When he returned he was carrying a large and dusty package wrapped in brown paper. He sat himself on the far side of the couch, the weight of his body lifting up the springs at my end, and placed down his odd parcel between us on the stained ridges of the cushion. Without speaking he began to unwrap it. His hands moved with a care that belied the thick and callused fingers and the paper crinkled as if in anger at being disturbed after so many years of rest. Inside was a heavy looking piece of knitted cloth which he unfolded, holding it up in front of me in both hands.
“Do you know what this is?” Dad said.
It looked like a sort of hoodless poncho. It was a deep purple and woven throughout the thick fabric were intricate designs, amazing snowflake patterns marked out in a raised white threading. Around the neck and shoulders were bright red and vivid green damasked trims. It was shockingly beautiful.
I shook my head.
“This,” he said, “is a luhkka.”
I looked at him blankly.
“Did you know that by ten years old your mam could strip and clean a rifle? Could skin a deer with a hunting knife? She is more than Norwegian, she is Sami.”
“Sami?” I said, the word falling clumsily from my mouth.
“Saahmee,” he corrected. “They aren’t really Norwegian, they’re their own tribe. Nomads who herd caribou across seasonal pastures in the high-arctic.”
Dad sank back into the couch and folded the luhkka over his forearm. He paused, tracing out the intricate snowflake detailing with a square and almost nailless forefinger.
“When your mam’s family weren’t herding, they made money selling these. Their luhkkas were so famous that people travelled from all over Europe to buy them, driving in vans from as far away as the Ukraine - even from Urkutsk in Siberia.”
Dad broke off again and I studied his face in profile as I waited for him to continue. His skin was sun-mottled, pitted and cut with deep lines, and I could see where his eye was gone red from the dust in the quarry. He had that distant look Mam got sometimes just before she stopped speaking but, unlike Mam, he kept going.
“One day a shiny blue 4x4 pulled into their camp. It rolled down the window and inside were two men wearing expensive suits and boa-constrictor smiles. They asked for the elder in charge - your mam’s father, your Pappi who you’ve never met - and when he arrived he greeted them and offered them the customary Sami coffee. Apparently they didn’t even bother getting out of the car, just handed him out an envelope.”
“What was in it?”
“A letter. Demanding he stop producing the patterned luhkkas. Turns out a tourist had stolen their design by patenting it as her own before then selling it for thousands to a big American company. That company was now putting pressure on Norway to enforce the patent - and it helped, of course, that the government wanted to start drilling the Sami lands for oil. Tribes like your mother’s were just in the way.”
“Did Pappi stop?” I said.
“Would you?” said Dad, raising a thick eyebrow.
I thought about it. “No,” I said, “no, I wouldn’t.” He smiled and I knew I’d given the right answer.
“Well, your Pappi thought the same. Your mam says he spat right into the window, roared that his family had used the design for hundreds of years so they could both go fuck themselves. The men taunted him then, told him to prove it by showing them some papers. He didn’t have any, of course, and the company did. And there it was settled.”
“Nothing - for a while. Your Pappi was as good as his word and kept selling the luhkkas. But three months later a truck with no licence plates pulled into the village carrying twenty men armed with rifles. They got out and started to shoot the caribou, one at a time. They shot every single one, and he stopped then alright. And with no caribou and no money from the luhkkas you mam’s family couldn’t hope to survive so far North, so your poor Pappi had to sell whatever he had left and move down to the port of Oulu in Finland. He got a job on the docks and spent the rest of his life trying to drink back his happiness.”
“What about Mam?” I said.
Dad smiled again, so wide I thought his cheeks might split. “She was only seventeen then, and she left Oulu with the first man she met - a quarryman from Moycullen who happened to be delivering a truck load of cement.” But then his face set like mud in hot weather. “And every day since I’ve lived with knowing she never wanted to come to Galway with me; that she never wanted to spend the rest of her life working in that bloody supermarket or to be married to some fat stone-monkey who runs out of money every month. Not a single piece of paper her whole life, see, then everything ruled and ruined by a single slip of it.”
It was now that he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a creased white envelope, which I took from him. It had already been opened so, using a finger, I peered inside to see a pink and almost transparent rectangle with perforated edges - my latest payslip. I pulled it out and tore the easy-rip along the bottom, flipped it open and then held it as I tried make sense of the columns of numbers; all the tallies of mysterious codes and letters and deductions. Dad reached across me and pointed to the one figure I did recognise, the one printed in bold in the bottom right-hand corner. It was the pitiful amount that would end up in my account.
“And now she sees you letting that slip of paper ruin your life too, allowing the same thing to happen.” The couch spat him up with a groan and he went back into the kitchen to resume his hunt for the pliers.
I didn’t answer my phone when it lit up a little later, the usual names shining out from the display with the Saturday night invites to the pub.
Instead, I waited in my room until I heard Mam go out for her walk and then I crept down to the sitting room, grabbing the dust pan and brush from the cupboard in the hall on my way. Even though it was still warm outside I went over to the fireplace, knelt down on the hard flagstones and began sweeping the dust out from the crumbling lines of grout around the hearth.
Satisfied, I then unhooked the poker and the small blackened shovel from the ancient hearth set and, taking great care not to lever up the grate, I sieved down the day-old ash and slowly cleaned the fire.
Niall is from Kilkenny but now lives in London, where he teaches English. Since completing an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths University of London in 2015, has been published widely in magazines and journals in both the UK and Ireland. His poems and short stories have been listed for several awards, including; The Costa Short Story Award, The Over The Edge New Writer Of The Year and The Cambridge International Short Story Award. In 2017 he was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series. His debut poetry collection ‘Did You Put The Weasels Out?’ was published by Eyewear press in 2018 and longlisted as one of The Poetry Schools’ books of the year.