New Irish Writing, October 2019’s winning story: Not Yet Recycled

New Irish Writing: October’s winning short story is by Amanda Geard

Illustration: Mark Dent

Illustration: Mark Dent

 

It was the mushroom trays that made up her mind.

Plastic moulded trays – all colours except black the council guidelines said, so they followed her around the house. In a tower, in a pile. In the kitchen, in the laundry.

“Fifty-seven,” she gave Cianan the running total as he came through the door, his tie skewiff, the smell of Christmas drinks on his breath.

“My wife, the eco-warrior.”

“Hardly.” She pronounced it ‘hordly’ nowadays, Dublin had scrubbed away her Kerry vowels.

That night David Attenborough’s voice lulled her to sleep on the sofa and when she opened a sleepy eye her half-finished glass of red made the ocean look grey.

“The planet still finished?” she murmured.

“Yep,” he said.

“Perhaps it’s time we gave it a try?”

“Another few years, I promise.”

*

On Tuesday he came home fuming.

“Clinch passed me over. Goldberg got the job. They think my strategy’s too defensive.”

“Ironic,” she said. And it was. For 10 years he had been a loose cannon with other people’s money. He’d been lucky so far.

“They’re setting themselves up for disaster, the leverage is unreal. It’ll be 2008 again. It’ll be worse.”

She thought of the mushroom trays, 61 today. “I found a great place,” she said. “Near Sneem.”

“Jesus, Aoife. Not now.”

*

By February, the outrage of Cianan’s work life became their dinner conversation; it wove its way into their weekends and hijacked their friendships. When he mentioned it post-sex, she knew she had to do something.

“We can’t go on like this. Let’s have a change. It’ll be good for us, good for the planet.”

“Kerry’s for holidays, not for keeps,” he said. But she knew the city was wearing him down. And the pile of trays climbed higher.

*

The day they moved, the sun was shining.

“Don’t get used to it,” he said, embracing her. From the front steps of the farmhouse (two up, two down) there was a view across their 10 acres and out to the Kenmare Bay. It shimmered. The Beara Peninsula gazed back at them, its tempered silver peaks crisp on the horizon.

Their decision had been quick. When the ISEQ posted its highest monthly gain since the Celtic Tiger died, he’d called and said, “we’ll do it”. He buzzed with energy, full of ideas. They talked late into the night over a bottle of Veuve and she’d said: “this’ll be the last decadence.” He’d laughed, “pea-pod burgundy from now on.”

Spring waited for their arrival. They built a greenhouse and bought scaffold boards to make raised beds. A local builder sold them topsoil and they wheelbarrowed it laboriously into each of the waiting beds, laid out like graves in front of the house. The heirloom seeds arrived by post, tiny balls, flakes and knobby orbs. Aoife planted them in 37 of the black trays in the new greenhouse and they watched the dark soil turn green with life.

The rabbits ate the first transplanted shoots so they strung chickenwire around the garden and installed a twee green gate on which they hung a sign: The Good Life.

That summer was Kerry’s hottest in 12 years and the tomatoes grew outside. They made salsa and salads then Cianan lit the range and dried bucketfuls of Pink Bumble Bee cherry tomatoes and made gutter jokes about the result. They searched among foliage for cucumbers and ate them fresh until they couldn’t stand the zingy smell anymore, then pickled dozens of jars in an afternoon.

Their attempts at pea-pod burgundy produced a cloudy mess that tasted like bread and vinegar but they bottled it anyway. They filled the freezer with beans and blanched spinach and tiny, wild strawberries that grew shyly by the river. A blackberry port experiment was started and they stashed it away with soaring hopes. By Halloween they had pumpkins so big they could use them as footstools, and they did so, watching the sunset through a clear November sky, wrapped in Aran wool blankets, brazier burning into the night.

*

Their neighbour was a farmer called Brendan. He owned the land surrounding them. His cattle got into their garden and they fixed the fence themselves.

“Good fences make good neighbours,” said Cianan, as he pummelled a post into bog and rock.

They took Brendan a bottle of Jamesons at Christmas and he opened it then and there. “Just a finger,” said Aoife, but she was given half a tumbler.

“Ye’ll always have trouble with the rabbits above,” he said when they told him about the chickenwire. “The only thing they don’t go mad for is the spuds.” He pronounced it ‘shhpoods’ and Aoife felt at home.

When the whisky bottle was dry and Brendan went to the cupboard for more, Aoife insisted they go.

At the door, unsteady, he leaned towards Cianan, winked and said: “Them rabbits… got a .22 and bullets going cheap. Unregistered.”

Cianan laughed. “Thanks Brendan, we’ll keep it in mind,” he said in a way that suggested they wouldn’t.

*

In the new year, they worked on the house. The floors needed replacing but they decided the single-glazed windows could stay. Cianan drove to Killarney and came back with tools and timber. Their home filled with dust. They bought eco paint to redecorate, a tasteful off-white called Milk Teeth and a variety of minutely different Nordic greys. And when, in the depths of January, a damp patch appeared on the west wall in the sittingroom, Aoife watched it spread north as her grey hues turned battleship.

“We’ll just see how bad it gets this winter,” said Cianan.

She bought a dehumidifier from Argos and it ate away at the damp patch until it was the size of a man. She almost forgot about it until the electricity bill arrived.

“This isn’t self-sufficiency, babes,” she said.

“We’ll do better,” he said, “it’s not a sprint.” He cupped her face in his palm. His hands felt rough and his beard tickled her lip when he pecked her.

Cianan made a plan for a solar setup. They installed it on the south-facing roof and filled the utility room with batteries. Aoife said that maybe they should stay on the grid this year, just in case. One day she came back from visiting her parents in Kenmare to find the oven wouldn’t work.

“We’ll get an old gas one,” he promised.

The double polycarbonate greenhouse heated up with the smallest dose of sunshine and, in their second season, they potted early. Aoife punched holes in the final mushroom tray from their old life and they cracked open the blackberry port to celebrate.

“Waste not, want not,” said Cianan. The liquor tasted like bottled autumn and they abandoned their work to sip tiny glasses until the clouds cleared and they lay drunk under the stars, discussing their next move.

“Let’s get chickens,” he said.

“Okay.” She was tucked into the crook of his arm.

“And we’ll be vegetarian and live on what we grow.” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“What about Christmas dinner?” She didn’t know why she said it.

“We’ll kill a cock.”

She giggled and said: “better you than me!”

*

In the backyard, he built a higgledy-piggledy chicken coup from cut-up pallets. When she saw it, perched next to the old rose bush, she said they could probably stretch to some 6”x 2” from the local hardware store.

“No, Aoife. We’ve turned a corner.”

To make his point, he withdrew their last funds from the bank and put them in a shoebox in the huge airing cupboard in the hall. He twisted the old key in the cupboard’s lock and hung it on a nail in the kitchen. It left a rusted scuff on the Milk Teeth.

On St Patrick’s Day they bought nine Rhode Island Reds from the local market. Their shit soaked the cardboard box and seeped through into the carpet of their car. The next day, Aoife looked under the kitchen sink and found some bleach. She hid the half-empty bottle under the stairs.

*

The first chicken was taken on the 20th of March. Aoife knew something was wrong when the brood wasn’t out of the clutch by the time she woke. They found the hen’s remains scattered among the roses, now budding ready for summer.

“A dog?” asked Aoife, pulling her cardigan tight against the morning dew.

“No,” said Cianan. He stooped over and frowned at the pointed four-toed print in front of him. “A fox.”

The second chicken went missing the next night so Cianan used more pallets to shore up the coop. They locked the six frightened hens and one skittish cock away before nightfall.

“Maybe we can just buy eggs,” said Aoife red-eyed the next day. The three chickens that survived the night gathered in a group, they surged around the garden.

Cianan found his trumpet and, that night, he perched in their bedroom window, waiting. She tried to remember the last time he played it. She fell asleep, his form a shadow in the moonlight.

A 3am blast woke her.

“That fecking fox. The fecking thing.”

She went to the window. He was out there in his underpants, crazed. She watched him gather up the two remaining chickens and bring them inside. She tried to remember where she’d stashed the bleach.

*

The next morning, while Aoife set potatoes, Cianan went to the kitchen and fetched the key to the cupboard. He took their cash and the car and came back with Brendan’s .22.

It was the first time she’d touched a gun. The barrel was icy, but the stock felt silky and warm, the walnut shone from years of use. From YouTube, Cianan learned how to clean it, then he took it down to the field to practice on some beer cans he’d fished out of the community recycling bins.

As Aoife locked the chickens away for the night, he returned from his target practice.

“Leave them out.”

“Cianan…,” she said, but did it anyway, preferring to head up to bed and bury herself in the down duvet. He sat at their bedroom window as she fell asleep, his head tilted unmoving towards the backyard below.

In the morning, he was absent and in his place rivulets of rain washed down the pane of glass. She dressed and pulled on her coat, still damp from days before.

He was digging a hole in the backyard, mud stuck to his wellington boots in clumps.

“What are you doing?” she asked, but when she looked down, she saw. Its beautiful limp form lay rusty on the sodden grass, eyes frosted over. They were the colour of cabbage going to seed, she thought, silver and waxy. Small, pointed paws curled beneath its body like withered bean pods and a great beetroot stain glowed in the dawn. She reached down to touch its delicate, tapered nose. Warm wetness lingered on her fingers.

*

Afterwards, he took the gun, wrapped it in an old towel, and put it in the airing cupboard. She watched him push it to the back.

“Would you open the bottom drawer for me?” he said. She turned to the sideboard and did as he asked.

Inside was a single black mushroom tray. He stretched out his hand and she gave it to him, her eyes blind with hurt.

He put the bullets in the tray and placed them beside the gun. Without taking the key from around his neck, he locked the cupboard and turned to Aoife.

“A little something to remind us of just how far we’ve come.”

*

Amanda Geard is a Kerry blow-in originating from Tasmania. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in The Irish Times and The Journal, as well as a number of print magazines. Not Yet Recycled is her first published fiction. She is currently working on her debut novel.

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