New Irish Writing: The Awful Short-Storiness of Leaving
September 2019’s winning story by Jeff Walters
Illustration: Brendon Deacy
I spent the last few hours before I emigrated stuck in a short story about emigrating. All my life I’ve tried to avoid being defined by small details the way people always are in short stories. Like the way my parents drove up in their Sunday clothes to bring me to the airport. And the way my mother stayed in the car while my father came up to the flat to help me with the bags. And the way his limp was worse after the drive up, so I carried the bags down myself. And the way the car dipped under the weight of them. And the way my father, wanting to do something, rearranged them in the boot.
I’ve always hated those clammy scenes you get in short stories, when someone’s life hinges on a moment. Like when my father started the car and I went back upstairs to the place I’d lived in for five years. I stood in my room. It had a double bed by the window and bruises of mould on the ceiling and a wardrobe that stopped the door from fully opening. It was cleaner and emptier than it had been in years. I left behind my keys, a half-litre of milk, a bottle of bleach, one rubber glove, shower gel, toothpaste, three failed relationships, my friends, my old life, and I went back downstairs.
I sat into the backseat and felt like a child with my parents talking to each other in the front. It didn’t remind me of anything specific the way people remember their childhood in detail in stories like this. That was something at least. We drove through Islandbridge and waited in the traffic along the quays. I watched the people walking by – the lucky ones who could afford to live in Dublin and the ones who could put up with living there broke.
They were preoccupied with their Dublin Sundays. They went in yoga pants, in shorts, in ones and twos and threes. They were hungover on their way to the cure. They were in heels for bottomless mimosas. They were drinking coffee on the boardwalk. They were getting the Dart to Howth to get closer to the sea breeze and the white boats that sail on it. They were walking home still half-cut from the night before. They were heading to the park for a joint. They were jogging off a week of stress. They were reading the posters for all the concerts and plays and DJ sets and art exhibitions and book launches and protests and festivals and flea markets and poetry readings and comedy nights and panel discussions that would happen in the months after I left. I wished I could stay and go to all of them, even though I’d never have bothered to when I lived there. A city, like a woman, always looks at its most beautiful when it’s walking away from you.
We drove on. I looked back at that disappearing world and showed no emotion. I was trying to make it easier for my parents. I hoped they would do the same for me, that it would be one of those stories where everything stays “under the surface”, where more is said by silence than by words. You know the type. The American story where the man drinks martinis with his mistress after work in New York and has to run for the last commuter train. He reads the paper in the half-dark of the carriage. He has another whiskey at home and ignores his wife.
We drove by the dirty, sparkling river and on past the dirty, sparkling financial district. We talked about the prices of houses and apartments.
“Those sold for 190k in 2009,” I said, to prove a point.
“Cost twice that now,” I said.
“Do you owe someone money, is that why you’re going?”
My mother asked, as if anything that exciting could happen in a short story like this. The radio was jumping around the grounds for the scores. My father turned it down to hear my answer.
“No. I just can’t afford to live here.”
We drove into the port tunnel. I told myself I could come back in a year. It’s what you tell yourself when you’re leaving. Even though I could hardly afford the two months deposit and the weeks of staying in Airbnbs it would take to find another place with strangers.
“And the only solution is Dubai?” my mother said.
“It’s twice the money I’m on here.”
“You’ll find a way to spend it.”
“I’m trying to try and save for a house.”
“You’ll have to meet someone first.”
I laughed. The orange cat’s eyes flashed by like tracer bullets.
“I’ll never have any grandkids at this rate.”
She said, in conclusion, I hoped.
Once we were out of the tunnel the first mentions of the airport showed up like black crosses on the white road signs. There was a crash on the other side of the motorway. It was a great distraction. People stood around on the green grass by the road. The moment was heavy with the kind of foreshadowing you get in stories like this.
If anything happens to my parents while I’m away it will be another one of these awful stories. The phone call in the middle of the night. The rush home. The wait for everyone to say their goodbyes before the machine is turned off. The denial. The arguments about who was there and who wasn’t. The hundreds of hands to shake at the funeral. The sandwiches. The priests. The jokes. The pints. The jobs around the house heavy with symbolism. The way it hits you. The journey back abroad. More goodbyes. More airports. So clichéd and general to read, so specifically painful to live.
In the pause my father took two 50s from his shirt pocket and handed them to me.
“We don’t want to see you stuck.”
To my shame I was delighted to take it. I couldn’t even pretend to say no. Money is never mentioned in stories like this. Most of the Irish writers who write them live off their parents or their partners or have some soft job in the literary establishment. They prefer to focus on small details like hands and the weather and bad dates and the way someone swallows a pint. That’s what they learn in the workshops.
Most Irish short-story writers, the ones with the money and the free time to keep at it, will never understand that every rented room in Dublin is a crime scene. That every square foot has to be fought for and overworked for and smiled for and lied for and bullshitted for. And for what? For a small room with mould on the ceiling. For my landlord’s mortgage. For the best nights out of my life. For the last, dramatic years of my twenties. For the relationships that started and the relationships that ended. For the feeling that at least we were all f***ed and in it together.
But we weren’t all f***ed. We weren’t all in it together.
My father parked the car and me and my mother queued up with my luggage at the check-in desk. Her hands were wrinkled with blue veins. They didn’t make me think of anything, not even the word “intravenous”. I was glad the queue took so long. It was good to be so close to her when I was about to be so far away. When it was my turn, I put my massive metaphor of a suitcase on the carousel to be weighed. It was under the weight, so I avoided the short-storyish scene of having to open it up and decide what to leave behind.
My father was waiting for us on a bench in front of a large window. The airport buses stopped and went behind him. His face was grey, like a lot of faces in short-stories. The grey light of the late afternoon pushed in around him. He looked exhausted from the drive up and was probably dreading the drive back through the summer evening – my plane already in the sky, the motorway packed on the other side with everyone heading back to Dublin after the weekend. Driving home on empty roads through what short-story writers imagine to be the Badlands: Kinnegad, Rochfortbridge, Kilbeggan, Moate, Athlone, Roscommon, home. They’re actually alright places, with a serious percentage of sound people. I dream of them in Dubai. The flat fields and the flat accents.
Me and my parents sat down at the only free table in the food court. It’s always the only free table in short-stories like this, unless the restaurant is empty. The table was dotted with crumbs from whoever ate there last. It was mapped with islands of spilled water. I remember these details like every other conveniently unreliable narrator. My father tried to clean the table with the sleeve of his good arm. People went by with their rolling suitcases like they were going down a factory line. They were tired and make-up free and trapped in their own bad stories. One of the matches from the radio was on the television. Three or four old men had gathered their chairs around it to watch the end. Beyond the big windows the city went on for miles under the clouds, a party I had to leave early.
Me and my mother went up to get the food. It would have taken too long for my father to stand up and sit back down again.
“Do they have bread in Dubai?” she asked.
“I think so.”
She wasn’t hungry so she got a plain bread roll. Me and my father got club sandwiches. She felt the hardness of the bread roll and asked the woman behind the counter to toast it.
“Toaster is broken,” the woman said.
We sat down and ate. My father got butter on his chin. My mother said nothing even though normally she’d be straight on to something like that. She went at her bread roll with a knife. I felt like I was in a short-story workshop, being shown and not told.
“Well this is as hard as the hob of hell,” she said.
“Do you want something else?” I asked.
My father still had butter on his chin.
“Ask them to toast it,” he told her.
“They can’t toast it the toaster’s broken,” my mother said.
“What? Go up there and ask them to toast it,” he told me.
“I’ll try but I think the toaster’s broken,” I said, standing up.
“Sit down I asked already,” my mother said.
“What did they say?” he asked her.
“They said the toaster’s broken what do you think they said?”
“Do you want some of my sandwich?” I asked.
“No it’s fine I’ll drink my tea I’m not hungry anyway.”
There were 15 minutes after the sandwiches were finished before I had to go through security. We passed the time talking about my cousins and my aunties and uncles. We went through all the open secrets and badly hidden scandals that bind together a family as big as ours. All the old stories. Funnier than this story because in real life you have to be entertaining, you can’t just describe the weather and evoke things with small details and hint at something terrible or tragic and get away with it.
My parents grew up in poverty. They refuse to admit it in our arguments about poverty. They had five siblings each and all of those siblings married and had children. So most of what can happen to someone has happened to someone in our family. My parents knew what was coming even if I didn’t. I thought I could avoid the short-storyish airport goodbye with its blood echoes of so many other sad goodbyes, but now that I’ve actually left I realise that the old people and the old songs were right, leaving is a mortal thing.
We went up the escalator and into the last paragraph. The departure gate appeared like a hole in the ground. We were pathetic. We had lost control of our lives for the few hours of this story. I put down my carry-on bag and faced my parents to say goodbye. My mother cried out. It was a sound I’d never heard from her before. I’d been observing her all my life so I thought I knew her range of noises. It was like the cry you get at funerals as the coffin is lowered down, or the cry you hear in the background on the news during a report from a war-torn country. It was a cry that shouted stop without using the word. I might’ve stayed if I knew it was coming, but it was too late. The evening softened around the edges of the airport as I went through the gate and out of Ireland and out of this story.
I have lived out my life in other forms since then: travel programmes; porn clips; films set in exotic locations; TripAdvisor reviews; those articles about the new kind of Irish emigrant; pop songs about the beach; advertorials for expensive hotels; boasting Instagram posts about the life-enhancing benefits of travel; Dubai tourist videos; snapchats of the pool; inspirational LinkedIn posts; homesick songs; homesick dreams; awful novels about the Irish emigrant who wants to move home and can’t.
Jeff Walters grew up in Galway and is now based in Dublin, where he works as a history teacher. He has been previously published in The Moth Magazine, Number Eleven Magazine, Deep Water Literary Journal, Increature Magazine, Cold Coffee Stand and Headstuff Magazine. He won second place in the Fish International Short Story Competition in 2016