Short story: A shortlisted entry to our This Means War series competition, marking the centenary of the start of the first World War
Carol Farrelly lives and works in Edinburgh. Last year, she was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and spent the summer in France working on her first novel, This Starling Flock, set in ‘Emergency’ Ireland. ‘Deathwatch Beetle’ is an extract from this novel, which she is now editing
Dublin, December 1930
Frank’s fine kick wasn’t his own. He’d inherited that particular talent from his uncle, the one they’d put in the madhouse. As his Da delivered this news, Frank’s heart grew thin and brittle, a small skeletal case, a sea urchin’s cast-off. His Da sat him down on the settee next to his little brother, plumped the bean-bag cushions behind them as though they were guests in the house, and explained. Their Uncle Christopher had died last night, he said, and he’d left this one fine heirloom with Frank.
’That glorious outhalf kick of yours,’ his Da said, ‘it’s really your uncle’s.’
Frank didn’t understand. Even though he’d turned eleven years old in the summer and was almost a grown man, he didn’t understand. His Da spoke as though the inheritance was the news-rather that his brother’s death. And he spoke as though this heirloom was a gift.
’You’re carrying his talent how,’ his Da continued.
Frank stared down at his legs and tried not to cry. The kick he’d crafted over years, the muscles he’d toughenedlike wire rope inside him, weren’t his: they were a gift or a lending he didn’t remember ever taking. Now that his madhouse uncle was dead, the lending would last forever. He’d had no making in this vital part of himself.
‘Do you remember him?’ his Da asked, looking Frank in the eye for the first time.
‘Not really,’ he shrugged, unsure if he was lying.
Frank had few memories of this man who had left him his talent, even though, some two long years ago, he’d lived in this house with them for months. He remembered his Uncle Christopher had been nothing like his other uncles, his Ma’s three laughing brothers who roamed as giants in the house whenever they visited, craning their heads against ceilings and crushing chair seats into thatch beneath their tree-trunk thighs. The night he arrived, his parents bundled him upstairs and he almost never came out of that bolted bedroom. Frank had no recollection of his Da’s brother ever sitting at the dinner table with them, mopping up gravy with chunks of bread or blethering with his parents in the front room at night-time or standing out with his Da in the back garden, chuckling cigarette smoke up into the apple tree’s snaking branches. Hedidn’t remember a man who knew the flight and stampede of a rugby field. The man he rememberedhad never rushed at him with strong, key-jangling legs, or shown him how to move through the flock, or taught him to hold the ball firm against his scrawny belly and never let it wriggle, a restless cat, from his hands.
To Frank, during those strange months, his Uncle Christopher had been only a cough, a mutter, a yell behind the closed bedroom door. He was the bowls of soup and porridge his Ma or Da carried upstairs on a tray. Every creaking or stirring Frank heard in the night-time was his uncle’s hand rattling that door or his bare feet loping across the landing. His Da had taken to calling him the ‘deathwatch beetle’: a name Frank hadn’t understood at first, but which his Ma’s pinched face had told him was unkind.
‘It’s not your uncle’s fault,’ she said once, after his Da left the room. ‘He served in the other war.’
‘The Great War?’ Frank asked, remembering the schoolteacher talking of it once in class. ‘Poor sods,’ he had shaken his head. ‘Nothing great in it for them. Nobody remembers them here.’
His Ma had nodded. ‘It affected his mind, you see. Shell-shock, the doctors call it.’
For days afterwards, Frank imagined his uncle trembling inside a huge beetle’s shelled wings.
The one memory he possessed of his Uncle Christopher was clear and singular-a memory that had turned since into an occasionalnightmare. He was alone with his uncle in the front room. Neither of them should have been down there,early morning, long before Ma woke up the kitchen with her tinkling breakfast. Frank, restless in his bed, had sneaked downstairs to see if he might pilfer a handful of boiled sweets from the jar in the sideboard-the gooey red ones. When he opened the door, this man, pale as silver birch, was sitting there in his Da’s armchair, grey hair straggling over his shoulders, rocking backwards and forwards, drumming the toes then the heels of his shoes against the floorboards, as might a womanworking a loom. The man looked up and Frank saw his Da was right. His Uncle Christopher’s eyes were dark beetles. Frank stared back, waiting for the beetle man to raise his bony arms, unfold a pair of veined wings, fly to one of the walls and start to gnaw or bore. He wanted to open his lungs and scream for his Ma, but he stayed silent. He waited. It was important, he sensed, to stay silent.
The man stopped rocking and opened his mouth. No long, liquorice-wheel tongue uncoiled.
‘What you gawping at?
Frank shook his head. The man’s eyes grew darker.
‘Are you Jack’s eldest?’ he asked. ‘The steady one?’
‘No, Polly’s the eldest.’Frank hesitated, unsure if his sister Polly was the steady one. ‘And then there were two others before me-‘ he gabbled, wondering if the man was perhaps thinking of one of them. ‘But Ma lost them. So I’m second. Aidan’s the littlest.’
The man frowned. ‘The eldest son! I meant you’ll be the eldest son?’
Frank stepped backwards and nodded.
An appeased smile passed over the man’s lips, the lines around his eyes crinkled and, for one horrible moment, he looked like Frank’s Da, a sicktwin to his Da.
‘Robbie, is it?’ the man asked.
Frank shook his head again. His right hand twitched. This man mistook him or wanted him to be another child he didn’t know. ‘No… I’m Frank. Frank Casey.’
The beetle man broke into a laugh, revealing a row of greying, stumpy teeth. ‘Frank, is it? Sorry now.’
He beckoned towards him with a bony hand. Frank didn’t move. Instead, he stared down at the man’s chestnut shoes. They shone brighter than any conker he’d ever seen. He wondered if it was his Ma who had brought such a shine to the shoes, working with her cossetting polish and duster, or whether this man had taken the time and care to do it himself. Proper soldiers, he’d heard, must be neat. His uncle might have kept that habit.
’You’re quite right, young fella. A little anger’s quite right. You mustget a man’s name correct. Always look for the tag.’
Frank noticed the ridges in the man’s eyes.
’I mistook you for Robbie for a moment,’ hiseyes glistened now.’There’s a likeness there. A palpable likeness.’
Frank squirmed, afraid the man was about to start crying in front of him. Crying in adults was never a good thing. He wondered if a boiled sweet might cheer the man and whether he would be happy with one of the blackcurrant ones.
’Robbie could have made officer, one day.’
‘I’m Frank,’ he whispered.
The man’s cheeks flushed, as though sitting too near to a fire; Frank felt bad for juddering this man into such awkwardness.
‘Robbie’s dead. I know that!’ the man replied, swatting at the air.
Frank’s heart thumped. He knew the ‘dead’ word was a difficult thing for adults, like a fishbone in the throat; a word that made them weep and starve and pin black shawls to their shoulders orblack bands on their sleeves.
‘Over ten years ago now-Passchendaele. And it’s like yesterday. His guts slopped out there in front of me. Like a cow’s afterbirth.’
Frank swallowed. His throat was dry. He pictured the red, slippery rabbit’sinnards he sometimes saw his Ma slap against the kitchen table.
‘And his eyes were blinking all the while.’
Frank glanced towards the door. ‘Were you a butcher?’ He knew it was a daft question; he knew this man was talking of the other, great war; but he thought it impolite to name it. His parents barely mentioned it.
His uncle’s papery eyelids fluttered; his right foot drummed. Frank crept a step towards the door. He wanted his Ma, or his Da, to rush in right now and brush the beetle man away. He wanted to press his face into the warm floured belly of his Ma’s apron.
‘You think I’m a butcher, do you? You’re a conscie, are you?’
Frank’s mouth fell open. He longed for a sip of water.
‘Like my little brother, eh? He didn’t fight either.’ He patted his hands against his knees.’Too young, though, to be fair. Escaped choosing, so he did.’ He licked his lips; he wanted water too.’Lucky bastard.’
’My Da?’This man wascasting that bad name at his Da.Frank faltered forwards.
His uncle started and lunged towards the floor. He grabbed at something that wasn’t there, a sturdy object the length of his arm, and cradled this invisible thing as though it was as solid to him as a cricket bat. Pressing it beneath his arm, he narrowed his left eye and pointed a barrelled handle of air towards Frank. This, Frank knew,wasn’t pretend. No Cowboys and Indians. His uncle aimed the invisible rifle at Frank’s forehead. A cartridge clicked-clackety-click, like a key. Any bow and arrows Frank might conjure up in reply would be a useless defence. His unclewould simply pull his trigger. And, somehow, this invisible weapon might work.
’One of the other lot, are you?’ the man barked.
Frank shook his head, hopinghe wasn’t lying. He didn’t think he was one of the others. His eyes burned, but he remained determined not to cry. He stood closer than ever now to the man. They could see each other’s damp eyelashes.
‘Served here, did you?’
Frank glanced again towards the door handle: he might scramble through the door before the man had time to find his aim, but his feet stayed rooted. It would be wrong to leave this strange beetle man alone in his other war. This man, his uncle, was terrifiedand it would be wrong to run from him, just as it would be wrong to leave little Aidan if he was scared.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Frank murmured.
‘Eejit!’ his uncle snapped. ‘You fought here against the British? Against the Tans?’
Frank felt himself shaking inside a sudden shell now. ‘I’m just a boy.’
Laughter whined through his uncle’s lips. He tilted his head and Frank was sure his eyeballs clicked.
’True enough. We were all boys, eh?’ his uncle leaned in closer as he spoke. His eyes gleamed. His irises were folded black wings-Frank saw them now, clear as day. ‘I thought it was the right thing. To fight with them.Do you understand?’
A hot spike caught in Frank’s throat. He nodded.His uncle lowered his rifle. As it clattered to the ground, he reached out and grabbed at Frank’s shoulder.
’And do you know what gets you in the end?’
Frank’s legs trembled.
’It’s not the bayonets and rifles.’
Soft footsteps pressed upon the hall stairs. His Ma, at last, had heard his silent callor the rifle’s thud.
His uncle pressed his forehead, all clammy bone, against Frank’s.
‘It’s not that cloying, dead-man stench in every shell-hole.’
Frank held his breath. He wondered if he might catch an illness from his uncle’s damp skin-the tuberculosis the grown-ups were forever mentioning or the scarlet fever or a special soldier’s fever, perhaps,a cold white sweat of a fever, which turned you into an insect. He longed now to run for the door, but he stayed still.
‘And it’s not the killing. That’s often what folks back home think-taking another man’s life must drive you crazy-but no.’
His eyes were only a lash’s length from Frank’s.
‘Do you understand, son?’
Frank nodded, willing the door to open.
The man peeled his clammy forehead away from Frank’s and scanned his face.
‘It’s the waiting.’
As Frank breathed out, he realised he had known that. It was the waitingthat was unbearable.
‘An attack might be on your shoulder in ten days’ time or in one second. A thunder of bullets. And all the while you’re just waiting, perched on that line, day and night, waiting to pull a trigger. Always ready. Always stuck. Tarred, like a bird.’
The doorknob spun.
‘Waiting whittles you away, till there’s nothing left of you. No guts. No heart.’
The door slid open. His uncle didn’t hear or see.
‘Always be careful of waiting.’
A gasp sounded from the doorway.
Uncle Christopher turned. His eyeballs clicked again. Frank looked across to the door. Aidan stood there in his blue, checked pyjamas, his tousled head of hair just level with the door handle. His red mouth gaped, wet with saliva.
Uncle Christopher lunged for the rifle again.
Aidan found his wet, terrified voice.
’Frank!’ he screeched. ‘Make him go!’
The next moment, a door upstairs opened, feet scuffled on the landing, his Da blasted out a swear word and the hall stairs thudded. His uncle continued to point the invisible rifle towards Aidan. A transparent wing shimmered beneath his crooked elbow. Frank glared at his red-faced little brother, who was still screaming and raising both arms now to his face as though shielding himself, uselessly, from a volley of bullets. Aidan’s two-year-old eyes saw those bullets as clear as his own fingernails. He understood, like Frank, that this was not pretend.
’Whisht, will you!’ Frank whispered.
The rifle fell from his uncle’s shaking hands and tumbled onto the floor, a fallen branch. Ashadow appeared behind Aidan and his uncle folded his wings, crossed his arms and stared towards the window, his eyes paling into circles of white and blue.
Frank’s Da stood in the doorway. He stood there for at least five seconds,staring. Uncle Christopher sat in the armchair, composed into a human again. Aidan was sobbing, looking across at Frank as he sat down on the settee, clasping the rifle to his lap.
’What’s all this commotion?’ his Da shouted.
Nobody answered. Aidan turned to face their Da and tugged at his hand. He looked down,scooped him up and pressed the small, blotched face to his shoulder, blinding him to the scene thathad terrified him.
’Frank?’ his Da asked. ‘Are you all right?’
Frank stayed silent.
’Chris!What are you doing down here?’ His Da walked into the room as his words swept like punches.
Frank pushed his head back into the settee.
’You can’t be frightening the boys, do you hear? You shouldn’t be down here at all. We told you.Keep to your room.’
’We were just talking,’ Frank gabbled. ‘About the war.’
His Da’s eyes darkened, but he didn’t turn to look at Frank. He shook his head and tightened his hold of Aidan.
’You’ll have to go back, you hear?We can’t have this.’
His uncle didn’t reply.
’They’ll take better care of you.’
His uncle smiled, closed his paper-thin eyelids and said nothing.
Now Frank sat once more on the settee, looking up at his Da, waiting for Aidan to open his red mouth and scream again.He might join him this time. Aidan, however, stayed silent. His silence was perfect. His memory was clean. He remembered nothing of their mad, talented uncle or that day their Da sent him away.
’He was a fine brother,’ their Da whispered.
Frank nodded at his Da and said nothing.
Carol Farrelly lives and works in Edinburgh. Last year, she was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and spent the summer in France working on her first novel, This Starling Flock, set in ‘Emergency’ Ireland. Her stories have been widely published in journals such as Stand and Edinburgh Review; broadcast on BBC Radio 4; and shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish Prizes. She also holds a DPhil on the novels of Thomas Hardy; her love for Hardy remains intact.