The Lamb by Andrea Carter: shortlisted for Writing.ie Short Story of the Year

A short story from Counterparts (Stinging Fly) by the author of the Inishowen Mysteries

Andrea Carter studied law at Trinity College Dublin. She is a crime writer and author of the Inishowen Mysteries. Photograph: Fran Veale

Andrea Carter studied law at Trinity College Dublin. She is a crime writer and author of the Inishowen Mysteries. Photograph: Fran Veale

 

It has been put away for so long, there are times when I wonder if it really happened. Other memories have accumulated and a skin has formed, but that skin is easily pricked and the shame seeps through.

The sun is so low in the sky that I almost miss the turn. I drive with speed. It is a road I cycled daily; I knew every bend, every tree, every poorly filled pot-hole. But today I feel the need to read the sign, to prove to myself I am really here, that I have come back, finally, to face things. My resolve is not strong.

I indicate and turn off the main road. The mile or so stretch into town has changed little; the odd new bungalow or slatted shed, otherwise the same scrubby hedgerows bind the same fields of cattle and sheep: houses familiar from childhood birthday parties I’d struggle to put a name to now. I pass a cottage, red brick, with an old barn behind, and suddenly I am eleven years old and drowning in summers past, climbing bales of straw with Ruth. My hands shake but I keep them steady on the wheel.

I park in the square. The town is quiet, bereft of traffic ever since it was bypassed by the motorway to Galway a few years back. I’d read something about it when searching the internet for something else, the name of the town giving me a jolt I wasn’t expecting on an otherwise ordinary day. I wonder if there is any need to lock the car; there never used to be. It was a safe town back then. But the car is a rental, so I probably should.

Before I pull the key from the ignition my phone rings. Robert.

He sounds sleepy. ‘So how is it?’

I smile. He has become the parent; I am the child. He is anxious, wants me to have fun.

‘It doesn’t start till seven. It’s only five here, now.’

‘But how does it feel to be back? It must be great, right? I know it must be sad with Granny and Grandad gone but…’

I end the call quickly though I crave more. It will cost him too much, this overseas call. But I am touched he has roused himself in the middle of the night to ring.

I sit for a while, my hands on the wheel, not wanting to leave this place of safety. His voice has conjured up a well-thumbed album of happy images. Conceived while I was shamelessly drunk, his father a fool, my son is perfect. He is me but better, a better person than I am. He is brave and true to himself. I allow myself to picture him on his graduation day; on the morning of his first job; on the day he told me he was in love. At every occasion, every milestone, my guilt was there, like the bad fairy at a christening.

I take my scarf from the passenger seat, wrap it twice around my neck and tuck it into the collar of my coat. The sun is shining but it’s cold, and there’s a sharp wind. It is three weeks since St Patrick’s Day. In a few hours I will be in a hotel in the next town, clinking glasses, reminiscing. But first, there is somewhere I must go.

The square looks better than I remember it. Steel bowls of daffodils, tulips and lilies are well tended, houses freshly painted in tasteful new shades of mushroom and cream, and duck-egg blue. The town of my memory is grey with boarded-up houses and peeling paint-a grimy sort of place.

I pass a health-food shop on the corner where ‘Henry’s Grocery and Confectionary’ used to be. It is a memory I can taste: cola bottles, clove drops, refreshers; sachets of exploding dust that crackled and fizzed on your tongue; Henry’s long dirty fingernails as he reached into the tubs of penny sweets. Back when you could buy one egg. One cigarette. Holding it between your fingers, pretending it was something you did all the time until someone said you had to put it into your mouth to light it; the jeers from the Tech boys who lounged on the steps outside. And later, scrubbing the yellow from your fingers with toothpaste.

A man with a young boxer pup gives me a nod. He looks familiar-could be one of the boys from the Tech grown up, but he is too young. Nearly three decades have passed since I set foot in this town, two since my parents followed me to Australia. Both now buried in the hot dry soil.

I reach the school and peer through locked gates. Rundown but unchanged, grey and imposing, it could be any convent in any town in any county; the school it accommodated long gone, absorbed into a community school along with the Brothers’ and the Tech, or so I’ve heard. The nuns for the most part had been kind, I remembered, the religious difference not really an issue for Ruth and me coming from our tiny Church of Ireland primary school. Seems such nonsense now. I stand with my hands rooted in the pockets of my coat as the memories flood back, seizing their chance like a cat darting through a door briefly left open. Blue pinafores; pale blue blouses with stained armpits that no washing powder ever seemed to remove; bare legs in white socks; chapped knees stinging during the icy winter months. Stuffy classrooms. ‘Walk on the left-hand side. No running on the stairs!’ Stewed tea from a Burco boiler; chicken cup-a-soup; sweaty cloak-rooms, and changing for PE. What are you looking at? Fucking queer. Lezzer. Dyke. Les-be friends…

I close my eyes. I might not be able to do this.

The grotto is just past the school, in the grounds of the chapel. Although this gate is open I don’t go in; the statue of Mary is clear enough from the street, regal in her open cave. I remember the term of the moving statues; the girls in tears in class, comforting each other. I saw it, I know I did. I know what I saw. Ruth and I, wondering if we were missing out. So much more drama in Catholicism.

And now I see the house. For years I crossed the street to avoid it, until the only way to avoid it fully was to leave. Today I walk towards it.

*

It was a Sunday afternoon. I was watching music videos on MT-USA when the phone rang. I should have been studying, my inter-cert less than ten weeks away. I answered, knowing it would be for my father and that calling him would mark the end of my skiving. The only calls I ever got were from Ruth, who always forgot to tell me something essential on our cycle home and was on the phone again before I was ten minutes in the door.

‘Hi.’ I didn’t recognise the voice. It was female, husky.

‘Hello.’

‘Do you want to come to a Paddy’s Day party we’re having on Saturday?’

I hesitated.

There was a laugh somewhere in the background. ‘It’s Dee, by the way.’

Dee was the popular girl in our class, the one who had the power to change things, to change lives. Dee was not someone you said no to. I had always wanted to be part of things, to be included, but glasses and frizzy hair hadn’t exactly provided a passport. I said yes, of course, although I was surprised that my parents let me go.

The party started in the pub – I didn’t tell my parents that. I hadn’t told Ruth either so I’d been surprised to find her there, surprised and a little disappointed if I was honest. It devalued my invitation if Ruth had been invited too. It wasn’t as if it mattered to Ruth anyway, being part of things. Ruth didn’t buy Smash Hits, or sew the insides of her jeans together to make drainpipes, or save her pocket money for eyeliner. She was happy being her usual ruddy-faced, sloppy self in her jeans and sweatshirt. Ruth didn’t feel the mortification of being different.

I had my first drink that night, Stag, gulped back too quickly. I’d been shocked by the drunken feeling and disappointed by how quickly it wore off-a sign of things to come. Ruth was drinking 7-Up. I tried not to talk to her too much, but she always made me laugh and I had to try so hard with the others. But it was not what I’d intended for that night. I could be with Ruth anytime.

We all went back to Dee’s house after the pub – the house I now stand outside. Today it looks empty, unlived in. A ‘For Sale’ sign hangs from the gable end and the windows are dull with dirt; ragged curtains hang limply inside as if they’ve lost all interest. I peer through the pane to the left of the door: a crack runs the full length of the glass like a scar. I see the stairs, newspapers grey and yellow cover the floor. It is a shock-I’d not expected to see in. For a minute I think it will be okay, I feel nothing, but the impact has just been delayed. I sway suddenly and the wave of nausea almost knocks me off my feet. But I allow the memory in; I take it on. It is the reason I have come.

It began at the foot of the stairs. I’d been in another room, trying to distance myself from Ruth. That doorway is in my eye-line now, smeared with something I’d rather not try and identify now that the nausea has passed. ‘Sweet Dreams’ by The Eurythmics was playing and I was wearing my new Pixie Boots. I remember those boots still, their pointed toes, their soft grey suede. I wore them with jeans and an oversized white shirt, an oversized belt.

I heard the shouts – Fucking dyke… who invited the fucking dyke?

I followed the crowd into the hall. At first I just stood there, watching as Ruth laughed nervously, her cheeks that shameful high colour she seemed unable to control. Trying to pretend she was in on the joke, that she could take a joke as well as the next person; surrounded. Dee, with her back-combed hair and heavy earrings, and nonchalantly held cigarette, was shouting into Ruth’s face. After a few seconds Ruth’s expression changed, embarrassment was replaced by fear and she fought back, argued, until Dee pushed her and she fell. And then somehow Ruth was on the floor, her hands covering her face, bitten nails protecting her face. Being kicked. Her navy sweatshirt rode up, revealing pink and white marbled skin that looked like corned beef.

Someone elbowed me and pushed me forward: a boy with a long black fringe and Crepe shoes. You’re best friends with that lezzer, aren’t you? A laugh. Are you one too? I felt my cheeks inflame, before throwing a few half-hearted kicks of my own. I’d never kicked someone before; my boots were soft so there was no real impact, but Ruth moved her hand at the wrong moment and my foot connected with her cheek. And she opened her eyes, eyes wet with grief.

*

A car door slams on the street and it hauls me back to the present. I have been gazing at this house for too long; I must look odd. I turn and walk back towards the car.

I knew that night that Ruth had not been badly hurt, that the kicks had not been hard, that they had been meant to convey a message, not an injury. I knew that she would get up from the floor, that she would leave and go home, that she would go to school on Monday. That she and everyone else would behave as if nothing had happened. I knew too that I would start to avoid her, to regard the party as an inevitable cutting of ties, a growing apart, the leaving behind of childhood friends. Ruth and I were interested in different things, that was all; it couldn’t have lasted.

I knew that I would convince myself that what had happened to Ruth at the party would have happened anyway because of her clothes, her walk, her refusal to be anything other than what she was. That it would have happened even if I hadn’t told Dee that Ruth had tried to kiss me. She had offered it to me on a plate, in the house after the pub, and I discovered a story like that was currency: it bought attention and access, whether it was true or not. And I could not take it back once I’d said it; if I had, I’d have lost everything I’d gained that night. No sale or return on gossip.

What I did not know that night was that early on Easter Sunday morning, three weeks after the party, Ruth would take the shot-gun from her father’s gun cabinet, she would go to the barn behind her house and she would put a bullet in her skull.

I did not know that the school would provide a guard of honour at her funeral, a double line of navy blazers from church door to graveyard-a respectful display of Ruth’s friends. That her parents would follow the coffin, through the guard of honour, wide-eyed and bewildered with grief, unable to cry. That her father would seek me out at his daughter’s grave and ask me why, and that I would shake my head. And that three years later I would walk away.

The light fades as I drive out of town. The reunion will be starting now. I know how these things go: I am a head mistress. There will be a banner. It will stretch right across the hotel entrance. St Mary’s 30-year school reunion! it will read in large, red lettering, Welcome Back to all our old girls!

There will be a table in the foyer with a white linen table cloth, a vase of plastic flowers and rows of laminated name cards with safety pins. Three or four framed portraits will be placed discreetly to one side. There will be dates beneath the faces: classmates who died before their time. There will be one I have seen before; a young girl outside a red brick house with a new-born lamb in her arms, her cheeks the scratched pink of a ripe peach. Forever fifteen.

I park my car outside the red brick cottage with the barn behind. This time there is no hesitation. Because I loved Ruth. Because I still love Ruth. Because it was I who had kissed her and not the other way around, and Ruth had told no-one. I gave Ruth my shame because I had been unable to handle it. Because I was too young and stupid to know that I would never in my life love someone as much as I had loved Ruth.

Because it is time, 32 years later, that I told someone that.

Author’s Note

DPP v Hannon is a case about the meaning of the phrase ‘miscarriage of justice’. In 1999, following a trial in which he pleaded not guilty, Feichín Hannon was convicted of sexual assault and common assault and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, which was suspended. The complainant, Una Hardester, was ten years old at the time. Nine years later she retracted her allegation in its entirety.

It was the statement from the complainant in this case which drew me in: the ten-year-old girl who ‘did something terribly wrong and got away with it’. Feichín Hannon pleaded not guilty in the original trial but did not appeal the conviction, so, to all intents and purposes his accuser did ‘get away with it’. The jury believed her account. But to assume that is to discount the notion of personal guilt and how heavily it can weigh. Una Hardester’s statement raises issues of conscience, of peace of mind, and whether we ever truly get away with what we do to others.

Our lives are hugely affected by what happens to us when we are children but in the story I have written, I wanted to explore the notion of a life being poisoned by something one did as a child or a teenager, particularly a wrong that went unpunished. What if the window for righting that wrong was missed? I wanted to explore the notion of crossroads. How sometimes it is only afterwards that we realise we have negotiated one of the major junctions of our lives. And if we have taken the wrong path, it may be too late to change.

The Lamb by Andrea Carter was first published in Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, edited by Danielle McLaughlin (The Stinging Fly Press).

The shortlisted stories for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year are:

Parrot by Nicole Flattery (The Stinging Fly, Issue 39, Volume 2, Winter 2018-19)

A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden (Full of Grace, published by Red Stag)

Mother May I by Amy Gaffney (HCE Review, Volume 3, Issue 1)

Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy (Banshee, Issue 8)

Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell (Still Worlds Turning, published by No Alibis Press)

The Lamb by Andrea Carter (Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press)

Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie said: “Writing.ie has been sponsoring the Short Story of the Year for several years now and the standard of stories is always, as you’d expect, incredibly high – shortlists have featured some of our most noted writers. Writing.ie is very much focused on creating opportunity for writers, providing resources to help them improve and information on outlets for publication, and we carry this through into the short story category of the An Post Irish Book Awards. We take submissions from online journals and magazines as well as traditionally published books/collections, so not only do we get a wonderful mixture of submissions, but the playing field is wide open for all short story writers to submit and perhaps be shortlisted beside established names. The competition is judged completely anonymously so we never know who has written what until the shortlist announcement!

The judges were Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin Unesco City of Literature; Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop; and literary agent Simon Trewin. You can vote for your favourite short story on the An Post Irish Book Awards website anpostirishbookawards.ie

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