Waiting, a new short story by Mel O’Doherty
Longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award, a tale of bullying and parental love
Mel O’Doherty lives in Douglas, Cork, and teaches English and history. His debut novel, Fallen, will be published by Bluemoose Books next June
My father was bullied as a child. I never knew. He told me in Spain when we were having drinks by the sea. He was looking out across the water; maybe something out there set him off; maybe the noise of the kids on the beach. Or it may have been the distance that did it; the little dislocation that a holiday gives, from the land you left and the life you led there; the whole life. He hadn’t been away since my mother died. He was wearing sunglasses and his voice quivered now and then and his skin pulled to wrinkles when he’d thin his eyes, like he was squinting back across the decades.
“They don’t leave you,” he said. “Some things.”
Then he sipped his beer and tapped his wedding ring off the side of the bottle and looked down the beach somewhere.
“Being left-handed. That was a bad thing in the forties.”
He went quiet then, just sat there and the warm breeze fluttered a strand of his white hair and I had the thought it was rebelling, fleeing the scalp and the thoughts under it.
“First day of school. Sitting at that little desk. Picked up a crayon and started colouring. Nun comes over and . . . whack! Down comes the leather on that chubby little hand. ‘The devil is left-handed!’ That’s what she said – if you can believe it. Where does that leave a child’s mind? Nowhere good I can tell you.”
“Obama is left-handed,” I said. I don’t know why.
“Talk about signs of the devil. A bastard mixed-race child – the nuns would’ve had a time with him.”
“I think his parents were married, Dad.”
“God – where did I – ?”
“I think they divorced when he was quite young.”
He took a sip then raised up the bottle and held his index finger out from it, pointing it upward. “Ah,” he said.
He turned out to the sea.
“They used lock them away, you know. Illegitimates – back in the day. And their mothers as well.”
“Incredible,” I said. “What was done.”
He held out his left hand as if to display it, or display something.
“Some crimes against god had to be locked away. Some could be beaten away. Just whack the child till he’s right-handed. That was the thinking, really.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
His head shook faintly.
“But the kids don’t stop. From your first days of school up until your last. ‘Devil Deasy, Devil Deasy.’ I made my confirmation in 6th class. April, I think. Walked out the school doors in June, twelve years of age. Never went back.”
“Jes’ – so young.”
“Sure you knew that.”
“Yeah, but not the other stuff.”
He nodded, then he picked up a beermat and stood it on its side and began to rotate it slowly between his thumb and fingers.
“My first job – helping a gravedigger down behind the church. Christy was his name. I ever tell you that?”
“He’d usually have the square spade for edging and I’d be doing the donkey work with the pick or the shovel, and he’d be watching me to see I was putting the right soil in the right pile. He had three different piles for the different soils. The first foot is light and dry and rolls on the shovel. Foot two to four is heavier soil. The last foot is dark and wet and thick and the worms look different down there. Then, when the coffin’s down and the people are gone, back it all goes in reverse order.”
“People aren’t buried at six feet?”
“Nah. Five mostly. Less if it’s a re-opener – a wife or husband who was there first. The shovel starts sounding clunky in the earth, and you feel that first coffin under your feet. I hated that. But you get used to it, I suppose. Like everything else.”
“Christy said to me once, ‘You could be diggin’ here for me some day. Well leave me down gently, child. Leave me down gently in that soil.’ And I remember the way he looked at the wet earth then. Probably the same way I looked at the old schoolhouse. Six months I was a gravedigger’s lacky, and I didn’t mind it, if I’m being honest. Then I got a job in a Cork Examiner van delivering papers to shops around the county. Driver would pull up and I’d get out and drop the bundle outside on the step and we’d carry on. At nineteen a spot opened in the printing side of it. Stayed there on Academy Street for fifty-five years. Half of Cork was emigrating and I had an apprenticeship in The Examiner. I tell you, my mother was happy. Her left-handed devil-child.”
He dropped the beermat on the table and left the bottle on it and sat back and folded his arms on his stomach.
“They stay with you, though. Your schooldays. Even at my age. And you weep for the child in them. You weep for the tears he shed, for his trauma. But he’s gone, of course. A childhood vanished, the way they all vanish, I suppose. But the pain stays, like something left behind by the tide. You have your own kids, you think: Someone bullies my child . . . I’ll . . . there’ll be nothing I won’t do. Nothing. And I’m sure you feel the same about yours.”
“Of course. The parent’s pain is worse, almost.”
“Well, now, I’m thinking the same thing, and I’m glad you said that. It is almost worse. ’Cause they can’t do a thing about it. And that’s the problem. I used sit there on that tiny chair with a nun pointing at my left hand like it was Satan himself and the children giggling all around me. You just wouldn’t tell your parents in those days. And they didn’t have the standing of those brides of Christ anyway. You were alone with it, begging the Lord at night to help you with your right-hand-writing. Make it legible, between the lines and all that. Avoid that awful leather strap. But ya, you pray for something to come in, or someone, to stop it all, to end your suffering. But no one did. The thought of your kid going through the same – that was a torture I would not take. Can’t blame a man for that. No, no. Not your own flesh and blood.”
He looked out to the sea again, and we did not speak for a while.
The following January, he was gone. And there, staring down at his coffin, it came to me, like a callous awakening. And everything changed; my days and my nights and the years to come. I think of us both looking out to the dying sun and the cutlery clinks of other tables and the children playing in the low waves, and I chide myself for my dimwittedness. For it seems quite obvious to me now; it all seems so obvious, what didn’t then by the Spanish sea.
MICKEY O’SHEA WAS A KID in our school. Everyone called him Shazzer. He lived alone with his mother. ‘A bastard’ as my father once said. He’d stick fellas’ biros up his ass when they were out in the yard and later he’d watch them suck on them at their desks doing their spellings. Down in the woods he put a disabled kid up a tree and left him there. The whole town was looking for the child half the night. When they came upon him he was shaking and howling with his limbs wrapped around a branch a few meters off the ground. When they brought him down he kept screaming, wild and high-pitched, “Sha, Sha”, still shaking with the cold. I heard Shazzer laughed when the Gardaí called to his door.
Even his friends were wary of him; he was just one of those bad-hearted kids and you’d hear stories from the others when he wasn’t around, like he broke into a house or pulled up all the flowers in an old lady’s garden. He stole books from the library once, burned them on the footpath outside with lighter fluid. The librarian came out screaming: “You evil, evil boy.” He just laughed and walked away. There was a consensus among us kids and our parents, and the teachers in the school and the people down the town or out around the townland and the little villages beyond, people who’d only ever heard the name Mickey O’Shea; that he was bad, that he was an incurably bad child.
There had been frogspawn in the waterlogged ground close by the trees that lined the road from school and we’d stopped off there in previous days and gathered around to look at it. It looked to me like a hundred eyes stuck in segments of jelly. Some said they were like see-through billiard balls or ink-blots in goo. We were gathered there one day, talking low and pointing down at it; when the wind blew the water would shimmer and some boys would gleefully claim to have sighted movement in the black dots and other boys would call them liars and shush them for they were scaring the spawn. And there we all stood that day quietly looking down; waiting for one of those little black dots to flicker; some plucky thing to strike out amidst its torpid brothers into the moving, living world.
I sensed he was there then; a fear descended, like a drizzle; I looked up and saw Shazzer on the other side of the puddle, maybe six feet away. He leaned out over the water as the others did, the tips of his shoes dipped into its shallow edges. Then he walked away. I did not see him returning at first, but as he approached the boys parted and that’s when I saw him holding a big rock with both hands against his stomach. He stopped at the edge of the water, raised the rock over his head, his face red with its weight and his arms trembling, though a blankness to his eyes that I’ve never forgotten. Then he planted the rock down into the water.
Some boys got a bit wet but they said nothing and walked away and some bent down and flicked bits of frogspawn from their shoes or the ends of their pants. The rock sat poking out of the water like a vile iceberg and a few of us just stared down at it, hoping to see some remnant jelly when the water cleared. A few then came to the surface, singly like little floating eyeballs and we pointed at them silently. Then the last few boys turned away toward home. Only he and I were left.
I looked up and stared across to him. He stared back at me. He was probably a head taller than me and thin and he had a crew-cut and one ear stuck out more than the other; when he stared at something he did so by squinting out of one eye, the side at which his ear protruded, as if to re-balance his features. He looked at me now with this squint and I knew I was in trouble, and I didn’t care. I would’ve planted that rock in his head there and then if I could have.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” he said.
“At you,” I said.
I stayed looking at him from one side of the water and he looked right back from the other.
“Keep looking youngfella. Just keep looking. I’ll break your face for ya.”
I just stared silently at him.
Then he walked around the big puddle and caught me by the throat, punched me in the face and threw me head-first into the water.
I stayed in the water for a few seconds. Then I rose and wiped my face. I could see him walking away. I took off my soaked jumper and shirt and tie and I walked home in my dripping vest. My mother shrieked when she saw me in the hall. She asked me what had happened and I told her. She said she would go up to the school in the morning but I begged her not to. When my father came home in the evening, she told him. He said little, just agreed with me that it was a bad idea to go up to the school.
“It won’t stop it,” he said.
“What will?” my mother asked.
He walked out of the room and turned back at the door, and said “Time,” and carried on out to the hall.
But every day after, Shazzer was waiting for me outside school. Sometimes right outside the school gates, sometimes further down by the trees. He’d pop out from behind one and punch me hard somewhere on the body or trip me and sit on me and start pulling my locks or stuffing grass in my mouth. He flung dogshit at me once, using one of his copybooks as a shovel. Another time he emptied all my books across the road and cars drove over them. Every day it was something.
I didn’t tell my mother, but I knew she knew; I’d hear her tell my father in the evening, after dinner, when I left the room.
“Wait it out. Wait it out.”
That’s what he used to say to her and I think he was as much saying it to me, that he knew I was leaning over the bannister, listening. And as with all things, he was right too about Shazzer. After about three weeks, it stopped. He wasn’t there after school anymore. I supposed he moved onto some other kid, and I was happy about that; that’s the way kids are I suppose; glad the torture was now someone else’s. You carry on with your days and your life and you see him the odd time in the corridors of the school and you look down until he passes by and pass by he does. Wait it out, wait it out. We were right to do that. I came out the other side with nothing but bruises and the acrid memory of bully-breath and when I told my father one evening that the torture was over, he said, “See. See now. I told you.”
One morning, a few months later, just days before the summer holidays, I went into school and the teachers’ smiles of the coming summer were gone and replaced with grimly pressed lips and flitting eyes and parents out at the gates leaned toward each other when they spoke and watched their kids to the door and the children rushed to each other and cupped their mouths and spoke through their fingers. For the incorrigible Mickey O’Shea was missing.
AT THE BEGINNING, everyone said he just ran away from home, because that’s what a Garda had said to someone down the town after a few pints; something like, “Yerra, the good weather will keep him, but now, his stomach is another matter.” And though he had run away a few times before, his mother was adamant that this time was different. And that woman went out to the woods and the low hills behind the town, calling out her son’s name those first few days. A week later the Gardaí went over the same ground, walking in lines across the fields and furze and into the woods, and then the dog units came down from Cork; we watched them from the road, darting low and silent in and out of the trees in zig-zags. There were scuba divers in the river and I saw some of my classmates on the news behind a reporter with a microphone. “They’ll be doing door-to-door,” my father said at dinner. And they did. They knocked a few days later. It was late in the evening and we had just watched a helicopter over our town on the news. We told them what we knew. I told them that I had run afoul of him months before but that it fizzled out and I assumed he had moved onto another kid and the two Gardaí nodded and confirmed that, yes he had, he had started on some other lad from our school, younger than me. They looked at my parents and shook their heads.
And that was the thing really, throughout the town there were alternating airs of different things, hourly changes from mystery to suspicion to the rogue excitement of being on the national news. But there was no sadness. Not with me or my parents or the Gardaí that spoke to us or the teachers or the people in shops down the town or even the priest in Mass; only that sombre quietness which grew as the length of his disappearance grew, until it became a fear, a town-wide anxiety that you’d see in people’s eyes about the footpaths; for there was a knowing, day by day, that a thirteen-year-old boy had not run away or fallen in the river, but had come to a different end, a much-hated boy, and so everything closed away but the fear, growing about us all, on the edges of every thought and word, like glaucomas of the mind.
BUT IT ALL FADES, eventually. The helicopter goes first, then the news cameras and microphones, then the Gardaí from Cork are gone and The Cork Examiner no longer carries pictures of the woods and the lowhills of the town, which for many weeks they had described as “picturesque”. The accoutrements and fanfare of the disappearance, they too drift away like a strange second vanishing. His mother would be seen sometimes, outside a pub in town, screaming at some barman that was barring her way from re-entering. And then the Gardaí would come and she’d lose her mind when she’d see them. “Ye don’t care! Ye don’t care! ’Cause ye thought he was a blaggard!” They’d stand there talking to her till she calmed down. Then they’d put her in the back seat and take her home and carry her to the couch in her frontroom. His Communion picture was on a table there, amidst empty cans and whiskey bottles and cold candlewax and full ashtrays.
You hear these things, I don’t know how, in a town like ours. But the stories fade, as the interest does, and the memory. Two years later she died. There was a poor showing at her funeral. My parents went, “for the least of my brethren,” my mother said. Poor old Mickey O’Shea. The boldest child you’d ever see. He became a memory and the rest of us became teenagers. We used steal drink from home and drink it down the woods and we’d trip on a mound of earth in the dark and point at it and say, “Shazzer – get out of the way,” and we’d laugh, then sit around the fire and ruminate on all the theories of what happened to him. Shazzer the bully, the bastard, the torturer of children, the killer of tiny life, the disappeared, the news, the mystery; the forgotten. He was many things in that short life; most of them growing out of his ending.
I WAS SO GLAD my father came to Spain that year. Playing with the kids in the water, I’d look back now and again to him sitting on a rug on the sand, in a pants and short-sleeved shirt, rocking slightly with his arms clasped about his legs and wearing a sun-faded green cap he’d bought in Bunratty Castle years ago. I’d wave at him and he’d wave back. He’d walk for a while at the water’s edge and in the evening when my wife took the children back to the hotel he’d sit with me at a table off the sand and sip beer and he’d glance sceptically at my wine or cocktail or whatever I took a chance on.
“Sure why not?” I’d say and raise my glass. He’d raise his bottle of Heineken or Budweiser, the drinks he’d heard of, and the white wicker-chairs would crackle minutely when we moved, like someone treading on a crisp-bag, and we’d sit there looking out at the sea. And out of the blue one of the days, he just said it; told me he was bullied as a child. Your mouth dries suddenly and the breeze seems to drop away to its own escape and other voices become dim or distant, as his does. I must confess, it never occurred to me as odd, all the times I’d surely witnessed it; that he was left-handed for all things, except to write.
He held out his right hand then, examining it theatrically before dropping it beneath the table again and then he turned and, with a tiredness, he rolled his eyes down his left arm like fate and memory were etched in the pale, wrinkled flesh of it.
“I still hate writing,” he said. “Just hate picking up a pen. Believe that – after all these years?”
“I do, Dad,” I said. “I’m slightly upset to be honest.”
“Don’t be,” he said.
I could see he was sad himself. We were glad of our sunglasses then, the two of us. We sat for a while just looking out to the sea; some men went past with sophisticated looking fishing rods and deeply tanned legs and arms. I wished my legs were that colour. We got up from the table soon after that; we paid the bill and walked along the boards past the bars and restaurants and skewered sardines smoking on the coals like hellish xylophones; their eyes shrivelled and blank, and mine perhaps. We had dinner back in the hotel with my wife and the children and we went to bed early that night. I didn’t sleep. Just stared into the dark and I could hear the sea and way, way off, the low bass of bar music. And I thought of my father as a child, and I wept.
IT WAS A STROKE that got him. Eight days in hospital, unconscious. You reflect a lot, sitting there holding his hand, wiping his lips. You reflect on the Christmas he snuck past, his last gift to you, his last words, his last purchase in the shop in the town where he still lived, where you grew up; it was a carton of milk and some Zip firelighters. And that last holiday. You roam through it with your arms out, like a child in the sheets on a clothesline.
They lowered his coffin in the cold January earth; the earth where my mother lay, the earth he’d dug once, sorting it into three piles. It was then, for the first time in many years, that Mickey O’Shea re-entered my thoughts; with the belts being pulled up from the coffin handles. And I don’t know why he came to me then. Perhaps it was all the remembering at my father’s bedside; the far-off things and the near; maybe Mickey was always near, in the mind somewhere, close by and unseen, like his body I suppose. Maybe it was the sight of the cut soil – pulled him out of the mind’s abyss. And then, gazing down at my father’s coffin, I had the thought that they were bound in many ways; by me, by death, by the cold West Cork earth. The bully and bullied. And it hit me then, near buckled my legs like I was suddenly carrying them both on my shoulders: that my father had something to do with it. That my father was involved in the disappearance of Mickey O’Shea. I stood at his grave for a long time that day, and that’s all I could think about. In the days and weeks and months that followed, I thought of little else. Those sentences by the sea. “Someone bullies your child . . . there’ll be nothing I won’t do. Nothing.” “Can’t blame a man for that. No, no. Not his own flesh and blood.” “That was a torture I would not take.”
I drag these sentences about each day and lay them down on the pillow each night and they are there in the morning, painted in the bloodshot of my eyes. He had done what he entreated me to do; he had waited it out. And when sufficient time had passed he . . . I suppose he met Mickey O’Shea somewhere, with shovel and whatever else.
But what is there to do only carry on; keep busy and hope for a fading. “They stay with you, though. Your schooldays,” he’d said, and yes they do. I stand over his grave sometimes and I ask him. It’s silly, I know. But I ask him over and over: “Dad, did you kill Mickey O’Shea?” I stare up at the ceiling in the dark most nights, listening to my wife breathe and listening to his words there by the Spanish sea. I will go to the Gardaí tomorrow, I say. I will, I will. But of course, I never do.
He’s with me forever now, Mickey. Perhaps I will visit with the Gardaí after all, just to play my part. Put an end to all this waiting; waiting to turn my dead father in. His face on the news, next to Mickey’s. Who’d have thought it all those years ago. I doubt they’ll find him. My father, the bullied, the left-handed, the right-writer; the grave-digger. Maybe the nuns were right about the left-handed. Oh Garda, I’ll say. Beware the beaten child.
Mel O’Doherty lives in Douglas, Cork, and teaches English and history. He is 45 years old and married with three young children. He was shortlisted for the Francis MacManus Short Story Award in 2019, was a runner-up for the Sean O Faolain Award in 2020, and Waiting was longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award in 2020. His debut novel, Fallen, will be published by Bluemoose Books in June 2021