Monday, May 19, 2008

Alyn Fenn - Short Story Winner


Alyn Fenn lives by the sea in Schull, Co. Cork. She is married with three sons, aged 22, 13 and 10. She has a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts and has been painting for twenty-five years. Four years ago she took up writing poetry and short stories. She has been published in the SHOp poetry magazine and has won several other prizes for her short stories, among them The William Trevor International Short Story Competition 2007.

Don't Left Me

Every moment of every day still has to be used up and there is never a moment when I am free of it, never a moment when it doesn’t invade every cell of my body, like a deathly sickness it devours me repeatedly, my first thought on waking and my last at night before I sleep, and then the nightmares come. No end.

I trudge through the sleeping city toward the docks, over the snow thick pavements, my feet sinking deep into the drifts and the slush seeping into my shoes which become progressively wetter with each step. I do not care. The black trees along the seafront are laden with translucent ice.
*****By the time the ferry departs the sun has begun to rise, turning the city pale pink and golden. I am alone on the deck. I know that I ought to find this spectacle beautiful, that is to say, I am aware that a scene such as this is commonly considered beautiful, but for some time now, nothing has been of any worth to me, although, if I try hard, I can still faintly remember the things I once found compelling - hydrangeas, flushed pink and blue, the exquisite design of each perfect petal, mother of pearl shells strewn along a beach, still glistening from the tide.

I’d left Jamie at the babysitter’s earlier than usual that day. He clung to my leg.
*****Don’t left me, Mummy,’ he begged.
*****I pressed my cheek next to his, kept it there an extra moment, eyes closed, breathing in his skin smell, sweet like honey with a tang of small boy sweat.
*****‘Mummy has to go.’

*****When I turned at the gate, I could see him watching, his small face pressed to the window.

After the ship leaves land the weather changes rapidly. The sky that was clear and streaked pink turns murky and a wall of cloud looms on the horizon ahead of us. The ocean is a heavy grey green, the waves surge against the bow, a few seagulls bob on the surface like scraps of bread tossed into the waters. The water will be so cold as to instantly numb the body, the sort of cold so intense it burns and paradoxically feels almost warm. I draw my coat tighter around me and wish for courage. That it will be quick. That there will be an end.
*****An old man with a packet of cigarettes in his hand comes out on deck. He is stooped and thin with a straggly white moustache. From the deck above comes the sound of a woman’s laughter. The old man puts a cigarette between his lips and takes a lighter from his pocket and cups his hands around the flame, tilting his head to light his cigarette. Although I have not smoked for close to thirteen years, the acrid smell sends a surge of longing through my veins. I stand downwind sharply sucking smoke between my teeth. I badly want a cigarette, so much do I want one that before I even know it’s going to happen, I have spoken.
*****‘Could I get a cigarette?’
*****He turns and looks at me with sad watery eyes. ‘Yes, of course.’ He fumbles with the lid. The red and white of the pack makes me think of last Christmas morning, Jamie, old enough by then to be fully part of the excitement, waking up to the filled stocking at the end of his bed.
*****‘Mummy! Mummy! He did come!’
*****The brain is full of these unbidden associations. The nerve in my left eyelid begins its frequent twitching.
*****He gets the pack open and slides a cigarette towards me.
*****‘Thank you,’ I say. To my dismay large tears form behind my lids. I blink quickly, and give my cheek a surreptitious wipe under cover of tucking my hair into my collar, hoping he won’t notice my distress.
*****I put the cigarette between my lips and the old man leans forward in a tentative manner, and lights it for me. His fingernails are remarkably clean. The first inhalation causes me to choke and spew out a thick cloud of yellowish smoke. As I try to control my coughing I become aware of a headache forming at the base of my skull, a dull beating like a hammer on something soft.
*****‘They’re strong,’ he says, ‘if you’re not used to them.’
*****I nod, shoulders hunched with coughing, eyes watering. When the spasm eases I take another small experimental drag and look down at the waves and think of how small a person would be down there in the sea, floating beside the seagulls which only look as big as the tip of a fingernail. How the person’s tears would slide down their cheeks into the ocean, blend into that vast salt liquidness and be lost forever.

* * * *

I saw a boy the other day - the physical resemblance was so strong I had to use all my strength to stop myself from running over and throwing my arms about him crying out, ‘Where have you been?’

I stand staring over the rail and smoking, and all the time I can feel my companion watching me and gathering to say something. The air has turned glacial.
*****‘I’m Manfred,’ he says softly, putting out his hand, ‘Manfred Mc Pherson.’
*****Those clean finger nails. I find them upsetting for some reason I can’t fathom. As I throw my cigarette out over the side large drops of rain start to fall. The wind is rising. It feels as if I am moving in slow motion, underwater or through a thickened air. I put out my hand. Our fingers meet, his are icy cold, behind him the clouds lower themselves to the sea and block the horizon.
*****‘I’m Helen.’
*****He shakes my hand gently. He carries an air of sadness about him, like a man who has lost a valuable possession or one who is never free of some past regret or current worry or future fear. He takes out his cigarettes and offers me another.
*****‘Thank you.’
*****The rain gets heavier. I hear a faint wheeze in his chest as I lean forward for him to light my second cigarette. It’s strange the things one notices at times like these, I feel at once disconnected from the world and yet completely tuned in to all its sounds, sights, smells, all my senses super sharp.
*****I was happy, once. I know I was. I am sure.

They telephoned me at work. I went to the station. The babysitter wept, they’d been at the playground, she’d only taken her eyes off him for a moment, she’d looked everywhere, asked everyone, no one had seen anything untoward.
*****‘We are doing all we can, Ma’am,’ said the policewoman.
*****They made enquiries, conducted searches, set up a hotline, followed leads. It was three weeks before they found him.

The wind whips and tugs around us, plucks at my clothes, snatches at my hair. The old man hunches against the wind, one knobbly hand gripping the rail, the other cupping his cigarette against the rain. I can hear pop music playing somewhere, someone has a radio or perhaps it is the ship’s piped music. The sound is incongruous with the weather - the storm clouds, the freezing rain, the wind - and over it all growls the ship’s engine, a deep steady thrum from the bowels of the ship, pushing us ever further from the land.
*****‘When I came out here and saw you . . .’ he turns from the rail, ‘. . . I thought for a minute you were going to jump.’

The nightmares. In them Jamie comes back to me, not as the living but as the dead, his skin blackened and mottled with yellow splodges, slipping off his face, the marks visible around his neck. And all I can think of is how I was not there to comfort him, to wipe his tears, to kiss him, his lips, his cheeks, his eyelids, his ears, as I used to do some nights when he was asleep, cover him with silent kisses in the dark.

I stare out to sea. The waves are building, dense walls of water rolling ahead of the prow, their white caps startlingly bright against the dull green sea, the rain slanting in sheets across the surface. I have a feeling of doom, like in those apocalyptic dreams before one falls into the void. The cigarette burns my fingers then and I throw it over the side where it is immediately whipped away by a gust and carried high into the air before disappearing.
*****‘That’s gone,’ I say.
*****The old man gives me an uncertain smile. Behind us the storm continues to build. I feel frozen and shivery, as if I have chills, a bad case of flu coming on. The waves claw one another’s backs and another bank of purplish grey cloud is building.

Of course he was afraid. He was only four years old. He cried for his mother. For three weeks my little boy lay in some sadist paedophile’s cellar and cried for his mother.
I begged them not to tell me any more.
*****I had to identify him. They were pretty sure they said but . . . He was wearing his Spiderman t-shirt, it was streaked with dirt and also some stains that looked like rust but later I realised they were blood and his face was a yellowish white colour like old candle wax in a church no one visits.

‘Do you have any children?’ the old man asks.
*****I look away. ‘No.’
*****He takes out his wallet. ‘Would you like to see a picture of my granddaughter?’
*****The photograph, protected in a plastic cover, is of a small girl wearing a white sunhat and a white dress with red flowers, smiling gleefully; she’s on a beach, a cerulean summer sky at her back and in front of her an enormous sandcastle.
*****‘Anytime she sees a camera,’ he says, ‘she’s switched on.’
*****I look at his hands. I want to snatch the wallet out of them and fling it into the sea. Rip his clean fingernails out with my teeth.
*****‘What’s her name?’ I ask.
*****‘Lucy Angela. Her full name is Lucy Angela Mc Pherson. L A M P. Lucy is Latin for light.’ He looks boyishly pleased. ‘It wasn’t on purpose.’
*****‘I always called her by her full name,’ he says, ‘Lucy Angela. Her mother just calls her Lucy.’
*****I long for my mind to be a blank.
*****‘I don’t see her any more,’ he says. ‘My son got divorced and then Lucy Angela and her mother moved to Australia.’
*****I look over the edge. The portholes are like eyes watching over the endless expanse of sea. Lucy Angela, in your white dress with the brave red flowers which maybe you don’t even wear anymore, where are you now? Do you even remember your grandfather? And I think about Jamie at the babysitter’s, his little face pressed to the window, waiting faithfully for me to come back and get him. The next time I saw him he was lying on a stainless steel table. He was covered up at first and then the policewoman uncovered him and I said that is my son, and I touched his hand and then I laid my face on his chest and wept and said over and over that I loved him and that I was sorry and the pain in my chest was so big I thought I would surely burst and die right there but I didn’t.
*****‘I’m sorry about Lucy Angela,’ I say. ‘I hope you’ll see her again one day.’
*****And I turn away from the rail and go inside.

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