MINOR WAYS OF BEING

Olivia Kiernan

In the photo, only the spiked tips of the hedgerows are visible. They jut into the darkening sky, as if protruding from the kitchen window ledge. A thunder storm is threatening. That’s probably what’s got the attention. Looking closer, I notice I’ve included the cold tap. It looks dingy. A thin track of lime scale rings around the steel. Unclean. Heat fills my cheeks. I probably should have edited that out. A text box appears on the screen. Another follower. I lean in.

“That’s an angry lookin’ sky alrite!”

The corner of my mouth twitches. The heat leaves my face. I relax.

“It is. Thanks for stopping by.”

They’re borrowed words but they become mine; my voice chirping them out in my head as I type.

Bertie is standing in the doorway. He likes to do that. Surprise me. “Hi Darling. It looks like that storm is on the way.”

I’ve not seen him since this morning, when he eased by me in the bathroom, took up his toothbrush and smiled at me through the gathering steam on the mirror. Gaps are opening up in the time we spend together. It may be that I am creating that space. I’m not sure. Although, goodness knows I can’t go on as I am. I know it’s not right. But I need him. At least until I can learn how to be without him.

“Hi Bertie.”

I’m tucking the tablet away. Into my bag. He follows me through the hallway, into the sunshine yellow of my bedroom. Our bedroom. He’s studying the clouds, hand curved around his mug, three slim fingers passing easily through the handle.

“Are you sure you want to go out in that?”

Glancing outside, I purse my lips at the incoming cloud. A beat. Then I’m rummaging through my bag. I unearth a tube of lipstick and swipe it across my mouth.

“It’ll hold off ‘til I get to town. I’ll nip in for a coffee until it passes.”

“It would make a great painting.”

When I don’t answer he moves to the window. He smiles down at a fat round cactus. “It’s flowering. I can’t believe it.”

I hadn’t wanted to say anything. He’d been waiting for it to flower. A joke in the days before he had to go; that the small cactus on our window had shown us its fluffy pink flowers only once, days after we bought it, days after our wedding.

“I know. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. But hey, you can see it now.”

I try to smile at him but I know the effect looks pained. Fake. He is fading. Then he is gone. I stare into the expanse he occupied. In moments like this, I am unable to remember how to be. There is a genuine quaking fear in me that I may never be able to move, lift my eyes from where he once stood, sat, laughed, smiled. Time snakes by around me.

I reel my gaze in. There are tears in my eyes. Fresh grief. I sniff, shake my head, my eyes catch sight of the pink flowers. My hand is already lifting the tablet from my bag. Focus. The flowers are so incredibly neat. So uniform. A perfect crown of glory around a green spiky king. I count six buds. The petals of each one fold outwards, throwing colour across the aggressive landscape they adorn. Bursts of rebellion.

I upload the moment, the photo. A sunset shared and all that.

“Beautiful.”

“Wow. I’ve a cactus twenty years. It’s never flowered.”

“Thank you. This one took its time. Lol.”

I’ve gained more followers. I take a moment to glance at their profiles, clicking the like button for any images that connect with me, leave my mark, pieces of me trailing behind, pieces of me reaching out.

 

In town, the roads are glittering with rain. Sun is filtering through the broken cloud. Somehow I have missed the storm. It has swerved by me or I it. I can see it sheeting through the sky in the distance, grey stripes of rain reaching to the horizon. The warm arch of a rainbow shimmers in its wake.

“Amazing shot. Hope there’s a crock of gold at the end for you.”

“Lol. Thank you.”

“I love the smell in the air after a storm. Thanks for sharing.”

“You’re welcome. Me too.”

I inhale the air. It’s not all that different. It’s heavy and sweet on the palate and I realise there is no breeze to lift the staleness from the atmosphere. There’ll likely be another storm tonight.

The high stool at the coffee shop window is uncomfortable. But I need to see the street. To see the world and his wife pass by. The final mouthful of coffee is lukewarm and the granules of sugar slither onto my tongue, half dissolved and gritty. The image shows a small puddle of milky liquid at the base of the cup. A thin line of chocolate dust is caked around the top, strips of foam streak down the inside.

“Much needed caffeine break. Lovely.”

“Definitely a day for coffee and staying indoors.”

“Agreed! Ha.”

“Or shopping? Coffee and shops. That’s about all you can do in this weather. Lol.”

Shopping. I examine my clothes. It’s too soon. Maybe. His opinion is still wed to each of the items I’m wearing. The toes of my trainers peak out from beneath my jeans. There is a crack across the rubber tips, my wet sock rubs against it. Before I can think too much about it, I have posted the picture.

“I reckon these have run their course. Shopping anyone?”

“I’d say they ran their course about five years ago. What’re you waiting for girlfriend?”

“Lol. They made a valiant effort though.”

“Got a new pair only last week. Great value and they’re luuuuuush!”

A photo appears in my feed. Loud, white trainers with silver stitching. My mouth pulls downwards. Not my thing.

“They’re gorgeous. Shoe envy. Big time. Will check them out.”

“Check out my website for some more shoe inspo anytime.”

“Will do. Thx.”

I hunt through the department store. It’s been a long while since I selected clothes or shoes without the idea of going somewhere in them. But the thought has grabbed me. A possibility. Everything looks tempting. I choose a pair of powder blue shoes and three wraparound dresses. There is an urgency in my being. A drive. I almost don’t recognise the feeling but in the fitting room I pause, look inwards, force myself steady and know it. Anticipation.

What will they think of this? Hashtag OOTD. Outfit of the day. Will they appreciate how the yellow scarf picks up a similar hue in one of the dresses? And the shoes, so unlike anything I would wear. Too out there. They will lie in my wardrobe for sure, un-creased, unbroken. But for this moment. I try one of the dresses, slip my feet into the shoes.

I set myself in front of the mirror, position the tablet over my face as I’ve seen others do and capture myself on the screen. Save. Then changing dresses I upload two photos.

“Not sure which one looks best? OOTD.”

“Oh that yellow looks great.”

“Thanks!”

“Rainy day antidote.”

“Lol. If I can’t have sunshine, I’ll wear it.”

“Diggin’ the shoes.”

“Shoes are in the bag. Dress heading to its forever home.”

I leave the shoes back on the shop shelf, my gaze lingers over the laces. Bertie slips his hand into mine.

“You should get them.”

“They’re impractical.”

He shrugs. Tips his head to one side. He looks like he wants to say something but I know he won’t unless I prompt; a habit that once drove me next to insanity.

“What?”

“You’re changing.”

“Am I?”

My voice is flat. It’s not really question but a gradual understanding. A knife edge of guilt turns in my throat. A gulp of air. I turn, needing to be away. When I’m in the street, I glance back. He’s still by the shoes, watching me leave. From a distance, his expression is a mix of pain and longing.

 

When I set the table for tea, I almost forget the pepper. Bertie could never have a meal without it. I can’t stand the dry flavour it gives everything. I’m arranging the cutlery. Setting my wine glass close to the plate. Steam is twirling up from the casserole. The smell of beef and the caramel scent of onion is warm on my tongue. Somehow the photo seems to have captured it. The dark sauce is visible through the cracked shortcrust, a soft corner of beef breaks through the steaming surface.

“Oh, that looks delicious. Comfort food heaven.”

“Your hubby’s gonna love that.”

I could own up. Tell them that my hubby would have loved it, that I cooked it for him but he can’t love it because he’s not here. I don’t. I am unfurling, a plant that has found a sliver of light to lean towards. A way to exist. I don’t want to let my darknesses crawl over this new way of being, swallow it up.

Bertie settles into the seat. He sniffs the air, a soft smile dreaming at the corner of his mouth.

“My favourite.”

“I know.”

“It’s helping you.”

He’s looking at my tablet. I push it across the table. Away.

“Sorry I left so quickly earlier.”

He shakes his head, touches the base of the pepper grinder.

“Darling, it’s okay to move on.”

Why has he said that? Why have I allowed that thought in? My lips are tight bands against my teeth. Leaning my head back, I take a breath then look at him again, try to make different words come out of his mouth. I need more time.

Finally he speaks again.

“I’ll be here. As long as you need me.”

A short, strangled cry breaks free of my throat. That’s better.

 

My shadow reaches out over the yellowing ground. Damp sycamore leaves, the colour of fox hair, lie around the darkened peak of my head. The angles of my elbows are distorted, shortened, my wrists elongated. My fingers are spider’s legs holding the silhouette of my tablet. The sun is blasting out gold from somewhere behind me, it catches on the dew lit grass at the edges of the photo.

“On my way to an old favourite.”

“Oooo where to? Looks like a great morning wherever you are.”

I want them to know. To approve. To let me be as I was. To bring me back out of myself.

“I am painting. An old haunt.”

The stone of the bridge is surprisingly warm under my hand. Lichen grazes my palm, damp moss rolls off with a stroke of my thumb.

“It’s been a while, darling. The light’s perfect for your work though.”

Bertie is huddled in a fleece next to me. The stream chatters and sighs. When I look at him, an ache throbs in my chest.

“I miss you.”

“I know.”

He places his hand on mine and for a breath I allow myself to feel it. Peace is weaving through my being, sewing me up.

 

At home, I uncover the painting and rest it on our bedroom window. On the canvas, the morning sun spreads itself generously over the crest of the bridge. The white bearded ripples of the stream are caught in the moment. I am almost done.

I take up my tablet, angle the camera to capture as much light as possible on the painting. I study the detail then the whole; so important to get it right. I take the shot. A heaviness in my chest pitches to one side, makes me gasp.

This was Bertie’s spot. Our spot. But the painting does not feel complete. My eyes catch on the window sill. On the flowering cactus. In my bag I find the right paints to mix: the tube of green, the red and white. It only takes a swipe of the brush and the cactus is transferred from window to below the bridge. To a spot where the sun likes to spend the day and the ground leans up tight against the stone. An ideal place for a man to rest his back.

I post the photo.

“Goodbye, Bertie.”

“Good bye, Darling.”

 

***

This story was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award.

A DIFFERENT SELF
Olivia Kiernan

Trenches

The driver keeps the horse steady. You collect your hat and fix it neatly to your head. A tuck at the back. A sweep of finger and thumb at the front. A breath. Your hand grips the worn canvas strap of your bag. You straighten. Soldier! Your foot finds the pavement but a thread holds you back, caught between the cart and a button on your uniform pocket. The horse moves away. Snap. The button shoots into the road. You are home.

You’ve not told them you’re coming. You tell yourself you wanted to surprise. The truth sits somewhere in the heat across the small of your back and the stinking sweat gathering under your arms.

You are moving down the single street. A group of children are kicking ball against the old barber shop. They seem like you might know them. The ball slaps against a rectangle drawn in chalk on the wall. Shoot! Goal! Shouts go up into the air like rifle fire. Your heels hit the pavement too hard; the ground rising to meet your boots. Hand over head, scramble through the noise. Avoid the barbed wire. Catch your breath.

You lift your head from your knees. Stand Soldier! Hand over thumping heart. You are a foreign entity, a child walking through his toy village. A giant invasion. Both invisible and loud, crashing through the quiet, every movement tainting safe memories, safe futures with pain. The contrast is the killer.

You seek out the neat skyline of the village, a skyline that’s both alien and familiar. Your gaze settles on the proud crown of the chestnut at the centre of the green. It seems that you spent all your life under the boughs of that tree. Seven. You won Deco Reilly’s prize conker. Ten. You climbed to the second branch; it cost you a broken arm and a chipped tooth. You touch your tongue to the sharp edge. Comfort. You are still here. Fifteen. Hail storm and a sweet, hot kiss from Flora Mullins.

Mrs. Byrne’s nose is against the butcher’s window and there are faces coming towards you from across the road. Faces that you recognise, that you once smiled at, bantered with. It feels as if you are looking at them from a long way aways. As if you’re the one peering through a murky window.

Shur look who it is? Home at last. Isn’t it well for ye? Does your Mammy know yet?

I don’t think so.

Oh, she’ll be thrilled. Aren’t you the lucky one? Not an injury about ye.

No injuries at all, Mrs. Byrne.

You are shrinking. Peeling apart from the inside, sucking inwards.

Lucky. Fortunate. Poor divils. Let me shake your hand, son.

Your face smiles, you can feel the hinges of your mouth working, the nuts and bolts of your neck. The damp squeeze of your hand. Shake. Nod. Smile. You are already moving away.

I’d best get going. She might have the tea ready.

And you remember those words. The past is resurrected in front of you. Like a favourite coat or a sweetheart’s embrace, it closes around your chest. You’ve said those words many times. She’ll have the tea ready. Comfort. Home. Warmth. But then nostalgia dissolves, leaving behind the cold sludge of fear; a damp, hollow, chill. You are ruined you think, then banish the thought from your mind.

Your eyes lift high to the curve of the countryside, where in the evening shadow the cross from St. Anthony’s church seems to project into the darkening sky from the top of the hill. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Lord save me.

The peak of Molloy’s house is at the end of the road. You remember it as grand. You painted the eaves a dark blue four summers ago. Sixteen. Shirt off, even when it rained, the hard rung of the ladder pressing through your boots. Shy glances through the window at their bedroom; rose quilted with four wide, fat pillows. You had fantasised about resting your cheek on them, pushing your face into the cool lavender-scented down. You try to conjure up the desire now but it flops over in your mind.

Three weeks ago you held a rare picture in your hands. The slimy, sagging walls of the trench pressed at your back as you stared at your home. Your village. Your family. You could not make your eyes believe them real. Ma and Da in the doorway, arms gathering children like a cherished bouquet between them.

Your ma’s head is bent towards you and your face is upturned in response, a defiant scowl on your brow. Nine. A man from the local rag points the camera. You want to play football. You do not want to be still. You don’t smile. Even though it would have come without trying; without directing your lips over your teeth. An easy smile that would have lifted your cheeks and shone in your eyes. Click.

At the door, you clear your throat. Emotion is squeezing across your chest. Spine poker straight. You lift your hand, form a fist and go to knock but fear clings to your elbow; pulls your arm back. Don’t touch. There is sweat stinging the rims of your eyes. Or tears. The door blurs. You blink. The war rages against your temples. Reality seems like it’s sifting away, as if with the first strike of your knuckles, your home will collapse into a heap of sand then drift off on a breeze.

You glance back from where you’ve come with a strong sense of longing. You can’t want to go back? You don’t. Run. Shoot. Shiver. You don’t. But it’s sank into the soft parts of you, made you deformed, filled you with horror, terror and shame; secret monsters of war that wake you at night drowning in sweat and piss. You struggle to find the parts of you not shaped by panic. A wedge of flesh or an unoccupied cavern between the angles of your skeleton untouched by the sight of blood-stained mud, or shrivelled by the dying moans of Paddy Tierney; the whimpering sleep of Jimmy Sullivan, the stench of your own foot rot and the acrid stink of gun powder. Somewhere between heart beats, you feel it. Beneath your shoulder blades. A shiver. A chance. You. It is such a vulnerable smudge of hope, it makes you nervous.

The door is opening. It sticks then shudders inwards. Against the gloom of the living room, she’s standing. Hand pressed over closed mouth; fingers bent white against her chin. You search for signs of change first. She is smaller or you are bigger. Her hands drop. Palms sliding over apron.

Hi Ma.

Her lips twitch.

Your Daddy’s at work.

I know.

Your eyes are stuck on hers. Held. Locked. Safe. There are tiny flickers of movement in her gaze as if she is cataloguing your hurt. You can feel your insides curling around that vulnerable particle of flesh.

Her hand moves from her side. White flash. Blood rush. You flinch. Head down, Solider.

Welcome home, son.

The cool of her palm is soothing against your hot cheek.

You are being led inside. Each step brings you further into before. Five. Sitting on the icy floor, new shoes. The bunny runs round the tree. Jumps in the hole. Close it up tight. Twelve. Loading the aga with turf. A perfect imprint of the handle branded into the pale blue skin of your forearm. Sixteen.

Doesn’t he look smashin’ now in his uniform?

Ah, that he does. You’ll take care now, son.

I will yeah, Ma. Don’t worry.

There is tea on the table. A half loaf, a pot of jam and a cup of pale brown tea; milky with half a sugar. You remember.

Let me take a look at you.

You are still as stone.

Her hands cup your face; fingers trembling against temples. Your skin aches, your breath trips. You reach up to settle her touch. To show her you’re okay. Be a man. Get up, goddammit. Fire! A burst of air spits through your lips. Your teeth bump together and you feel a sharp pinch at the back of your tongue. Panic rises through your feet, your guts twist and tighten, pull high under your ribs. Your ma is a watery presence before you but her hands are sure and firm against your skin.

Tis alright, son. You’re alright.

Cool hands glide down your arms. A tug on the cuff. A sweep over the shoulders. You are not sure when you came to be sitting. The chair feels too narrow, the seat too low. You do not fit.

We’ll fix that, shall we? I don’t have an exact match, but nearly is next to there, isn’t it son?

The thread from your pocket is captured between her finger and thumb. You’re nearly there. Nearly here.

Yes, Ma.

She spills a number of buttons into her palm and selects a brown knobble of wood.

She hums as she works. The tune weaves under your arms, around your back. Holds you in the past. Eleven. Ma’s lips on your forehead. You are ill, lying under hot, sticky sheets; at sea in your childhood bed. Your friends call out from the green, laughter streaming in through the window.

You are not sure when thought becomes words, but from nowhere you are speaking.

Will I feel myself again, Ma?

She wraps the excess thread around her index finger and tugs. Snap. When she looks up, her eyes are pools of compassion. Your mouth seals tight. She twists the button, adjusts it so that it rests neatly against the stiff fabric.

A different self, love. A different self.

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