The Cork Short Story Conference 2010
These puddles at Cork airport were special. Splashing each other, passengers had to jump between the tiny hooplas of rain. As rain fell it made endless circles on the concrete grounding. Not a time to go for a bus.
The taxi-driver had a copy of The Dark Secret of Illinghurst on what would have been the passenger seat. This gave clues from the start, if anyone had been quick enough. Getting into the back seat Bea made a comment on the splashing rain. He “hmphd” and went on driving. She tried again a bit later as the silence was unusual. He did not reply. The silence grew a thick texture in all the space of the taxi. Another car passed by –silver, new, driven by a very young woman. A For Sale €9,750 paper was stuck on the right window. Just bought. The new oil-mortgage-jobs crisis? Why sell it now? And how would they ever sell it, advertising only on the driver’s side, to others trapped in the logjam? They passed and repassed in the changing two snakes of traffic lanes.
“That red car over there has been damaged.” At first it had looked like a new design – another brand-new, this time scarlet, car –but it was scratched at the rear. “See, it has even grown bigger, there is a crack an inch wide now.” He was interested in this. The life of cars was of interest to any taxi-driver, however silent.
Just before this he had broken (or overlaid) the strong silence by putting on a tape. Spanish guitar plucked deliberately filled the cab. Now he was in charge of the silence and the sound as well. The meter ticked on. They had passed € 4.40 at the first sitting. Now it was reaching € 10.Then it became € 13. Bea would just have change from a twenty-euro note and give him a tip of one euro or perhaps two. But the traffic jam grew longer and longer.
Every new car that issued from car showrooms, from car factories (Where ? Where were cars made these days? How ignorant of everything real we are, we don’t even know where cars are manufactured.) She knew enough that they were not made in Ireland… but that led to other submerged thoughts. Every car has to be out on the roads. It is their destiny. The rain grew worse. The meter was past € 15 by now.
I will make him talk to me. I have paid for this. The photo on the windscreen was not like him at all. It reminded her of Eamonn, but all dark Irishmen did. She stared at it. He was entirely different, paler, light grey eyes. The dark-eyed, dark haired photo-man stared out stubbornly. I am in a taxi with a silent criminal – he could easily have kidnapped the real driver and stepped in here unchallenged. They did this to inveigle unsuspecting women and take them away and kill them The real taxi-driver was drugged, taken hostage, back at his bungalow at …
It had passed €18. I have rights.
“I could be listening to this on RTE back in the UK.”
“Really?” He was interested now. “The traffic report?”
“Yes. ‘Blocked on the Quays.’ Yes. I knew here.Was here.” Memories of Eamonn surfaced again. “I’m here now, for the Short Story conference.” The taxi-driver changed at this point. He loved books. Pointed at the book he’d been reading.
“Then you’ve got to get the ‘1001 Stories to Read Before You Die.’ I’ve found several already that I’d not have chosen. My children read. My daughter reads Enid Blyton, you’ve got to start somewhere.” From keeping a hostile silence, now he would not shut up. He threw title after title as she ran from the taxi in the rain, shouting to him to keep the entire €25, as it was too wet to wait for change. A silly pride sent her through the hostel door.
To have fidelity to writing, she should have turned back and asked for details of the book. He had disapproved of the hostel and would not say why, as if she had done something wrong… “You’ll find out,” he threatened.
And now the taxi, library book on the seat, was just turning down the damp slummy grey street. Houses huddled together like wet cardigans and the rain sped downhill filling gutters.
* * *
Sunday evening at the hostel counter, Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World assured that nothing lasts forever, so sad we nearly made it, everybody wants to rule the world. The world queued up one by one, brown, khaki, navy haversacks, accents and entire languages next to each other trying to make sense.
Behind the counter a girl of uncertain nationality , which turned out to be South African, dealt with everyone with blonde equanimity.
While Radio Eireann told of traffic jams on the N17, storms in Dublin, a girl stood with a cascade of loud French at the payphone alongside and Tears For Fears faded into the distance.
Crammed red geraniums tried to enter the reception-cum-dining area, window-box flowers leaning inwards, beginning to be gilded by that hour before sunset when everything should be stopped in a permanent photograph. All the photographs in old family albums must have been taken at this time, the golden content of a summer Sunday evening. One very smart- even in a white shirt and greyish chinos – French/Spanish /Italian wandered around, his patent black shoes an anachronism like dancehall shoes of the nineteen thirties. The taximan had been wrong about the clientele.
There was a pair of discarded boots in the washroom bin, neatly deposited, toes down together. In fact there was also a pair of more workmanlike or hiker’s boots left under a tree up the grey-housed hill. Men were disappearing daily. Perhaps all those accounts (or perhaps wishful thinking urban myths) of people being taken up by the Rapture were true. Perhaps these shoes belonged to men who had been semi-forcibly ascended. No doubt a television documentary would come out in a few years time – they always did – and Bea would sit and say
“I knew this was coming. There were all those pairs of empty shoes I saw in Cork” and the family would look at her quizzically and suggest another cup of tea.
“You’d want to add all the lost earrings that are in the gutter sometimes?”
“No. I know all about that. Anyway, they’re always single earrings, never a pair. It’s women getting out of the passenger’s seat from a car, having to undo the seatbelt, and one earring catches. I’ve worked that one out already. It won’t need a TV programme. But the men’s shoes do, definitely.”
* * *
At the gates of Cork University a trinity of father, mother and glossy Indian student took photos of each other. Across the lawns graduates swished past in black gowns, the sharp corners of their mortarboards a statement of achievement. Red gowns of chancellors and deans competed against the long gold-embroidered cream cope of the bishop (outright winner.)
They stood out against the dark background of fathers in proper suits, garrulous uncles, mothers and aunts in unsuitable outfits which included flyaway hats and painful shoes. Female graduates, too, tottered about in extra-high heels which conflicted with their wearers’ apparent intelligence.
Among all this the story people glided through, older, un-uniformed, straggling. Unseen. Gleaming graduates stood down pathways, on lawns, under giant sequoias, in front of buildings, being photographed endlessly, a happy hive of bees.
Hive Iron Works Cork was written on a high chimney beside the hostel, a remnant of the nineteenth century. These graduates were facing the twenty-first century and with the new longevity, stray ones could even reach the twenty-second century too. Heaven only knew how their hive would survive.
* * *
The lecture theatre was covered with planks. Hundreds of them screwed to the walls, with serried rows of screws. Each screw had a little circle mount round it, to make it look both pretty and efficient. The screw had only one deep indentation so the joiners had used old-fashioned screwdrivers. Each screw, in the five lines paralleling to infinity, was exactly vertical.
Except they were not all exactly vertical if you stared hard. Like a tiny silent protest, here and there one screw was slightly askew, a small proof of humanity in all the regimentation.
The wooden slats continued across the back of the stage, too far to make out any silent aberrations, the tiny anarchic mutterings of screw-heads not following the pattern. (His hands hurt at that point – he could not twist it further; it was as far as he could push. It would hurt tonight, tomorrow and he had several hundreds more to do. It would not show. No-one would notice. He would get away with it.)
All the students outside had sat here to gain those furled gowns and certificates. Eamonn might have sat just here before he lost interest in being a student and faded off to England.
As they went across for the next afternoon a groom and bride appeared like a comment on the previous day’s performances. This is the next step. Cream gown and cream veil swirled round the bride –herself unseen, unregisterable, she was a ghost with heaps of veiling blown across her face and lifting all around her.
Three suntanned bridesmaids in armless cream evening gowns clutched their bouquets loyally. All three from the back, bare almost to the waist or definitely past the bra-strap, were a bright orange, perhaps paint. No normal tan looked like that. On closer look, the bride’s face and bare arms were also the same lurid orange. Then the photographer called the bridegroom, best man and pageboy (though these days he could have been their own little son) to come and join the arrangement.
Standing beside the womenfolk, the men who were dressed in cream suits, looked pale. They had not had the orange-tinting treatment and looked like another race, their pale Irish skin contrasting with the luminous green of the healthy lawn behind them and the glowing almost phosphorescent orange of the spouse and her henchwomen.
* * *
The River Lee, which was more sea-like than is normal, had greenness locked into it. Along the current in various parts flat lines, flattened waves marked the progress of ghost ships here and there, a smooth wake amongst the dark choppy wavelets. Like centuries of boats’ journeys that could not be effaced, a haunting of water, saying notice us now and again, we were here; we went by before you were thought of.
On every post, streetlight pillar, telegraph pole were A4 notices about the Lisbon Treaty, for and against, Yes and No alternating round town. Because the Irish people, after their bloody severance from Britain had established the right to referenda, then referenda there had to be. This one was sticky because the people had voted No. Stupid, uninformed, misled citizens had voted No instead of Yes in front of all of Europe.
Here and there, less dramatic than the shrieking Yes or No were quieter proofs of what was going on. Someone had listed quotes from the European political leaders themselves, in their less guarded moments.
“We will be constructing an empire without them finding out.”
“This is not an amendment, it is the same constitution in effect, with a few changes to make the people accept it.”
“We do not want the public to be over-informed; the European Constitution will go on regardless. It is sacrosanct.”
Perhaps the dedicated protestor had made these sayings up; perhaps they were all lies. But perhaps, like any mediaeval peasant risking their life by protesting against a tyrant, this person had risked all; their mobile phone number was printed at the bottom of the notice. People had died for the freedom of the press, for the right to print and distribute. Here was one of their descendants, the paper already fraying in the rain.
Like a reproof from Europe, a discarded bottle of Bière D’Or stood triumphant on top of a Victoria Regina green tub post-box, survivor of two world wars, many current atrocities and its own civil war. ‘French lager. Exclusive to Tesco 25cle. Ingredients water, barley and wheat malt, maize, hops, caramel colouring.’ Any supermarket combined all nations, higgledy-piggledy already; Europe was merely half-way house.
That evening as the halls were empty, most of the hostel residents busy dashing round after a Saturday night, Bea staggered up the stairs. Here and there, insouciantly scattered, pink feathers lay on the corridor carpets. Like little pink boats they curled up merrily, moving slightly in any trace of draught. No-one had bothered to stand on them; they had managed to stay perky overnight and all day. There were more feathers than there had been in the morning.Traces of glitter sparkled like an extra joke.
It was as if a large pink bird had hatched, blundered about on the wide landing, and then gone off to wherever large pink birds go in the swirling Cork rain.
“It was a girls’ night out on Friday night,” the tolerant South African girl said at the counter. “The feathers don’t all go up the hoover. They tried to smuggle a load of lads up the fire escape when they got back, but the night porter heard the siren. It’s a special one, too high for you to hear. Oh, they’re having sex all over the place, in the bathrooms and the sauna”, she said in a worldly patient way, being all of twentyish years old herself.
* * *
On Sunday morning someone had been out with a smoothing-iron and the water was glossy flat like something out of Vermeer. Water just standing there, relishing itself and resting, going nowhere and enjoying reflecting the sky (which was an easy thing to do; it took no water-energy to reflect the clouds, which were moving instead.)
Monday morning, a blind man was being shown out of a department store and the assistant was giving the elderly man complicated directions on how to get to somewhere
“You turn left at the next turning-but-one and it’s somewhere down that street.”
He faced towards the complicated distance, white stick in hand. Bea stepped forward,
“I can take you there, if you like, I’ve got plenty of time to spare.” He took her arm, the assistant sped back into the scented warmth of the shop and off they sauntered through the shopping crowds.
“It’s in Oliver Plunkett Street. A special glamour shop, lingerie place. I’m getting my wife a black basque.”
Oliver Plunkett was a martyr. That was part of the shock. This man was well in his sixties, blind and unexceptional. Hard to make out what his job might have been. He had a stocky, country-bred air as though he lived on a farm. It was possible. He did not look like the kind of person to be buying outré things like basques. She looked round the street. Perhaps all the men were buying them. Years ago when they had been art students Emma had pointed out a bright scarlet basque in a shop, hankering after one.
“It pushes everything up. Your boobs lift up like on a plate, your waist gets nipped in like an hourglass and the rest of the fat just hides under the frill at the bottom. Men go mad about them. Paris and the Can-can, that sort of thing. I want one for Jimmy before he goes off me. Got to last out another term at college, then we can sort of drift apart. He pays my rent, after all. I’ve got to make an effort.”
They rounded the corner and found the glamour shop festooned with lingerie. All colours of knickers and bras hung in the window. Poor Oliver Plunkett, dying in vain. She ushered the man inside and tried to guide him to the counter. He took a wrong turning and blundered into a display stand and they had to follow each other as she tried to stop it from falling over, scattering bras all over the floor.
He began his speech, that he wanted a black basque, size 38, for his wife. The three young assistants turned to her, smiling, already measuring her up. Wrong size, more a 40.
“No, I’m nothing to do with this, no, I’m not the wife. I’m just a passer-by who’s helping this gentleman here.” Never again.
“We’ve only got it in pink, the black one is size 34.”
He was adamant that it had to be black. Perhaps he had some residual sight and black would register, but pink would just be a blur. The absent wife also became a puzzle. What on earth was happening? Had she been advised to perk up their sex-life or had he begun to get these bright ideas? Was it a replacement, or a brand new item in their private life? What scenario was going on back in the country bedroom?
“If you get that size 34 it will push up everything dramatically,” she couldn’t stop from suggesting. It was bizarre enough already; they may as well descend into farce. He thought it over seriously. A lot was at stake here.
“No, I’d best keep to what she said,” he persisted.
“We’ve got a catalogue,” the main assistant volunteered.
“Well, that’s no use to me, though is it?” he answered tetchily. Perhaps the wife was blind too. What was going on? “I’ll have to enquire from La Perle up in Dublin.” He certainly knew his stuff. She felt like a maiden aunt as she guided him back out of the little shop trying to stop him blundering into the festooned display stands again. It was also strange that such a small boutique should need three assistants.
“Now, where do you want to go?” She was glad to be out in the open air.
“The bus station. I can get the bus to Limerick at a quarter past two.” Shock again.
“You live in Limerick?”
“Yes, I’ve got my bus-pass.” It was in another county; it was miles away; plus, Limerick was a large city too with surely any number of boutiques. At the bus station a helpful guard took over and Bea was dismissed, puzzling away into the traffic.
* * *
Teaimann na nAinmhithe. Cork Lost Dogs Association was opposite Cork Bus station. Lost human dogs of all nationalities puzzled their way round the ticketing instructions. A lilting Corkman fielded their enquiries, shepherding them across to the automatic ticket machine where a touch-screen waited.
It was a gesture/instant of more-than-Sunday morning faith to touch the words, which changed and moved each choice on inevitably to its next programmed stage. It always felt like there was no going back; irrevocable choices at the tip of a finger.
A note fed into the sleek metal, silvered with glamour and everything happened at once. An immediate ticket, its print glossy black, virgin black, for you alone, appeared from the efficient inside. It was frightening. Someone had designed it and sent it here.
“It” – there were two, either side of a pillar standing red and silver, just about the height of a small woman standing leaning nearby. Soon the Corkman would be redundant, no longer that wandering accent, its waterfall sound banished.
The English Market at last. Unbelievable. It was like walking into a dream while being wide-awake. At the entrance was the same meat-counter, set askew, its glassed-in display showing all cuts of meat, all types, even down to haslet. Bits that other butchers never sold these days were all here; a museum of meat.
At one of the butcher’s shops a grey-haired man went on slicing meat and then another old man came and delivered boxes of packed meat. They were talking to each other confidentially, like men telling scandals. It was the same name overhead. He must be related to Eamonn.
Ten years ago she had stood near here, looking for Eamonn, to find the family stall empty, up for sale. All the marble slabs were cleared. A few paper bags still hung from a hook. Our Lady of Perpetual Succour was pinned up beside the phone on the wall. Various phone numbers were scribbled on the wooden partition – wholesalers, customers and family. She should have copied down some of those numbers, but the shock had baffled her.
All this way, to find him lost again. Walking round yet again, trying to make sense of it; feeling that all the stall-owners were watching – why would a woman be walking round and round, looking sad and never buying anything?
This time was different. It had the freedom that an extra ten years gave. She went upstairs to the café at the balcony’s edge. One of the writers from the conference sat down and said he could not write until he got home. Behind and below him the old man at the butcher’s stall continued slicing bacon intently, not thinking of serving any customers at present. She hoped he knew what he was doing. The slices were piling up.
It was not necessary, any of it; it had all been absolved. Stopped. There were no repercussions and the hot day waited.
I could run back and leave a message. It would be a neat ending. But she walked past the butcher’s stall and bought some grapes to eat in the street. The old greengrocer who was wearing a woolly hat as his stall was near the draughts from the great market door, asked was Bea married and if not, why not. If she had married Eamonn they would have been market colleagues. A lost story.
It was Cork itself which eventually had the most striking words, in whatever order they might have occurred. Like any living thing it developed and changed its plot, jiggling about, uncatchable.