Time to put down the red pen...
After a long, but enjoyable slog, my debut novel, Spin My Little World was released yesterday on ebook by Wild Wolf Publishing. It was a pretty good feeling, that feeling of no longer being able to tinker, letting my baby go out into the world. That having been said, the thought of reviews are terrifying.
But being a glutton for punishment, no sooner than it was released, I signed myself up for this year's NaNoWrimo in the hope of completing the sequel Rock My Little World which is currently at the planning stage.
So if you have a spare six hours reading time... here it is.
Friday, 3 July 2015
All this time
I roll my eyes. 'Fancy bringing me apples for targets! Worse still, BRAMLEYS! You think me a simpleton, Conall? By your teaching, I can shoot the eye out of yonder crow.'
'Treasures of the forest, my Lady. Has his Majesty not meat enough on his table? Come, when you have shot at all the apples, you can collect the pieces and make a pie!'
'Mag-pie, now there's a fine reward, fit for the richest bellies in Crantoch!'
'My dear Lady, fine, your culinary skills are not. Pray leave the baking to the cook; I've already broken two molars on your offerings. A smile from you is reward enough, but pray do not part your lips, for I fear I might disappear between the gap in your front teeth and be lost forever.'
I raise my bow and take aim. 'Sire, if I did not miss you already, I might be tempted to bury this arrow in your forehead. See how miserable you make me by leaving?'
'Do not wrinkle your brow so, I beg of you, I might mistake you for the sloe-sucking Sister Mary Benedict, upon my return. The likeness is already uncanny.'
I stretch sinew and release. The arrow misses the target by a good hand's height — but what does it matter?
'You must stay. Your Lady commands it. Who shall keep me safe if you leave me? It's all curtsies and 'Yes, M'lady, no, M'lady.' No disembowelling of hares and making fire from dry tinder and sticks. It's all dull. Dull. DULL.
'Ava, Whitman is better qualified to guard you by far, and unlike you, I was not born to a life of privilege.' Sorrow tinges his words; he conceals it behind a smile that touches my heart, but not his eyes. 'I must make my own fortune.'
'And what of fortune?' I cry. 'What are gold coins in one's pocket and fine silks from the Chinas when one is miserable inside?'
'Wealth is everything in this world, Ava and while I am hungry for it, I must go.' Two rosy spots bloom on his cheeks. 'But what would you know of the world? You are not fourteen years old!'
I glaze over. They are coming for me; heavy footsteps, their breath soured by stale mead. A King's Ransom for my little pretty head. Remember the knot, Ava, the knot! They will not return. A leather Turk's Head knot — Conall's talisman. Nine braided strands of the softest skin I could find — father had so many doublets and I'd made so many attempts to get the twists just right, little of the doublet remained. Three strands for Conall, three for me, and three for Crantoch, Father's kingdom, entwined in one complete band encapsulating everything I hold dear. I'd made it for his last birthday.
Who will keep the dreams away if you leave? I suck in the tears stinging the backs of my eyes. 'Remember us by your knot. Me and Crantoch. Until you return.'
He rubs his hand over the leather band on his wrist and with a sniff, pulls a sheaf of thick vellum, sealed with a crust of black wax, from his breeches.
'A promise from my Lady, if I may be so bold? I shall return to Crantoch a man of standing, never fear, but until that day, I ask to entrust this letter to you for safekeeping. Pray do not break the seal, for the treasure within is as precious as it is fragile.'
Never have I seen Conall so grave, except perhaps the day the Queen was entombed, and I readily agree.
Our goodbye is as swift as it is painful. I have no wish to prolong the agony of losing him to a quest for riches. But no cause or crusade would have made our separation any less unbearable.
I vow that a smile will not grace my lips until I see your face again and I weep from summer until spring, so deep are the wounds of my loss.
For months your letter burns in my bodice, my cilice; every minute that passes, I pray that you are not lost to me forever. In my dreams, they are coming for me, but your knot keeps them at bay.
Whitman is duller than ditch-water and my answer to Father's indifferent enquiries of, 'Cat got your tongue?', is the disappearance of Gilbert, the castle cat; but the beauty of the paradox is lost on him. What would he know of the hoar frost shrouding my heart?
By the blood-moon of All Hallows' Eve, my sorrow turns into anger. How can you leave me thus, my mind and hands idle, bar the tittle-tattle of the courtiers and this scraggy embroidery on my knee?
I withdraw your letter and in a fit of childish rage, I thrust it into the waning embers of the fire, only to singe my hair and fingertips as I retrieve it. I stow it behind the portrait of my po-faced grandmother and try to forget. But these castle walls are my prison and the grounds where once we wandered, are worse torture than the rack, the twist of each passing month more painful than the last. From behind each tree falls your shadow, every birdcall, the echo of our laughter.
Michaelmas brings flamboyant guests in abundance, bells jangling and much stepping on toes, but no joy. I care not for such frivolity and I care less that my reflection in the looking glass is beginning to resemble that of Sister Mary Benedict all the more for it.
Father has little time for me now, and business of the state takes him often away. The rains have destroyed our wheat and hops two summers running. Our people grow hungry and when there is no grain to bake bread, and no beer in their casks, men revolt. I hear talk of uprisings and father travels west to soothe the unrest.
He has recruited two trivialities, the daughters of some Lord or other, to keep me entertained in his absence. Never have I known such flapping of lips, nor such fervour for candied fruits. Ugly and Even Uglier, I secretly call them, and if God had bestowed half a squirrel's brain between them, they would be a good deal cleverer. And, if Even Uglier continues to scoff in such a porker fashion, cook will be calling upon my arrow and bow to feed us! They think I cannot hear their whisperings. What makes her so dour? She takes little pleasure in anything, even supping of hot chocolate cannot bring a smile to her lips! 'The princess of a thousand sorrows', they call me; they know not how I count the hours since I saw you last; thirty thousand upward.
Tomorrow, I will be on this earth eighteen years, five of them without you, four of them knowing that I loved you heart and soul; love you still. But what have I to celebrate? The King has forewarned me that my days in the castle are numbered. A general announcement is being prepared. Soon Whitman will be seeking employment elsewhere.
I am to marry.
It is my duty to the King and to Crantoch.
I have always known it would be so, but I had hoped... dreamed that one day — but dreams they shall remain.
Suitors are invited to stake their claim on my flesh for I am to be paraded before a gathering of young men of means and consequence, like a prize bull on market day. The King, all generosity, has bestowed upon me but one quarter, I choose my own poison.
A husband may take possession of this body, but he will never touch my heart.
Late August sun draws me out of doors. I am commanded by the King to take in some fresh air before the suitors arrive to feast their eyes on the ripe beauty of the Princess of Crantoch. I am afraid they are to be bitterly disappointed. Any beauty I may have once had, dissolved with my good humour long ago.
Whitman not far behind, I stumble toward our cherry tree, so many blessed hours spent under her blossoms, I've dared not allow my eyes to seek her out. I catch a glimpse of your last carved notch; it barely brushes my shoulder. I work quickly and fill my basket with the ripe fruit, before entering the orchard.
All is silent and yet the ghosts of our laughter peals in my ears. Oh, how I long for you. What of your promises? What of your Turk's Head knot with neither beginning nor end, interlaced with the strings of my heart? My saviour and symbol of love eternal, yet I was ignorant of it then. Is it replaced by the follies and frippery of paramours?
A sudden movement from behind the great oak has me standing stock still.
Whitman calls, 'Who goes there?'
The figure of a young man steps away from the tree and I drop the basket, glossy cherries spilling.
'Conall?' My hand flies to my lips.
'No, Missus, Felim. Conall's my elder brother, but-'
'My goodness, the likeness.' I steady myself and catch a breath. 'And, pray, what news of Conall?'
He scratches his head with conviction. Come on, boy. What news? My heart pummels at my ribs. No news of marriage, I beseech you. I will tear out my own eyes, if you say it is so.
'Conall's dead, Missus, has been this five year.'
Air is sucked from my lungs and I crumple; the whole world folding in on me, enveloping me in its welcome nothingness.
'Your Majesty! Come quickly. I think she's...'
I awake to the sound of cheering and a dreadful clanging in my head. I half sit up. Conall dead? It can't be. Hot tears race down my cheeks.
I spy one of the Uglies through blurry eyes.
'Send for the forester, I need to speak to him immediately.'
'No buts. There's not a moment to waste, be away with you, before I ration your sugar plums! And send in your sister with a draft.' I call after her ample nether end retreating through the door. 'My head feels like it's been cleft in two.' I roll out of the bed, but my legs buckle beneath me and I fall in a commotion of crisp cotton and lace.
'Well, forester. I'm told that Conall has departed this world for the afterlife, is this true?' I hide my fists in the fabric of my gown, nails biting my palms. 'You may leave us, Whitman.'
The forester bends his knee and begins to bow. 'Highness, I-I-'
'Sire, speak quickly and plainly. I am in no humour for tarrying tongues.' Gracious, God, do spare me the agony, his eyes are like needles in my heart. 'For the love of all things holy, speak this instant! I command it.'
'H-Highness, Conall's departin' words were thus: 'From this day forth, Father, I am dead to you. If-'
Relief tumbles through my veins and I momentarily sag from within. Thanks be to Heaven. 'Sire, pray do sit and continue, may I offer you a cool draft?'
He shakes his head and clasps together his trembling fingers. 'If I may, Highness, you know my son as well as I know him myself. His head was always full of grand schemes and I fear this may be another. Gold crowns have been turnin' up in the strangest of places. Why only yesterday-'
'Yesterday? Yesterday? Have you seen him?' A million thoughts explode in my mind and I dare to hope. No! Do not dare hope, silly girl. I glance at the portrait of the King's mother and ponder on the letter behind it.
'I have not, Highness, set eyes on my eldest for five years.' Conall's father beat his breast and our eyes meet; so much love in his, a mirror of my own, no doubt. He clears his throat. 'But I do believe I may have spotted a young man whose ganglin' gait reminded me very much of Conall, playin' at battledore and shuttlecock with a prize peacock on your lawn.'
For the first time in five years, a laugh escapes my lips, hearty and raw. 'Sire, you are mistaken, Conall here? I am to choose a husband. By my reckoning, the castle is crammed to the ceiling with preening puppies and peacocks and their useless wooing gifts.' I cannot help but skip to the window. 'Be away with you, sire, and should Conall cross your path, make it known the future Queen of Crantoch would be humbled by his audience.' Several feet beneath me on the lawn, a handful of porkers beat at a shuttlecock, not one of them bearing a resemblance to Conall. Has he grown fat on his wealth?
The Uglies come to lace and pinch, both waist and cheek.
'Put away your paints and brushes. I want my future husband to see me. Be assured, a sow would be equally appealing, should she carry the same title as I.'
They are coming for me. Stale mead on sour— stop, Ava! STOP! No more, now. I conceal Conall's vellum in my bodice — may it bring me strength.
'Honoured gentlemen.' Gird yourself, Ava, for the hounds are snapping at your heels, jaws dripping with lust for title and celebrity. A hush spreads around the great hall, deadly as the plague. 'Welcome to Crantoch. We are flattered that so many of you honour us with your audience.' As I speak, I pick at the stitches of every stunned face in the room. 'You, as well as I, know why you are here, so I will speak plainly.' I fire a glance at the King who smiles with all of the affability that the contents of his wine goblet afford. 'By my father's vetting, you are all of equal standing in societies far and wide, and each man among you is as worthy of my hand as the next. As I neither care for marriage, nor wish to know any of you any better than the wriggling worms on the end of your fishhooks, I have requested that you each bring two items; a flower, and one that you feel best describes your character. I shall pick my future husband based on his choices. You will each be granted a private audience on the morrow. Pray enjoy the hospitality of the King's table and his well stocked cellar.'
'Heaven's above, Father! Never have I seen so many varieties of lily! How very dull they are, and so little thought — the sheep in the meadows are aware of the symbolism! And swords galore! 'Oh, Highness — the fine steel is my mighty strength, the jewels my riches, the notches the number of vagabonds and villains I have slain.' Poppycock! They simper and salivate, pray, I cannot bear the sight of another!'
'But, you must. The wedding feast is ordered and the Bishop prepares the order of the ceremony.'
'If I must continue, Father, I request a draft of your finest and most robust beverage. Next!'
No sooner is the door shut, than Whitman re-opens it. I stifle a yawn as a bearded puppy removes his hat and bows with éclat.
'The Count of Leitrim, my Lady, at your service.'
'If you must, sire. Let us not tarry.' I cast my eye down the list; suits of armour, daffodils, etcetera, without meeting his eye. 'Pray, sit. Your items? Flower last.'
A soft thud draws my focus to the table. 'Sire, you liken yourself to an onion?' I cannot help but smile.
'My lady, I do. An onion has many layers to peel away, but concealed within, is a heart of gold, as potent as it is pure.'
I drop my quill and meet Conall's burning gaze. 'And the other?'
A bouquet of tiny flowers falls into my open hand.
'Forget-me-nots, my Lady.'
'And had I declared my devotion, Conall, would you have stayed?'
'I left by Royal Command, Ava.'
I don't understand? 'My father sent you away?' Such treachery! Tears spill over my lids.
'To earn my right to be here today, and for you to heal. See here? I wear your love-knot.' He hitches up his cuff. 'I lacked fortune and standing — but the King knew no man could love you as I. A painful, yet purposeful decision. Your father is wise. The dreams?'
'Under my control, sire.' I draw his letter from my bodice. 'And what of this?'
'Open it. It's yours, has been, all this time.'
My trembling finger slides under wax and I unfold the vellum. Encircled within a ring of cherry blossoms, are two words:
Forced to grow her own.
Fifteen years it took for her to culture and graft; to perfect. Just the right amount of sunlight, same of rain, lashings of horse manure. Snipping, trimming; grooming. She'd almost bottled it once.The broom handle he'd rammed inside her vagina, changed her mind.With meticulous care, for it only ever blooms once, she'd tended the bud until it swelled and burst into exquisite flower.The stamens, she'd removed and pounded into pulp, stirring it into his tea.His death was murderously slow as the poison spread, turning his blood to jelly.'Should've bought me roses. They don't cost much.'
Father and Child
'Lord? You waken me. Is that you? Or I am to suffer, forever alone?'
'It is I.'
'Why did you leave me? You were here, and then, you were gone. Who are you, Lord?'
'I never left, child. I am thy father.'
'Father? What place is this? How did I come to be here? I have no memory.'
'A place where thou hast not left, nor yet arrived, mine child.'
'I make no sense of your words, Father.'
'All will become clear in time, daughter.'
'Father, the pain? I have wept an eternity and now my eyes are dry. I weep dry tears.'
'As is the beauty of time, my child, for only it can heal, but in your case, I fear not.'
'But yet, I weep still. The pain, Father. I know not what causes my marrow to putrefy; it's poison pollutes my bones, makes an enemy of my blood, turning it against my flesh, which falls from me like rotted meat a carcass.'
'Mine hands will be the balm to thy pain, mine child. But they will bring no comfort to thy mind.'
'Thy body, I can heal. But the poison in thy mind must be released by thyself. Take mine hands in thine. Together we will set it free.'
'I cannot see your hands, Father. I am blinded by smoke — cataracted. I see nothing but shadows; shadows that stretch and unfurl like fearsome dragon wings beating towards the dying sun.'
'Take mine hands, child. I shall wipe the fumes from thine eyes.'
'Father, I fear what I may see.'
'It can harm no more, in this place, where thou hast not left, nor yet arrived.'
'Father, such comfort your touch brings ... but no... No...NO! I am choking! What I see, when the smoke clears, I cannot bear! Is this why I am here?'
'I cannot look! Pray, blind me forever! Such mindless destruction, I have no wish to see. Breathe my air, Father; it is toxic, the fat of my land, rancid. Drink of my rivers, Father! You cannot! They run with filth, my seas bleed into the land. MY ICE MELTS. My trees, Father, my lifeblood... I can bear no more. I wish to ARRIVE. At the place I have not yet arrived! I beg you.'
'Daughter, Mother Earth, thou hast suffered much. Thou hast endured torture worse than the pits of Beelzebub's hell. And now thou must arise. Take strength from thy Father.'
'And do what, Father?'
'And reek thy revenge, mine child, mine divine Avenging Angel.'
Monday, 26 January 2015
'Yes, Ma. I'm well aware she's a great ratter, but so's a ferret and they don't leave giblets on the doorstep.'
Ma wrung her hands. 'I know you've never been fond of cats, son-'
'Fond?' I pointed to the sacks secured with a double knot at the neck. 'Ma? The number of times that cat's shat in my shoes!'
'Think of the babbies, Ethan. Sure they never did a bit o' harm.'
'Didn't I find one of them in the in the larder chewin' on the sausages?' I didn't want to take the hard line with my ma, but needs must. Important day today. THE day today. 'If-if I'm payin' the bills roun' here, they go ... or ... or I do.'
Ma cocked her head, expression blank. Jesus, I think it's workin'.
' I'll not be held to ransom by a young pup.' Her gaze drilled into the shiftin' sacks. 'And if you weren't in your twenties, son, I'd scalp your arse.' Ma let out one of those pained, dramatic sighs. But as you say, you're keepin' me. Can't you just give her to someone? I'll find homes for the babbies.'
Three times I'd tried to get rid of the fecker and three times it came back to our lake-house with a feck-you-Ethan-McFarlane litter in the barn. It wasn't our cat. It just turned up one day. I'd even gone and borrowed Aidy Harte's ferret Clamp to get rid of it. Found its white tail and a pair of kidneys in the yard.
Sly, though, keepin' the wee critters hidden. I'd only stumbled across them by havin' the occasion to go into da's pottin' shed. Kittens is not all I found in there, either. The couple of bottles of poteen had helped take the edge off McFarlane and Son, Solicitors shrinkin' to just Ethan McFarlane.
'Ma.' I rubbed her arm, more bone than flesh. She flinched, pinchin' her lips as she did when crossed. 'People 'round here have enough to worry about with kids to feed.'
Ma nodded and moved to the door, stoppin' before she turned the handle. ' You'll be fixin' your own tay the night and the marra.'
'But, Ma?' I knew she'd go, but no tea? Below the belt for a growin' lad who didn't know his arse from his elbow in the scullery.
'Aye. Big man like yourself, payin' the bills, is big enough to fix his own tay. I'm goin' to your Auntie Jean's for a coupla days.'
'But, Ma?' She was gone. Poundin' up the stairs like a woman twice her weight carryin' a sack of spuds.
Walkin' up the street, sacks over my shoulder, the bell from the Shankhill church reminded the good protestants of Lurgan that they'd be wanted this time tomorrow. My plan? A round the houses trip back to the lake off Edward Street. Ma had to see me leave with the cats in the sacks.
Before I got to McQuillan's Gentlemen's Outfitters, I juked in Marley's grocer's window. Doin' the work of two men had sallowed my skin where it wasn't scarred and had scooped hollows out of my cheeks. But over the past six months, my colour had returned. I almost looked twenty-three.
I chose not to look in on Miss McQuillan; Ailish, a fine young woman who saw beyond my smeared-on flesh. Others stared. I handled it better now, knowin' that I wasn't alone. My face wasn't the worst. What lay beneath my shirt, I'd once believed, was for my eyes only until the day I died. A glimpse of Miss Ailish used to be the highlight of a trip up the street, but her light had since been eclipsed by my new legal assistant. I'd needed help, but female company more-so, and I didn't mind payin' for it.
But it felt grand to be out. The air out here smelled good. Fresh. I didn't think of the wrigglin' goin' on behind my back. I passed The Wellington. Stale ale and tobacco hit my senses, triggerin' a memory. Me and da knockin' back a pint o' the black stuff on a Friday afternoon. Why'd he have to go an' die? But I knew why he let himself waste away to nothin'. I saw it in his eyes when he looked at me. He only saw scars. Felt only guilt. Drank himself to death.
'Ah, young McFarlane!' A hand, clamped on my shoulder, slammed on the brakes. I couldn't mistake the weight of that hand.
'Mr Meaney. H-how are you?'
'Not good. Not good, thun.' Gums Meaney overtook me with a shake of his head, casting his huge shadow over me. 'Our Geraldth gone aff an' married a protethent gurl. NO THUN O' MINE-'
'Hadn't heard, Mr Meaney.' BIG feckin' fat lie, the news had reached as far as Wicklow in an hour. 'Real sorry 'bout that.' Sure half the town knew that Gerald and Dinah were an item. Gums must've had his head up his arse for the past two years.
'And you know what tha' meanth?'
'Um.' I tried not to look at the strainin' rope around his vast girth, holdin' his trousers up. 'Not sure, sir.'
Mr Meaney eyed me up and down. 'Wath-at, thun. Over yer back?'
'Kittens. I'm headed to the lake.'
'Ach, thun, yer not? Here let uth have a gander.' Him bein' built like an outhouse and a lifelong client of the business, you don't argue with Gums. I whipped the sack over my shoulder and undid the knots. He peered in. 'Ach, juth look at them wee fuckerth.' The big man gave the kittens a toothless grin and sniffed. 'Go an. Let uth have one of 'em. Our Mary'th alwayth goin' on about gettin' a cat. An' wi' our Gerald runnin' off, a wee kitten'd cheer her up no end.'
'Only if you're sure.' I couldn't help but match his toothless smile, huggin' my lips to my teeth. 'Which one do you think your Mary'd like, sir?'
'Ach, yer a good 'un. Tha' white one with the grey on ith head 'ill do rightly. '
I fished the wee fecker out of the sack, struggled like I'd lit a match under it, teeth like needles. 'There you go, Mr Meaney.'
Gums took the air-scramblin' kitten in his huge hands and kissed its wee head. Before tuckin' it inside his shirt, he gave me an odd look.
'Thun. I wanna cut our Gerald outta the will.' He shook his head. 'No thun o' mine ... anyway, I'll be in ta thee ya in the week.'
'No problem, Mr Meaney.' I retied the sack. One down, two to go. All goin' accordin' to plan. 'Send my best to Mary, now, won't you?'
'That I will, thun, good luck.'
Lucky Liam. Gums' second son and soon to be heir of half of Donachloney. We'd gone to school together. My fingers found the pocked skin on my neck and traced down to my shirt collar. The grafts from my back to my front took so long to fuse, I'd missed most of my last year in school. I didn't talk much about back then, before the burns and the screams in the dark.
As I crossed the road towards Windsor Avenue, a hand rose above the surge of bodies headed in my direction. A Bowler hat appeared. Beneath it, Jimmy Harte's gappy smile.
'Hullo, there, Jimmy. How're you keepin?'
Jimmy touched his bowler hat and hung a walkin' stick in the crook of his arm. He motioned to the entrance of Sprott's butcher's and I followed him inside where Mr Sprott was attackin' a side of pork with a cleaver. Jimmy walked perfectly well without the stick, but he liked to dress dapper. 'All good, Ethan. You've got a bit o' colour back.'
I shook his hand, feelin' the cool gold band of his weddin' ring as we both gently squeezed. 'Must be all this good weather, sir.'
The gleam in the 'oul fella's eye told me that his Dimpna's lips had been flappin' faster than a sewin' machine in a hanky factory. 'And where are you headed on this fine mornin'?'
'Down to the lake, sir.' Almost on cue, a mewl escaped from behind me and Mr Sprott looked up from his butcherin' with a scowl.
'Ah. I see. You're takin' the long way round for the exercise?'
'Somethin' like that, sir.'
Jimmy unhooked his stick and re-arranged his perfectly knotted dickie-bow. 'And, um, how's our Rosanna gettin' on over at your place? All I've had from her in six months is 'fine'.'
My guts tumbled and I swallowed hard. Rosanna, my assistant in more way than one. I still found it hard to say her name aloud, frightened that when I did, it would lose its enchantment, break her spell. 'Our adopted gypsy girl', the Harte's called her. They didn't know her like I did. 'Dunno how I managed without her, Jimmy. Not a loose sheet of paper in sight.' Plenty of ink and needles, though.
'Thought as much. Be sure that's reflected in her pay packet, now.' The 'oul fella chuckled.' Will you be needin' the Austin Seven in the mornin'?'
I kicked at the sawdust on the floor. Jimmy had bought my da's car. He didn't drive, so I collected my ma and his women from mass, and took them out for a bite.
'W-was thinkin' of a wee jaunt out to Hillsborough, if it suits your good lady and Rosanna, sir. Ma won't be joinin' us.'
'Not ill, I hope?'
'No, sir. Just visitin' her sister.'
'Motor'll need a wash and polish before you take her out. I'll see you the marra.'
'Aye, Jimmy. Bright and early.'
Jimmy tipped his hat and winked. 'Thanks, son. Oh, and tell our Rosanna not to forget the sugar.' He didn't see the colour burn on my cheeks.
The cat's not out of the bag, is it? Rosanna had signed an oath of silence in her own blood. Her idea, not mine.
Mr Sprott asked, 'Did my ears mistake me, young McFarlane?'
'I spotted a rat in the yard this mornin'. Cats in thon sack?'
Two down, one to go.
Ghost Town Windsor Avenue. The final leg of my journey. One half of the street immersed in shade, the other in sunshine, brought Rosanna to mind. Now, she really did stop traffic. The right side of her face was the colour of a cup of strong tea, and the left? Detailed with intricate swirls of black ink, twisting from forehead to chin. 'My history and my future', she told me, inked onto her skin by her mother. Every curve told a story. Rosanna had a traced a finger-tip over a dot of ink on her forehead. 'This is my great-grandmother, Anselina. The first in my line with the gift in inks.'
People stared at Rosanna, too. They didn't see the workmanship in every scroll and swirl on her skin. Where I saw a thing of rare beauty, they saw only disfigurement. Her reply? 'We fall in love with the soul, not the face.' And where they were repelled, I was drawn like an opposin' pole.
It hadn't taken me long to realise that she could help me in another way. Tellin' her my story would serve a dual purpose. I fed her gift; my scars would become a thing of beauty.
From Fairly's sweetshop down the avenue, wafted the scent of smoked cherry tobacco. What a smell. Sweet, fruity. For a split second, I saw my da, stumblin' in drunk, kickin' over the oil lamp and flames lickin' at his feet. But I was able to cut the vision short and keep the past at bay.
'Cinder-ella, dressed in ye-lla, went up-stairs to see her fe-lla.' A group of girls skipped in a gateway. 'How many kisses did she get? One...two...three..'
A block of sunlight sliced through the gloom inside the sweetshop. Mr Fairly perched on a high stool behind the counter, pipe wedged between his teeth.
'Fine day out there, son?' He ogled like the best of 'em. The pipe didn't budge.
I filled my lungs with the sweet smoke and exhaled, unfazed by his searchin' eyes. 'It sure is, Mr Fairly.'
'Now, what can I get you?'
'Quarter of Clove Rock, please.' Rosanna's favourite. She'd suck on it as she worked her magic - needle-tip clinkin' on the glass ink-pot every so often. I'd lose myself tryin' to follow the labyrinths on her face whilst she embedded ink into my grafted flesh. The nearness of her, a trace of Evenin' in Paris, her cotton blouse on my chest, the warm skin beneath; took me to heaven's door. 'Stop your fidgeting,' she'd say, 'and carry on with the story.' I'd promised not to look at her work until my story was done. I kept my word.
Mr Fairly clattered sweets onto the scale. 'Anything else I can get you, now?'
'A bottle of brown lemonade.'
'Help yourself, son.' Fairly took a long draw on his pipe, belchin' smoke out of the side of his mouth. 'Corona's on the top shelf.'
I dropped the sacks to reach up and one of the bleeters let rip.
Mr Fairly was on his feet, pipe in hand. 'Hells Bells! What crater's in that bag?'
'Unwanted kitten, just.'
He tucked the pipe back in position. 'Sounds like a blimmin' banshee!'
'A banshee headed for the lake. What do I owe you, sir?'
'Comes to the princely sum of sixpence. Thruppence if you throw in the kitten. Grand-daughter turns seven the marra, that'll save me a packet.'
'Deal, Mr Fairly.' I handed him the sack and a thruppenny bit. 'Non-returnable.' Mission accomplished. Almost.
The lake came into view. Beyond it, our lake-house. To the left, my fishin' pontoon stretched across the water. Rosanna waited there. I swung the remainin' sack to the ground and opened it. 'Go on, cat. Only five lives left, mind.' It skulked off, no doubt to find more shoes, or a willin' tomcat.
'Mr McFarlane.' Rosanna called as I trotted up.
She picked up her battered little work-box; within it, needles finer than an eyelash and inks across the colour spectrum. 'You're late.'
'Wee job to do first?'
'She always leaves whenever I threaten to drown the cat.' I snatched her hand. 'Now let's finish this.'
Today my story and my transformation would be complete. In ma's full-length mirror, the new me would be unveiled.
'But you wouldn't, Ethan? Drown the kittens?'
'... and I woke up in the burns unit. My da never forgave himself.' The sting of Rosanna's needle under my skin had long since stopped. Her warm tears splashed onto my chest.
I heard my ma's mirror scrape across her bedroom floor.
I opened my eyes.
Spannin' from my shoulder-tips to my chest, I saw the spread wings of a phoenix as it rose from the ashes beneath, its plumage alive with colour and its proud head restin' in the well of my neck. On the left wing, just over my heart, hung a small yellow orb, ornately etched on one side. It felt warm to the touch and pulsed with every beat.
'You s-said the ink might not take?'
'I know. I wasn't sure, Ethan. Scar tissue's an unpredictable medium. Like painting on cling-film.'
'And every line here, tells my story?'
Rosanna nodded. 'It does.'
I stroked the little orb. 'So what does this signify?'
She smiled. 'Where else would I be in your story?'
My current novel The Tattooist, set in 1950s / 1960s Lurgan is loosely based on this short story. It is still a work in progress, but if this is your thing, watch this space!
Clodagh The Barren
Once upon a time, in an extinct land, the giant Clodagh clung to a wind-whipped tor and surveyed the undulating tapestry of blue-greens and greys of the sea beneath her; a daily ritual since her banishment to the arid and far off Isle of Rathlin. Just a glimmer of the towers of Kenbane, her home, would be rich reward indeed. But she was granted no clemency; such was her husband's wrath. An heir to the Giant King's throne was anticipated — no — expected not too long after their nuptials were celebrated across the kingdom. But no heir came.
Clodagh The Barren was cast out as a deceiver and a cheat, but not before her entire line was put to death at the feet of her husband.
Centuries passed. She laid eyes on no-one, least of all her own kind; her only companions in her exile, discordant puffins, and glassy-eyed lapwings with their incessant peewit, peewit.
Over the years, her tears had turned the western gorse and powdery sands to a lush mosaic of wetlands — legend had it that within a giant's tears were the elements of rebirth. She'd once hoped that if she shed enough, that one day, she too would be reborn, but hope was a torment she could no longer bear, such was the agony of her disappointment.
She'd wander the fens gathering dog violets, supping their nectar before weaving them into her hair with sweet vernals and purple moor grasses, and as the sun sank over the tip of the peninsula, Clodagh would sing herself to sleep on a fragrant pillow of flowers, her tears carving channels to the west and the east, forming lagoon-like lakes either side of the island.
She awoke one dew-tipped morn to a faint hum all around her — a familiar sound to her ear, but she could not place it; so deeply was it buried in her memory. Then she saw them. Black and yellow, heavy wee things, bumbling drowsily from heather to heather across the heath. Clodagh could not help but smile at how the buzzing of the bees accompanied the gentle percussion of the ebb and flow of the spring tide over the shingle on the coast. The caws of a blackbird and the screech of seagulls harmonised and the island was no longer the shrill cacophony of noise it had once been, but a melodic delight that often brought joy to her heart, not that she would ever admit to such an indulgence.
A rumbling roar from the south coast had her up and running, the entire island shuddering underfoot. She stood at the cliff edge. Beneath her feet, her beautiful island crumbled and tumbled and crashed into the sea.
Rock by rock she rebuilt that cliff; love, tears and sweat, her cement.
When her work was done, she clung to the tor once again and surveyed her living, orchestral gift to the earth, and then, at one with her creation, Clodagh The Barren breathed no more.
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
And they all lived happily ever after ...
'MORE SALT, CUNTA! You deaf twat.'
'Ain't no need to holler, baass. My head ain't stuffed with cotton-fluff and buttoned-up-the-back. Stupid, dumb-ass fuck.'
'I 'eard that. Don't go givin' me any of your lip, you scurvy cyclops! One should always be rememberin' one's roots.' The captain scratched the place where his left foot used to be and gazed at the now cauterised stump.
Cunta blinked his only eye and sucked on his bottom lip. 'Sweet, sweet meat,' he sang softly as he stirred the bubbling pot of meat stew - the meat being the captain's left foot. They'd eaten every scrap of food, from crew to Cunta's goat, Petunia. Now, it was either foot, or Cunta's cock and Captain Tiny had other plans for that particular member.
''Ere,' said the Captain, scrunching up his eyes against the incandescence of the sun, 'Magine me using me last shot on that fuckin' albatross, Cunta. I just dunno what came over me. It shittin' on me lucky wig were the last straw. Now look at us.' He licked a finger and held it aloft. 'Not a breath. 'ow am I ever gonna get to the Virgin Islands and lose me cherry?'
Cunta rolled his eyes pondering on the many possible reactions his Captain may experience at the news that the Virgin Islands were not swarming with eager virgin girls desperate to wrap their plump, glossy lips around his tiny little todger. But, were instead, inhabited by sabre-toothed cannibals with an insatiable penchant for fatty white meat, which is why Cunta, having drugged the captain with a potent cocktail of goji-berry juice, rum and piss in equal measure (as retribution for downing his good eye like an oyster), switched course to a rather exotic sounding country called France, where he intended to sell his Baass to the circus and head off to make his fortune as a gigolo to the rich and famous pigmy goats of gay Parie.
'Don't worry, Baass. Dem virgins is gonna luuuuuve you.'
The Captain flicked a glance at the foot-long penis whipped to Cunta's thigh. He smiled, crooked and devious.
With a belly full of meat - the captain's horny toenails adding an extra croutony-crunch to the victuals - and head hazy with rum, Cunta drifted into an abyss-like sleep. Captain Tiny hoppy-cum-pranced along the galley. Just to make doubly sure that his Man Friday slept soundly, he walloped him several times about the head with the heaviest object aboard ship - the brass latrine pot his mama and papa had given him on achieving his captaincy .
'Now to put my life's research to the test! Mwaha! Mwahahahahahaha!' Late into the night, the captain snipped and clipped, trimmed and stripped. With the finest of gossamer threads and the most delicate of stitches, he sewed sinew to sinew, vein to vein, nerve to nerve without disruption. 'If I can make Rodney the rat's todger bigger than mine, there's 'ope for me yet.' By dawn, his work was done and his transformation from paltry in the britches department to being hung like a donkey, was complete. The stew had an extra mouthful or two of gristle in it and Cunta was now eunoched.
Numbed by brandy and blood loss, the captain clobbered Cunta another couple of times over the head before passing out on deck, too weary even to play with his new best friend.
Three days later, the pungent whiff of garlic farts blasted the captain from strange dreams of goats and squishy, over-ripe watermelons into the land of consciousness. 'Cunta, get your stinkin' arse outta me face.' But the captain's Man Friday was no-where to be seen. Above him stood a fat man wearing an oversized red-onion necklace.
''Ey! Monsieur, bienvenue a Toulon!'
The captain struggled to his foot. 'Stand aside, my good man,' he said in his rehearsed Queen's English, 'and point me in the direction of them lovely virgins gaggin' for me loins. 'ic.'
'Alors. Anglais?' The fat man hawked. Bubbling green gunk merged with Cunta's blood on the deck. 'Hahaha! Virgins? You Anglais make zee best jokes. Zee whorehouse is at zee end of zee jetty.'
The captain minced lopsidedly down the gangplank with only two thoughts. Firstly, the unfurling bulge in his britches, swiftly followed by the looks on the virgins' faces when they clapped eyes on his magnificence.
The smell of the Toulon whorehouse, when it hit the captain's senses, compared only to the sweaty stench of a mollusc's ball-sack, but nothing could stop him.
'Yoohoo, ladies! Come to Papa!' he called through the doorway of what he assumed was the brothel, the only hint being the words 'Get your end away here - NO FREEBIES' scrawled on the wall.
A semi-naked pensioner wearing a bad wig popped up from beneath a counter inside. 'Twenty Francs, Mister. No kissin' on zee lips, you hear?'
PPffffft. The straining in the Captain's groin deflated. 'I'm not shagging you, you wizened old 'ag! Look at your tits! I've seen perkier fucking ciabattas!'
'Not me, you stupid merde tete! Zee new girl. She's young and firm. You'll like her, I feel it in my water.'
'That's more like it, 'ag. Lead the way!'
'Up zee stairs. Allez. First door on zee left.'
Captain Tiny leapt up the stairs, crashing through the door, britches round his ankles. 'Ooh, girlie, are you in for a special treat! Agggggggghhhhhhh!'
Cunta lay on the bed, legs akimbo, with a squirrel skin draped over the place where his manhood once was.
'Baass! You've made me the happiest slave in the whole world! I always dreamed of having a pussy!'
The captain stood agog. 'Where's me fuckin' virgin, Cunta?'
A winning smile spread over Cunta's lips. He flapped a hand at the captain's flaccid member. 'That thing don't work for virgins, baass. Only goats.'
The captain promptly swapped the sea for land, his wig for a flat cap and his ship for a cute little goat farm in the Pyrenees. Cunta on the other hand, fled to Mon M'artre where he became the muse of Van Gough. And we all know what happened to him.