Embankment

A short story, by Jack Kearney.

northern-ireland

Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Tom Roddy sits with his legs along the embankment and his mind in a muddle. He is thirty three; as old as he’s been. The cold energy of still water rides up the concrete slope and hits him hard across the face. A beautiful face, so he has been told. So he is told. He didn’t shave this morning so he looks a little rougher than usual, not in a bad way. He didn’t shave this morning because he was in an awful hurry. He was in an awful hurry because

Because

A bird lands on the embankment to the right of him.

Because

Shining black beak, strong and angular. The bird turns its head and stares at Tom Roddy.

Because

Because aren’t we all in an awful hurry? The bird croaks sagaciously.

It’s true. Tom Roddy was in an awful hurry this morning but it’s no longer morning and he’s no longer hurried. He has time. Time to feel the wrinkles in the slope where the concreter erred, either because he couldn’t concentrate or he didn’t want to. Tom runs his index finger through the little crevices and knows what it’s like not to care.

The bird looks at him with an air of judgment. As if to say well you did care this morning Tom Roddy, didn’t you? You cared enough about your hurry not to shave. Not to iron the collar of your shirt. Not to sew the button on your jacket. Not to spit polish your boots. Not to polish your boots period. Period.

An American bird, Tom thinks allowed. In this country we say full-stop, and we seldom feel the need to announce the end of our sentences.

The bird turns its head right.

Tom turns his left, to Carnalea, where a marquee is being propped up behind a golf club. Sandwiches are quartered and organised into neat little rows. Cheese and onion, he hopes. He has no intention of attending, but he hopes for cheese onion all the same. A bride and groom sit restlessly in separate rooms somewhere. Tom Roddy sits with his legs along the embankment.

*

Tom Roddy enters the world on a rug flung down in the alleyway behind his father’s shop. He is as old as he’s been; as heavy as he’s been. His mother feels the hard weight of him against her sweat drenched chest as his father breaks into a shiver.

Tom Roddy you’ll be something he says, a smile across his handsome face.

Tom? His mother asks.

His father nods his head and knows it to be so. Then Fergal Roddy leaves his shop, his wife, his Tom Roddy, and walks out onto the Falls Road. Fergal unbuttons his shirt and lets it drop to his ankles. It’s November. His nipples are erected by a cutting breeze that makes his small body quake. A group of young girls across the street laugh at the silly man with his bare tummy and his pointy nipples. Fergal doesn’t hear them. He’s off down the street, tearing along aback the breeze and screaming at the top of his lungs.

Praise the lord, he shouts, for a woman was barren – was being the operative term – and now she is not. Now a baby, a boy, a Tom Roddy is born and may he be a miracle amongst men.

Fergal screams it over and over until his breath leaves him and the cold night air crushes his lungs and an old lady above a Chinese restaurant sticks her head out of a window and says shut up Fergal Roddy, shut up ye mouth and get back to ye shop and ye life and leave us be.

On the rug in the alleyway behind the shop Tom Roddy cries against his mother. It’s a needle like cry, unpleasant to human ears. His mother is thankful so long as she hears it, it tells her Tom Roddy is alive.

*

Tom Roddy crouches behind a low brick wall and hears the tip tapping of on-comers huddled together beneath the rain. He is nineteen; as old as he’s been. The rifle feels strange and awkward in his hands. Around him, Belfast quakes and cowers against wind and rain and upheaval. Tom hears none of this. He does hear things, though. He hears the gentle scrape of small feet picking up and putting down against the pavement, several metronomes being twisted to faster tempos and the cracking of his knees as he squats behind that wall.

His brother is restless beside him, short breaths stab at the thin air that surrounds them; a penchant for shifting his broad shoulders against the wall and feeling the scape of rough edges and mortar against his back.

Occasionally the thought occurs to Tom Roddy that they don’t need to stay behind the wall, that they could just leave. There was a football match being played somewhere nearby no doubt, in and amongst the chaos. There’d be cold beers to match the weather and light talk of the troubles interwoven with handshakes and careful smiles. Just as often as these thoughts arise in his mind the cold metal in his hands pulls him down against the brick, holding him in place, reminding him of his reasons.

Pádraig’s impatience seeps into the air that separates them. Mutterings of aggressive patriotism and hatred. He is fifteen, but long and strong; decisive. The shiny black rifle sits against his palms and looks worn and natural, a marriage long since consummated. He spits on the ground and tells Tom to get going, it was time. Tom Roddy ignores his little brother, bigger and broader and more full of life’s bite than he is or has been.

The black balaclava must have slid outside his consciousness and it feels strange to realise he is wearing it. He can remember putting it on that morning in the little room above the old fruit shop and he can remember realising that he was wearing it a few moments ago, crouched against the wall and the rain. Tom has no memory of balaclava wearing in the space that connects those two moments and he wonders whether he might be going a bit mad. A brick shifts ever so slightly behind his back and Tom remembers that he is leaning against a wall and crouching atop pavement and listening to footsteps and Pádraig’s gnashing and decides that this is more than enough things of which to be aware at any one time.

The footsteps fall into line with them and then catch themselves hard against the wet as the owners notice the balaclavas and the guns. Pádraig springs to his feet and Tom feels him brush past him on the way up, a passion and intent in his brother’s clothes that he’s never felt in his own. Pádraig points his gun at the face of a girl, ten or eleven years of age. Tom tries to look apologetically at her mother but the glance is misinterpreted and she glares back at him behind a chorus of sobs. The cries are bone chilling and they flood the street around them, drowning Pádraig’s inquisitions in a pool of fear and confusion. A man from one of the houses comes up behind Tom. He flings him hard against the wall and kicks him in the shins. Pádraig shoots the man in the leg and the girls scream and dissipate into the greyness.

Tom Roddy hears the blood from his head drip warm and soft against a puddle. He thinks he hears it in his left ear; his right is ringing from the firing of the rifle. He wonders if ringing is the right word and decides that it isn’t. Humming. Perhaps. There’s a bird over head, its beak strong and angular. He wonders where it’s flying from, where it’s flying to. After some deliberation Tom Roddy settles on Scotland. He shuts his eyes and follows the bird as the humming and the dripping and quaking fall away.

*

Tom Roddy dips his hand into the still water and wonders why it feels so familiar. He is nine; as old as he’s been; as old as he can remember ever being. The grass splays his bare toes and nestles in the crevices, making a home for itself between lines of smooth flesh. He straightens up and observes the pond. Sunlight dances at its sharp edges and catches him in a momentary trance. The trance is broken by Pádraig who bumbles into sight from the perimeter of his consciousness and halters beside him.

Tom can’t quite remember sitting himself down but he is aware that he is no longer standing. The grass repositions itself between his toes and he feels the weight of his brother fall into his shoulder. A bird lands on the pebbled square to the left of the pond and stares at them. It cricks its neck and Tom thinks he sees the stresses of the day trickle into the pond. The bird has a nice beak, Tom thinks to himself. He tries to describe it and decides he doesn’t yet have the words. Instead he watches as the bird takes a weed from beside the pond and begins twirling it around its beak.

‘Why is he doing that?’ Pádraig whispers in Tom’s ear.

Tom doesn’t know but feels embarrassed to admit this. ‘Probably because he has a toothache.’

‘Do bird’s get toothaches?’ Pádraig asks.

Tom laughs, not unkindly. He explains that yes, of course they do.

Tom feels the glow grow hotter against his neck and then cool to a darkness. The day swallows itself and takes them with it before it reappears with a new, same light. The bird is there through it all and so is the pond and the edges and the grass. It’s hard to pick one moment from another, Tom decides. Hard to distinguish them against the glassy mirage of time; to hold the seconds in his fingers for long enough to recognise them but not so long so as to stale them.

‘Where are we, Tom?’ Pádraig asks after some time.

Tom looks around and decides they must be in the South of France. He decides this because the South of France seems a perfectly fine place to be and why would he be anywhere other than where he wishes he was.

The bird takes flight and circles the boys for a while before swooping off to a nest in an evergreen some distance from that place. Pádraig starts to cry and Tom says he understands, but he’s not sure that he does.

*

Tom Roddy feels the world turn beneath him and his head spins with distant shouts. He is fourteen; as old as he’s been. The bedroom floor is icy concrete and it pushes hard up against his palms as he lies there, waiting. He hears another door bang shut and a man shouts at a woman to get back. Tom pulls the blanket tightly around his knees and knows what it’s like to fear.

Pádraig emerges from the bundle of blankets beside him and asks what’s wrong.

Tom says nothing. The boys are silhouettes lying there in the crowded halflight. A spider curls against itself in a corner cobweb near Tom’s elbow and the air retreats from the attic room. Moonlight cuts softly through a gap in the curtains, glistening against the strands of the cobweb in a tiny moment of unappreciated beauty.

The sounds of commotion rise again from the little fruit shop beneath them and a woman screams to leave him be. Tom wonders why he keeps thinking of the voice as belonging to a generic woman when he knows it to be the voice of his mother. Pádraig floats across the room before Tom realises he is no longer lying. His pyjamas hang loosely around his gangly frame and he makes to pull at the handle of the attic door. Tom yells for him to stop and he does and so does the commotion. An eerie stillness drifts up and seeps through the cracks in the door. It holds them rigid to their spots. Tom thinks he hears the hairs pick up off his forearms and the spider’s muscles twitch against a firm pocket of air. Someone slips on a loose tomato or granny smith and the sound of falling propels the booming of laughter and anger and fear.

The boys chance a look out into the night through the curtain gap and see British troops in boots and helmets dragging men with flags writhing and shrieking up the Falls. Tom recognises his father among the writhers and something icier than the floor seizes him. His mother is on her knees, sobbing. She pounds her fists into the pavement below and Tom Roddy knows nothing of her pain.

*

Tom Roddy sits with his legs along the embankment and remembers his mother. The soft, sweet smell of her. The warm, firm touch of her. He feels the small of his back relax into the slope and knows what it’s like to love.

*

Tom Roddy swings his legs back and forth beneath the kitchen table and hums an old sailor’s tune. He is twelve; as old as he’s been. His mother splits an onion down its centre and the sweet bite of acid lifts across to where he sits. It stings his eyes and tickles his nose. He hears his father spread the plastic curtains that separate the little kitchen from the fruit shop and gets a whiff of other oniony smells and pears and thyme.

Tom watches his mother. She takes a block of cheese and begins slicing it firmly against the board. He wonders if cutting cheese and ignoring fathers are always this interchangeable. Tom hears his father clear his throat and sees his mother slow the blade.

‘I’ve made a decision,’ Tom hears him say.

His mother doesn’t respond at once. She transfers the onion and the cheese onto a slice of yesterday’s bread and slides the lot carefully onto a plate. Tom keeps his eyes low as she walks towards him. She places the plate in front of him and then turns to face his father. ‘I don’t want them in the house.’

Tom hears his father say something about just the odd meeting and how it’s all for Ireland. He takes a bite of his sandwich and feels those same smells of before but bigger, bolder; more lifelike. Acidy salty sweetness. They fill and swirl about his mouth and tingle the back of his throat on the way down.

His mother says something at the periphery of his consciousness, something that sounds of vague significance. She places a hand on his shoulder and he feels the heat of her carry through him and linger somewhere near his abdomen. Perhaps they’re taking about him and Pádraig. He thinks he hears the words violence and safety, but he could be wrong. It all seems a bit foggy and unimportant. He leans into his sandwich for a second time and lets his parents’ concerns dip behind a wall of salty comfort.

*

Tom Roddy hears the door of the share house click open and push shut against the wind. He is thirty one; as old as he’s been. He stretches out along the bed and lets his arms fold naturally in behind his neck, a thick volume of Joyce resting on his stomach and drifting over his head. He hears footsteps climb the stairs and feels the early June sunlight tickle his toes. The girl in the room next door speaks loudly and slowly, as she often does, in a language he can’t put a name to. The footsteps gather confidence and stop suddenly as the door of the room swings open.

Tom watches the man; tall and shaven. He swings the desk chair around and places his long self carefully onto it without invitation. Tom opens the book and the man asks him what he’s reading. Tom says he hasn’t decided yet. The man looks frustrated and asks when he’ll be coming home.

Home?

Home.

Thirty feet seems close enough, Tom says. If he cricks his neck far enough to the left he can see the old fruit shop on the other side of the road.

A bird comes to rest on the window ledge and blocks his view. Tom watches it for a while. Pádraig steals his attention away before he has the chance to describe its beak, though he fully intended to.

There’s work to be done, he says.

Tom surveys his brother. The rounded frame. The pockets of shadow beneath his eyes. The troubles had aged him and yet their had been no troubles for three years. Tom sees a soldier fighting a non-existent battle.

The war effort is young.

Tom looks out the window, around the bird. He sees a boy kicking a football against the wall of a closed shop and an elderly lady heaving grocery bags up her front path. There’s a man in a wheelchair being pushed by his daughter and a shaggy Labrador dragging its sleepy owner towards the park. A family leaves the children’s hospital hand-in-hand while an elderly man taps the footpath with his shoe, wondering if his bus will ever come. Tom sees people moving through the corridors of their lives, some bumping and slipping and others gliding or walking backwards. He can’t seem to see the war in it all.

I’m marrying Aoife, Tom hears Pádraig say as he watches the elderly woman and her grocery bags negotiate the thinnish doorframe.

That’s nice, Tom says.

Her dad’s IRA. Pádraig says this as if it means something.

I expect that’s important to you, Tom says.

Pádraig stands up and says that of course it is. His voice rises in volume as he says it but does nothing to rival the woman next door. Pádraig says the wedding will be important for Ireland and Tom can’t see how that’s true, but he doesn’t say this.

Tom asks Pádraig if he remembers the time that the two of them went to the farm in the South of France with Aoife, when they were much younger. Pádraig says he is not sure what Tom is talking about that he has to go. The rustle of his leaving is missed somewhat behind the ball beating against the shop wall and the shaggy Labrador barking halfheartedly into the still morning air.

*

Tom Roddy sits with his legs along the embankment and his mind still very much in a muddle. He wonders why he isn’t in the South of France on the farm by the pond, with a cheese and onion sandwich and less fitting clothes.

The bird turns its head towards him as if to say that it was wondering the same thing.

It becomes hard to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t, Tom says.

The bird says it knows what he means and Tom thinks that it probably does. The bird has been here a while now but there is no sign of it leaving anytime soon.

A woman jogs passed behind him and he listens to each of her footsteps as they hit the pavement. He listens until the footsteps become so soft that the listening feels akin to hard work.

Tom turns to his left, to Carnalea, where a man and a woman are meeting at an alter now, united by age and time and purpose.

Tom Roddy was in an awful hurry this morning, but he isn’t now. He leans back against the slope once more and thinks he feels the gentlest breeze slide across his face. He’s felt the same breeze once before, sitting by a pond with the grass between his toes.

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