Short Story: Michael McLaverty Award Winner

The Micheal McLaverty Short Story Award is administered by the Linen Hall Library. Read the winning entry, Scandal, by Dublin-based author Michele Forbes

When Cissie Duggan ran away with the radiator man she created such a scandal. The story had it that Cissie's mother tracked them both down to a dingy, one-bedroomed flat in Hackney and beat Cissie across the back with a wooden spoon. To the radiator man Cissie's mother said nothing – and he could so easily have been prosecuted, easily, his whole radiator business out the window, abducting a minor like that. But instead Cissie's mother saved all her anger up for Cissie, a huge big ball of it, saved it all up and then let it all out until Cissie was black and blue and back on the ferry home to Belfast.

When Cissie came back into school there didn't seem to be quite so much of her. Like she'd lengthened and got thinner. She did look a little older than fifteen though, a little more like seventeen. And she'd developed a new habit, tossing a thick strand of her curly black hair until it fell over one eye and leaving it there as if she had so much on her mind that she didn't even see it. We were quieter than usual with her. We wondered about the bruises we couldn't see. And we didn't know what to say to a girl in our class who we knew for sure had had sex, and with someone much older, someone almost twice her age, someone who wouldn't be fumbling or shy or asking politely but someone who knew exactly what they wanted from a girl. Annie Fay was the only one to ask Cissie outright what the hell was the whole thing about and was she going to run away with the radiator man again? Cissie casually tucked back the cuffs of her school shirt, not looking at us as she spoke. Romance fires me up, she said, but I'm old enough to know what a lie is.

How we then came to cycle all the way to Ballyhalbert together the following summer I really can't remember. It doesn't quite fit. Just for a laugh, maybe Cissie had said to me. We'll do it just for a laugh. We weren't even good friends in any sense of the word. We did have a mutual friend, Jennie Bell, whose attention we both vied for and this, if the truth be told, brought out a slight unpleasantness in our slim relationship. Often I would exaggerate Jennie's loyalty to me and in return Cissie would inflate the shenanigans she and Jennie were planning for the weekend. Secretly, I took a furtive pleasure in seeing Cissie admonished by a teacher for lazy homework or suspended from school for smoking, which she regularly was. But Cissie didn't seem to care. There was something intrepid, something resilient about her which I envied, for sure.

The cycle to Ballyhalbert, in my memory, seems the longest journey I have ever made. Which of course it wasn't. Twenty-seven miles of a road which I feel still stretches out in front of me. I cycled ahead the whole time, Cissie shouting at me from behind to take the next left or to stop for a swig of orange squash from the bag. Cissie's upper body arched back as she cycled, her head wagging vigorously from side to side. She was wearing a red dress, its flounces billowing around her like a tulip, showing off her white thighs and inviting you right in to take a look.

Just two miles outside Ballyhalbert village we would find the cottage which had been bought by Cissie's father before he'd left her mother for the young policewoman. Cissie's father had had big ideas to renovate the cottage – always full of big ideas, said Cissie's mother – but now that he had more than enough going on in his life – what with the twins due and all – he had suddenly lost interest in the cottage and was wanting to sell it. In the meantime Cissie and her brother Doug were free to use it during school holidays and bring their friends, but no drinking, under any circumstances, her father had said, understood?

The cottage was a small single-storey building with no electricity, peeling, chalky white walls which were always cold, and rotting window frames which, in a moment of optimism, had been daubed a duck-egg blue. Large, long nettles and spear thistles surrounded three sides of it and the matted grass at the front was laced with cuckoo spit. A short path of trampled earth led to an outside toilet where the damp toilet roll fell off in clumps in your hand.

Inside the air smelt of stale walnuts and long-forgotten laundry, as though you'd expect to find something mouldy under your bed or in a cupboard somewhere. The sink in the tiny kitchen was encrusted with a lumpy black ring and around the faucets half-dead flies, light as paper, jiggled in spiders' hammocks. There were three spoons and a can opener in the cutlery drawer and a set of plastic picnic cups with flaky scaly skin from use or neglect. Let's get chips at the Oasis Bar, said Cissie.

We walked into the village with bicycle legs, laughing along the empty road, and occasionally rubbing our saddle-sore crotches, and then sat on the sea wall to eat our pasties and chips until it got dark. True to her word Cissie didn't try to buy alcohol or even ask the young men hanging outside the bar to go in and get her some. She bought orange Fanta, like me, slurping it very slowly as we sat on the wall watching the young men wrestle and curse. The tide was out and the seaweed smelled stinky-eggy and the young men unsettled me as though they were planning something. In the light of the purple neon sign above the Oasis Bar you could see big greasy lip marks on the rim of Cissie's can.

On the walk back to the cottage we were contained in darkness. I had never seen a world so dark, as though we were blindfolded, and lifting our legs a little higher than normal to test if the road was still there beneath us. Thick, dense cloud blocked out any hint of light which the night sky might have to offer and there was not even a headlight of a car or a spill of light from a house anywhere near. We linked arms tightly so as not to lose each other in the pitchy black and sang a little, in a way that showed we were better friends than we were. This way, said Cissie, when the mound of rubbish bags at Hanvey's gate loomed lamely out at us from the murk. You sure? I asked her.

Once back in the cottage, I felt that I had stepped into an underground cave. I hated it. Our voices had a yeasty echo to them. And as I expected that night I was unable to sleep. I lay in the pressing dark amidst the dirty, damp blankets, fully clothed – my denim jeans were heavy and uncomfortable but I wasn't going to take them off – wondering why I had agreed to come, if indeed I had, or maybe I had just happened to find myself agreeing. Cissie getting her way. Using me as company, wanting to get a break from her mother. From the corner of the bedroom there was an occasional half-snore from Cissie to tell me she was fast asleep.

As the night wore on the silence scared me more and more and my stomach tightened from fear until I felt I was going to get sick but I was too afraid to get out of bed to go to the toilet. Nothing around us. Only darkness. And fields, empty fields full of darkness and no houses. No-one. Nothing. There's nothing. What if someone came? With a hatchet. What if the young men from the bar got too drunk and too bored? And came in the night with a hatchet. Came in the long night.

The terror only eased in me when morning stained the grubby little window in our room, a lip of lemon light in the sky. And when I looked out at the milky mist which hovered over the barely green fields I felt such huge relief. Now it had a beauty I could understand. Now it was simply countryside, where the gnarled trees were still holding their silhouettes against the light as the dew fell lightly on them and the grass was bending politely under the new breeze. In the far distance a cockerel's call. I slipped back into bed, catching a reveal of Cissie's bare arse as she slept, so soundly slept, and fell into a dead and welcome sleep myself.

When I awoke Cissie's bed was empty. Pulling back my blankets I found a man's sock in the bed, stiff and crumpled, and some bits of things like hard bread bits that I didn't even want to guess at. My head was a hot fuzz as I tottered into the kitchen to find Cissie in her red dress and white sandals drinking the remnants of orange Fanta from her can. I'm going to the lake, she said, coming?

A pathway at the back of the cottage led to a wide lake about a quarter of a mile down. At the heart of the lake there was a small island – home, Cissie thought, only to some herons and a few sheep – and from the lakeshore you could just about make out the outline of a ruin of some sort. The day was warming up as summer days often do. We pulled at the short wiry grass with our fingers as we sat gazing out over the lake, our legs stretched out and feeling heavy on the earth. The water of the lake was calm and oozing a morning blue and on its surface little circles appeared now and again where small fish came up from haunting the shallows to feed off falling insects.

In the distance we could see a clean black shape, a mere shard, moving steadily from the island towards us. Looks like a boat, said Cissie, her eyes narrowing in the light. Silently the shape drew nearer. Now we could detect voices and a distant 'phut phut' of a motor. Low, isolated sounds skimming the lake. The bent body of a man and a long thin line feeding off him and into the water and at the end of the line a small bobbing thing. Closer again and the small bobbing thing had a mane of wet hair. There were two men on the motor boat, we could see more clearly now, and a boy with a scrawny cap and corduroys. And the solid shape of a horse straining its head upward as it moved through the water behind them. The horse wore a makeshift head-collar, on the side of which was a big knot where the rope was attached. The man called out reassuringly. There now, c'mon, c'mon girl. His words sounding like separate pieces in the ample air. The horse's eyes were rolled back and fixated on the knot of rope on its head-collar as though the knot was a small creature from which the horse was trying to escape, but still trusting the man. Afraid but still swimming. Cissie pulled her knees up to her chest and marvelled. When a horse's eyes are wide and frightened like that it looks like a beautiful woman, she said.

As they approached the shore's edge the two men jumped out of the boat. The boy remained onboard yanking at the motor until it gave off a distant rasp and was silent. One man dragged the boat forcefully up onto the shingle, his knees bending, his body leaning right back until the boat was grounded. The other lent his weight to the final pull on the rope and the horse burst out of the water as though the lake had given birth to it.

Something about all this effort and our lack of it made me feel womanly and soft. I sat, in a way pleased with myself. Pleased I had come with Cissie after all. Pleased we were sitting on the grass together watching what the day would offer us. Despite the fact that she unnerved me with her easy recklessness she gave off a kind of hope about everything. What's the horse's name called, Cissie shouted coarsely to the men. Only the man holding the horse took note. No name yet, he said simply then turned to lead the horse away, the boy and the other man following. She's a beauty alright, he said, wiping spots of lakewater off his face with the back of his hand, just jumped right into the water no bother. Call it Cissie, she shouted after them, giving a broad, brash laugh at the cheek of it and exposing a big patch of white fur tinged with orange Fanta on her tongue.

Before Cissie sat her A Level's she ran away with Mr Hargreaves the biology teacher. They were madly in love she had told Annie Fay. Annie Fay said it was really a scandal this time because Mrs Hargreaves had multiple sclerosis or cancer or something.

But as it worked out – as I found out when I bumped into Jennie Bell recently and Cissie happened to come into the conversation – they had stayed together, Cissie and Mr Hargreaves, all these years, and had raised five beautiful dark-haired boys, all of them young men now, all high achievers, one of them Jennie thought had sailed single-handedly half way round the world, another had been one of the youngest to climb Kilimanjaro, another had become an environmentalist if you don't mind, and Cissie and Mr Hargreaves – Cissie and Peter – and the boys lived in London but had a second home in Carcassone where Cissie exhibited her paintings and lots of people bought them – she had a notion once apparently to try painting – and she and Peter, who was now a senior consultant for some new education initiative attached to some major English university – Jennie couldn't remember which one, not Oxford now, I know it's not Oxford – were planning to take a year out together to travel across Australia in a camper van and perhaps take in Indonesia or India. They'd already done the Amazonian rainforests. With the children. Intrepid. Resilient. You see.

Jennie Bell told me all this in the frozen food department at our local supermarket. I was shifting the mixed vegetables and onion rings to make room for new stock. Jennie had been looking for the sixteen-pack of Alaska Pollock fish fingers. And what's new in your life then, she asked me. Nothing, really. And you? Brian has to have surgery on his nasal polyps Thursday, sure that's the height of it. The corners of Jennie's mouth collapsed as though lamenting the fact that if only the surgery had been a little more serious she might have had a few days to herself and got her head cleared once and for all. He's not taking retirement well she said. I found the fish fingers for Jennie and handed them to her. See you around, I said. Indeed, said Jennie. I looked at the earnest compliance in Jennie's eyes, at her bloused frail shoulders, at her flat, comfortable shoes – the kind of shoes she had worn at school and which were just like the ones I was wearing – I watched her as she sauntered aimlessly over to the checkout perusing the latest offers on display as she went – and I thought of Cissie Duggan.

We didn't cycle the twenty-seven miles back to Belfast after all. Cissie rang her father from the post office in Ballyhalbert village and he struggled for half an hour to angle our bikes into the boot of his Ford Fiesta. Before I got into the back of the car with her I noticed that all this time there had only been one pedal on Cissie's bike. Twenty-seven miles.

I can see her behind me on the road, how she was swaying and swaggering with only the one pedal and smiling away to herself as though she was dancing on her bicycle to a tune inside her head.

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Award is a biennial competition administered by the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. The 2010 runners up were Gerry McKeague and Bernie McGill. The competition was adjudicated by writer Glenn Patterson and freelance editor and former MD at Blackstaff Press, Anne Tannahill. Scandal and Other Stories is available to purchase from the Linen Hall Library, priced £5.