Exclusive short story, 'Footsteps', from Derry author's debut collection Days of Wines and Rosaries. Click Play Audio to listen to a podcast with Fionnuala Carlin.
Fionnuala Carlin was born in Derry and studied English at UCD before embarking on a vocational career in social work. A mother of five 'almost reared' children, her lifelong interest in literature has blossomed as her children have spread their wings. 'Footsteps' is taken from her debut short story collection Days of Wine and Rosaries. Ranging from inventive comic vignettes to evocative accounts of turmoil and loss, this first collection is published by Guildhall Press.
Michael’s eyes snapped open. His heart was hammering in his chest, his shoulders and neck slick with sweat. He breathed deeply before reaching for the clock on his bedside table. Five thirty, it read.
Another restless night almost over, each toss and turn a tick of the second hand, a torturous, sleepless revolution of the hours. Time was holding on to him, each slippery minute a bonus, a triumph of matter over mind.
On the rare occasions he dozed, he woke on the half-hour. Was he born on the half-hour? Same as Anna? He knew exactly when she was born: thirty minutes past six. He knew because it was on the morning of his tenth birthday. He could still hear his father.
‘Happy birthday, Michael, do you want to see your present?’
And there she was, in his mother’s arms, the tiniest little thing, all eyes in a clean, white head.
‘Your baby sister,’ whispered his father, his voice soft like cotton wool.
‘All yours, sweetheart,’ said his mother.
‘And a fort, with cowboys and Indians,’ added his father quickly.
‘What will I call her?’
‘Anna,’ said his mother.
‘Anna …’ he’d said, counting all her little fingers and toes.
‘Can I keep her?’
Michael punched his fist hard into the pillow now, but it was no good; Anna’s mottled face was still there. She moved through his days and haunted his nights. He pressed the palms of his hands tightly together and then opened them like a book. These were the hands which once carried her tiny schoolbag, guided her pencil, mussed her hair. These were the hands which rushed to swing her high on holidays home, the same hands which, one year ago today, traced the red and angry rope burns on her cold and coffined slender neck.
God, how much longer till daybreak? And then what? Would that be any better? Would he get any ease? He threw the switch above his head and pulled himself up onto the pillow, dragging his tired grey eyes around the room. The walls were hessian hung and peeling. Empty whiskey bottles were balanced precariously against the wall. His clothes were strewn side by side with his carpentry tools, which were a nod to a token occupation and a means to an end.
The only redeeming feature in the room was an original 1900s fireplace, lined with dark green and yellow tiles, which was burnished a bit from heat but cold and empty now and blocked by a crude piece of Formica.
He had no desire to change anything; in this room or in his life; he was in transition.
Not far away, he heard again the familiar sound of a door closing and the clatter of a woman’s heels hurrying past hiswindow. He checked the time again. Almost quarter to six. She’s late, he thought. When he first moved here, her steps were just an added torture but they slowly rooted into his day, a welcome distraction to the bleakness of his thoughts.
He knew exactly how many footsteps she took from her front door to the point beyond his hearing and back again. The seasons saw a change in their rhythm, from the lightness in the long days to the uncertain over-the-shoulderness of dark mornings like today. He no longer wondered where she was going. The facts were established: she had to be somewhere for six o’clock, where she stayed for one hour or thereaboutsbefore returning home.
He looked forward to her steps now; they brought a promise of something, he wasn’t sure what. But the regular rhythm of her dawn walk comforted him in a way he didn’t need to understand.
He imagined what she might look like. She was young, that much he discerned from those days she passed a little late. How could she run in those things? For they were certainly high heels, the click-clip of them smarting the pavement, charting her path.
One morning she stumbled, just outside his window. He imagined the double take and almost heard the gasp as she steadied herself. As she walked on, he could hear that the click-clip had changed to a staccato de-dum and guessed that she must have gone over on her ankle.
In his head, he rushed to help her, put a gentle arm around her and soothe her, but the blurred deadness of his will washed the thought away.
As her footsteps faded now in the distance, Michael rose and dressed quickly. He could set his clock by her, though that would be superfluous, given his erratic sleep pattern. Two hours of whiskey-induced stupor and a bedful of restless circling till dawn was his lot.
He tried to remember the last time he felt rest, easement. A powerful memory returned.
‘Michael, are you coming? It’s nearly midnight. Come on!’
‘You go first, Andy.’
Andy shakes his head and runs a hand through his tousled jet black hair in mock amazement. ‘Michael Connors, I’m shocked. Don’t tell me you’re scared?’ he teases.
‘Terrified,’ confesses Michael, though he has a trick up his sleeve for Andy.
‘Some priest you’re going to make, Michael, if you’re scared by a stupid story. Come on, cowardy,’ he whispers, leading the way. As they pass through the quiet corridors, Michael catches his reflection in the window. His lean body is crouched forward like an athlete about to sprint. The look in his eyes is of anticipation, exhilaration, and his mouth has the slice of a smile, which widens as they approach their destination.
Now they’re standing outside the famous ghost room. Andy puts his eye to the keyhole just as Michael glides a bird’s feather over the back of his friend’s neck, unprepared for the scream. Fast footsteps then as they fly to the safety of their bedrooms, tumbling down and laughing, and peace.
Yes, peace then, innocence and peace lying in his own bed in St Pat’s, arms above his head, window wide open to the vast black cap of night and the stars full of His promise. A surge of supreme wellbeing, the certainty that all is well, and peace – waves and waves of it warming his spirit, slipping him into the most restful sleep he has ever known, or is ever likely to know again.
He realised he was crying now and fiercely wiped away the tears. From the photograph on his bedside table, Anna’s innocent, smiling eyes followed his every move. He picked up the picture, held it to his chest for a brief moment, then turned it face down.
Anna, ballerina Anna, light as fairy dust. He saw her then; five years old and walking beside him from school.
‘Michael, you’ll have to carry my schoolbag. I have to think,’ sighing deeply.
‘Okay, little grub, hand it over. Must be very important.’
‘What?’ she looks up at him.
‘What you’re thinking.’
‘I’m thinking what I’ll be when I grow up.’
‘And what are you going to be?’
‘A famous ballerina and a beautiful lady.’ She turns her little head from him in a gesture of mini-hauteur as he laughs.
‘What’s funny?’ she asks in a tight little voice.
‘Nothing at all. I think that’s great. Do you know what I’m going to be?’
‘What?’ She stops walking, giving him her full attention.
‘A priest, Michael?’ Her cornflower blue eyes are wide with interest. ‘That’s the best job in the whole world.’
‘And why’s that?’ he asks, smiling at her earnest little face.
‘Because you get to talk in the chapel.’
‘Oh, is that so?’ he says. ‘And why do little children have to be quiet in the chapel?’
‘Because all the people are sleeping, of course.’
Michael bursts out laughing. ‘Go on, I’ll race ye home,’ he says.
And she runs ahead of him, her golden, baby-breath hair flying in the breeze as she turns to shout to him, ‘Bye, Michael. Love you.’
‘You, too,’ he says.
The yellow sun in his chest now darkened as her image dissolved and was replaced by powder-coated sweet tones – the hateful voice of corruption.
‘Mrs Connors, can I borrow Anna again after school this afternoon? I need some of my files sorted before the inspection. I’ll make sure she goes straight home afterwards.’
He squeezed his eyes tight shut against the pain – God, if only I’d been there – snapping them open as his mother’s voice calls him back again.
‘Michael, have a word with Anna, will you? She’s refusing to go to school and won’t listen to me or your dad. She’ll listen to you.’
‘Sorry, Mam, I have to go. I’m covering the Retreat tonight. Tell Anna I’ll give her a ring tomorrow. And don’t be worrying so much, she’s fourteen, hormones flying; it’s probably about a boy.’
He is in his room in the parochial house when his friend Father John comes in. John’s immense frame usually fills the room but today he looks oddly diminished.
‘Michael, you have to go home. There’s been an accident.’
‘Accident? What’s happened?’ His mother? His father?
‘It’s your sister, Michael. I’m so very sorry.’ John’s gentle voice catches and he reaches forward as Michael back away.
‘My sister? Anna? No, that couldn’t be, John. I spoke to Mam only last night; she didn’t say anything. What kind of accident?’
‘Michael, you need to go home now.’ John can no longer look in his eyes.
‘What kind of accident, John?’ he repeats, though he knows.
‘Michael, she left you a note.’ His mother and father sit beside each other.
Michael, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for all this hurt; I’m a very
It was his mother who guessed, who told him, grief fragmenting the few words which were needed.
His devastation and anger were unappeased by the pale grey response from the parish administrator. ‘I’m so sorry, Michael, we can’t tell you where, but I can tell you that he’s been sent away to an enclosed order.’
All the sad embarrassment of his colleagues and the long, anguished talks with Andy and John were not enough. He couldn’t stay; his centre had broken.
‘The Message is still the same, Michael,’ his mother gently wept as he held his parents close for the longest time before leaving his home and his faith for distant shores.
Michael walked slowly to the kitchen. Sweating heavily, he reached for the kettle and the whiskey bottle. Outside, a grey mist like a silk stocking rolled slowly down towards morning. Inexplicably, the twitter and screech of wheeling birds fanned a distant flame. Birdsong, his mother’s favourite sound, and from somewhere nearby, the scent of turf, her favourite fragrance – the power of the memory jolted him.
He checked the time, almost seven, and absently he waited for the return of his unknown friend. In a moment of strange alignment, just as the kettle began to whistle, Michael heard a cry from the street. He lifted the kettle from the gas and stood stock-still. Again he heard the sound, though he couldn’t be sure from where.
With mounting anxiety, he quickly pulled on his jacket and dashed out into the cold of the day. The street was deserted. He ran towards the old railway line, looking into side streets as he passed. All was silent.
He stopped and listened again. Nothing. He began to doubt himself. Maybe the lack of sleep, he thought. But no, he was wide awake, his senses on alert; he could almost feel his ears raised like antennae.
He walked slowly on now, peering into derelict buildings and darkened laneways. The chill of the morning air began to seep into his skin and he wrapped his arms around himself. He was just about to give up when he thought he heard a muffled sound coming from an alleyway across the street.
Cautiously, he made his way over, peering into it, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. He wasn’t sure but he thought he could make out a dark figure bending over. Then, suddenly, the definite sound of a woman’s voice. ‘Help me!’ a strangled scream.
He was frightened. Never a great soldier, he hesitated before calling out, ‘Hey, you!’ hoping to scare away the attacker.
No answer. He moved slightly forward and as he did, the figure turned and charged at him, knocking him backwards. Michael saw the glint of the knife before he felt the blade enter his side.
Behind him in the alleyway, he heard the woman sobbing as she slowly approached, her pace quickening when she saw him on the ground. ‘Oh, my God, you’re hurt!’ she cried, looking down at the dark red slick which was coating his hand. ‘I’ll get help. Don’t move!’ And then she was running in her bare feet, banging at doors and shouting for help, calling for an ambulance before rushing back to his side. She carried her heels in one hand and her knees were bleeding and cut through the torn nylon.
‘Did he hurt you?’ his voice came haltingly in mini-breaths.
‘If you hadn’t come…’ her voice emptied itself into the cold of the dawn as though her life itself had drained away. She shivered. ‘I thought I was going to die; I didn’t think anyone would hear.’
‘I was waiting for your footsteps back,’ he struggled to stay awake. ‘I hear you going past my door every morning.’
‘What’s your name?’ she asked him, willing him to stay with her.
‘Michael,’ he said, feeling himself drift into a peace he hadn’t known for a long time.
‘Stay with me, Michael, stay awake. Help’s coming.’ She reached up and undid the scarf at her neck and pressed it firmly to his side.
He opened his eyes as her long hair brushed his cheek. It curled softly back from her temples, framing anxious eyes the colour of an autumn leaf. She reminded him a little of Anna, of how Anna might have grown.
‘Where do you go all these mornings?’ his voice seemed far away from him.
‘Mass,’ she said simply, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Keep talking to him, she thought, keep him awake. ‘You know, Michael, they say when you save a life, you’re responsible for it for the rest of your own life. So don’t you think of going anywhere. Just hang on. Help’s nearly here.’
‘Mass,’ he struggled to keep his eyes on hers.
‘I know,’ she shrugged slightly, a faint smile working at her mouth, ‘it’s a faith thing.’
And from a distant home shore, he heard the echo of parting words: the Message is still the same, Michael.
The girl reached down and cradled his head into her lap.
‘You’re going to make it, Michael. Stay with me.’
‘Yes,’ he said.
He closed his eyes.
Anna was sitting on the kerbside beside him, her arms hugging her knees as she turned round to look at him, smiling. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining. After a few reassuring seconds, her ghostwhite lips mouthed the words, ‘Bye, Michael. Love you,’
‘You, too,’ he murmured.
In the near distance, the sound of the sirens grew ever closer and with them, he realised, the promise of a new beginning.
Days of Wine and Rosaries by Fionnuala Carlin is out now published by Guildhall Press.