SHORT STORY: To The Limit

Story by Margaret Irish, shortlisted for the Michael McLaverty Short Story Competition in 2008

After the funeral Miriam’s face was like milk coming to the boil. Her friends were crowding round trying to hold her hands and put their arms around her. One of them saw him standing there and hurried over.

‘Seamus...’ she said with a solemn stare, ‘so sorry.’

She kept a grip of his hand until he pulled it away. The father was in bits, she’d say later to the nodding heads.

‘There’s tea... come and join us.’

He shook his head. He’d already said all he was going to say to Miriam.

‘Seamus...’

He put his hands up and backed away.

‘Seamus – don’t be alone...’

That was exactly what he’d planned now, down to the river to a place miles beyond where the track ended. But his brother was here, Maurice who’d taken the time off work and travelled all this way.

‘You heading over?’

He nodded towards the parish hall where people were standing around and where there would be tea and sandwiches. The teenagers stood in a group at the edge of the crowd.

‘No. You talk to them.'

‘A pint then? They can talk to each other.'

He chose the quietest of the pubs but the silence deepened when they entered. He sat in a corner while Maurice went to get the drinks. Through the window he could see one of the teenagers in a red sweatshirt leaning against a wall, peering into the pub as if he was watching them. He stared down at the table where glasses had left white marks but when he looked up the figure was still there. Then he found he was on his feet and heading out the door, tapping Maurice on the arm as he passed.

When she was laid out she looked like someone in a play. They had her dressed in a white lace blouse, the kind of thing he’d never seen her wear. Her face was cold, the skin grey. While he watched her he couldn’t help thinking of Juliet, of Romeo finding her lying on a slab in the family vault. Her blood had frozen but she was not dead and if things had gone differently her lover would have arrived in time and she’d revive. He kissed the cold forehead. She looked snug in the satin lining, regal in her strange dress. She could easily sit up and speak to him.

One of her friends had read a poem at the service, something about not weeping at the grave.

‘I am not there... I do but sleep...’ At the time he’d bent his head and tried to stuff his ears but could still hear the last lines.

‘Do not stand at my grave and cry,’ the girl was saying in a choked voice. ‘I am not there. I did not die.’

***

Now he wanted to be down at the river but had a sudden urge to be rid of the funeral clothes. Behind his front door there were three cards lying on the mat and he stood for a few seconds watching the blinking light on the answering machine. He threw the shirt and tie aside and pulled on a jumper. He sat on the bed, eyes fixed on the black tie in a heap on the floor. She’d said he looked cool in a tie, that he should scrub up more often. But he still only had the one she’d given him, this one borrowed.

Miriam didn’t like the crowd she was hanging around with. He said he didn’t give a damn; she could have whatever friends she liked. She’ll find her own way, he’d said, let her have her day. Laura was his daughter and there was no way she was ever going to live a tame life. He stood in the bedroom doorway with one hand gripping the jamb, waiting for the time to pass. A branch brushed against the window.

‘I did not die.’

The line of the poem came back to him and he felt his fist tighten and crash into a panel of the door. He staggered back with the bloodied knuckles under his arm, then smashed them into the door again.

When he was seventeen he wanted to push it to the limit. With his friends he’d raced old bangers down the lanes, jumped off the high bridge into the current near where the rocks were. He remembered the bloodrush when they dared each other, when he felt his feet leave the bridge. They had always been lucky. He closed his eyes and walked blindly from the house, cutting through the fields.

At the removal Miriam had seen him across the room and flashed him the accusing look. Maurice had a grip of his arm and was steering him through the crowd. By the time they reached her she was sobbing and threw herself against him, pounding his shoulder for a minute. Then she started talking about arrangements, flowers and headstones in a stream of barely connected words. Laura’s half brother and sister were mute on either side of her, their father with a stone face standing at a distance.

He got to the riverbank and broke through wet undergrowth to stand at the edge of the water. It was brown and swollen from the heavy rain that hadn’t stopped falling in the days since he’d got the call. At three in the morning he’d driven to the hospital, sure, perfectly sure of a mistake. Two of her friends had come straight from the night club, thin weepy girls in tight jeans, clutching each other. They were trying to keep their faces hidden on each other’s shoulders but he met the eye of one of them, saw the shock on the baby face.

‘It’s happened,’ Miriam said in a strange voice from the end of the corridor and she kept saying it as she got nearer. She had mad eyes that he couldn’t look at and he moved away to stand at the window. He knew it happened. It happened all the time, but it couldn’t have have happened to his girl.

The current was flowing at a furious rate, racing to fulfil a desperate need. It had stopped raining but the overhanging trees were dripping into the water, big drops glistening where the sun fell on them. This wasn’t the place; he wanted to go as far as the waterfall where the force would be huge after so much rain. He stared at the flow, cradling his aching hand. Something moved in the grass behind him, someone walking. He concentrated on a fallen branch caught on rocks by the far bank and waited for the sound to pass. Rain started to fall again and quickly became heavy but he didn’t move. All around him it came down in an angry patter on the leaves and grass. It lasted several minutes and soaked him through, then cleared as a weak sun came out.

It had happened. They had passed into the mirror world level with their own where brakes did fail, escape routes were blocked and rescuers drowned along with victims. He’d flirted with that world; now it had him. He could still converse with people in the place he’d left but the same words meant different things and they would never again understand each other.

He could hear nothing now except the sound of the river but he knew the person behind him was still there. He turned and saw a figure in the high grass, one of her gang of course, wanting to come now and say meaningless things or just wanting to stare at him. The boy standing with his hooded head bent and arms wrapped round his body was the one he’d seen earlier, the sweatshirt now a darker red from the rain.

‘Go away,’ he said and started walking. Without turning or listening he knew the boy was following him. He had something he wanted to say and wasn’t giving up. If he’d been a few years older he’d have known to save it, to push off and leave a man to deal with this alone. But he’d probably followed him from the church to the pub, to the house and all the way down here.

‘Go away.’

When he turned the guy was still there, coming along at a distance behind him. He stopped and waited. It had crossed his mind that Miriam might send someone to keep an eye on him but this was not the person she’d have sent.

‘Go. Away.’

‘Mr Malone... I just wanted to say...’

‘What?’

He’d be pestered until he heard the guy out.

‘We only did a few lines... it shouldn’t have mattered. Loads of people do a few lines – all the time!’

Seamus stared at the wet briars.

‘And just to say... she wasn’t big into it – I swear, we only did a few lines!’

He studied the dark-ringed eyes under the hood, the sparse stubble on the chin. He’d thrown the punch and was reeling from it before he realised the blood on the guy’s face and the shooting pain were from his own battered hand. He went down in a heap on the grass, crying out in words he didn’t know.

When he came round he wasn’t sure. It could have been a few minutes or a long time. His clothes were soaked, his hand throbbing. The guy was sitting opposite him in the grass, a streak of blood on his jaw . He eased himself up and put the hand under his arm so he wouldn’t have to look at it.

‘Who are you anyway?’

‘Jason. Laura’s friend.’

‘Boyfriend?’ He’d heard so many names he couldn’t be sure.

‘Three weeks...’

As he said it his head dropped down and he put a fist to his forehead. His shoulders shuddered and Seamus turned to look up at the grey clouds. More rain would come, then more again. He stepped away and studied the mess of his knuckles. Time passed.

‘You OK, Mr Malone?’

The boyfriend was standing beside him. He gave a grunt and turned, stumbling on up the riverbank. Water had got into his shoes and he concentrated on the squelch of every step. A light rain was coming down. He’d gone on for a few minutes when he turned to look back at the retreating figure in red.

‘Wait!’

He went back in big strides.

‘Wait, wait!’

The boyfriend stopped, wary.

‘Wait a minute, Jason – I want to ask you something. I want to ask you – why?’ He kept going till he was standing close and could look into his face. ‘Why? Why do you do it?’

Jason looked baffled, gave a shrug.

‘No, no tell me – why?’

‘I dunno.’

‘Tell me!’

‘I don’t know.’

The pain in the hand was vicious now and he rushed to the edge of the river and plunged it in. The cold water was a shock of comfort, then a savage sting to the wound. Jason came forward and leaned over him, saying it needed seeing to and he should probably do it soon.

Near his feet was the muddy line of track where many people had walked and he followed it, Jason pushing through the long grass beside him. They talked of the football injuries they had suffered, the treatments and recovery times. The worst thing was not being able to train with the team and you always seemed to miss an important match. The mist thickened into heavy rain but they walked on regardless.

Read an interview with Margaret Irish