2017 winner



2017 Winning Short Story

by Roisín Maguire


There are several different kinds of warmth in this, my favourite room, and I love each one of them.


        Warm sunlight drifts through butterflies I have painted on the French windows. Little colourful whimsies that took the whole of a long and lovely afternoon many years ago. The refracted light becomes a rainbow on the arm of my chair, a splash of life in a still space. A child doodling with colour. There have not been enough children here. There has not been enough life here, I realise, for quite some time, and now it is too late. There has not been enough frenzy or bawling or general disorder and the air rests, still and quiet, with me in my chair, waiting. I stopped having them to see me, years ago, my acolytes. Or perhaps they just stopped coming. I can’t remember. Once there were long and rowdy nights, long languorous days sprawled on eachothers’ limbs like cats in the sunlight. Now, instead there is the emptiness of every chair but mine and an ingrown silence.


         The polished wood of the floor casts its own glow in the sunlight and reminds me of fine malt whiskey on stormy nights when the sea beat its war-drums and cast small stones and seaweed like insults over the garden wall, and the gathering huddled close and talked nonsense and swilled from huge heavy tumblers warm in the hand, and the hot faces were never the same. Today the water fusses quietly at a distance and no gale screams at the windows, but the storm is never far away. The gulls wheel and circle out there in the bright sky, seeming placeless and adrift. Busy idling, they tilt and angle and I know that they will wheel and circle even when I’m gone.


         The painting on the wall in front of me glows like a demon. A mess of yellows and oranges, reds and browns from my less ordered period. When the crucible of my body held all the promise in the world and one could risk a random, lustful splashing on the canvas without fear of ridicule, or worse, indifference. I can’t remember creating this one. I can’t recall the buzz and fizz of creativity, that crackle and spark of loin-energy, but it must have been there. It must have crackled through these fingers like sparks in a thunderstorm and burned my eyes on the way out, to find these rich slappings, these fiery hues. There were several substantial bids on this particular work at my last retrospective, of course. It always provokes a strong reaction when shown. They like the rash, raw power of it, they say. They want to own its rude unkempt beauty, they tell me, but I’ve always said it is not for sale. Its heat stirs up the air in my space, not theirs, now that my own fires have cooled.


I don’t know who will buy it now. I don’t know whose eyes will suck up the blaze from it now, when I do not.


         They’ve sent someone to help me pack and organise, as if I am incapable. I hear them park and slam car doors outside, and I grunt up from my warm space, leaving the seabirds to their timeless circling, and go to let them in.


         As I work through the lock and the snib and the chain and the bolt I can sense polite impatience through the wood of the door. There. The day cracks through to show my visitors waiting with fixed smiles. My Amazonian social worker. And an awkward young man hovering behind her, all odds and ends like an unfinished jigsaw. To fetch and carry, I suppose. Skin shining on a pale face. I used to eat young men like him for breakfast, once. I liked to suck their smooth soft skin. I won’t bite. Not any more. I think I may have spoken out loud. He had been looking straight ahead, expecting a face, but recalibrates quickly to see me, down here, shrunk like a joke, and colour flares in his face, pretty, like a flower.


         One dark face, one pale; here to shepherd Granny to the Home. I shift my arm a fraction wider, a silent surrender, and they move inside.


         Past them and across the lane I can see the beach with its sand all whitened in the sun. I know with a sudden ache how it would feel under my bare feet, which now curl remembering, in my slippers. I realise with a lurch that I’ve forgotten to put on my shoes again today. Twists of seaweed crisp and dry at eye level on the sea wall, and one great gull airs his feathers on the stone coping and eyes me contemptuously- a wisp to be blown away by the wind. Once upon a time I’d have captured his arrogant great soul and pinned it, miniscule, to a seascape.


         But my guests are behind me now, shifting a little on their great big feet, awkward and uncomfortable. The gull lips the outside of my vision, launching his power free into the sky, and I press the door closed on him and shuffle wordless to the sun room again. I smell myself, a waft of staleness as I sit. The rainbow alights on my speckled hand once more like a little bird.


         ‘Well Lou, I’m sure you’re all packed up for us and ready to go.’


        Low and gentle, her voice slips down to me from her great black height. Once upon a time I would have desired her length, her burning contained vitality for the canvas. Now she wearies me. Makes me see how far back inside this husk I have retreated. Their tall faces shining down, sharing my sun. I settle myself back in my chair, a recalcitrant child, and do not reply as the sun bars my cheek once more.


         ‘I’ve got Eamon here, to carry your things to the car, and we’ll get going – get you settled. If you’re ready.’


        Suddenly I’m not ready at all. My dry stomach aches and stretches my chest tight. I do not like to be coerced, even if it is by death. I will not be driven. I drive my own cart. I walk my own path. There is a bitter fear in my throat. I want the ghost that was my mother. I am old. I am weak. I am half mad. I am regularly found in the street in my pyjamas. One day I will be naked. This time I have no choice. With sudden horror I feel the burn of tears. I turn my head to the windows, see the sunlight flare in the moisture, rainbow in my vision. My hands grip the wood of my chair, hard, as they once gripped a brush to hurl colour and life onto a screen, onto a page, bare and brown and strong.


         ‘Well, maybe I’ll just make us a cup of tea first.’ My Amazon nods gently at Eamon. At the straight wooden chair placed there to deter visitors just like them. He sits, creaking. There is silence again in the room as the water skirrs into the kettle down the hall and I gather myself, wiping my eye with a furtive sleeve. The boy says nothing, and sits quite still. The space widens and elongates and I look sharply at him to see why he does not speak. All young people are incessantly noisy, in my experience, seldom with anything sensible to say. He does not notice. He is looking at the painting. I can see he is breathing in the colours and textures of my work, that potent lusty message that has seduced so many. His eyes are wide – it is difficult to make out their colour from where I sit.


         ‘I painted that.’ The sound of my voice makes us both jump.


         Blue. His eyes are grey-blue like the spring skyline.


         ‘It’s…great. The colours are amazing…’ he manages. His skin is flushed pink from sunlight and from those deepdown quivering sensations he is only beginning to know. I am suddenly, terribly envious.


        ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ I ask rudely, unkindly.


       ‘Yeah,’ he smiles slowly, ‘- sometimes…’ A soft laugh, his eyes meet mine, sweetly.


        His eye-teeth are crooked, throwing the symmetry of his features off-balance. I can feel how a charcoal sketch would go and how the dust would rasp on my fingers as I shaped his face.


         I find a ‘humph’ has escaped me, and sit still and alert while his gaze returns to the picture. I can’t tell what fleets behind his face as he drinks it in- its vigorous splashes of scarlet, florid orange, livid purple: core colours without apology, but his tacit relish, his rich silent appreciation bolsters me a little and plumps me up inside this withered skin. I was something, once. I did this, and many others. He will know my name, should he ever ask, should they teach them anything in these schools today.


         The tea is drunk. The time is over. The boy has lifted and carried the few things I will be taking with me to the car while I say my goodbyes to the silence and the space, and the teacups are clanked and rinsed in the sink. The heating turned off. The tea towel draped to dry on the hook. Things unplugged quietly, decommissioned, redundant. All this will be raked over, ransacked and valued, unhung and decanted, lifted and shifted, sold and gifted, once I am gone. It doesn’t matter where I am going, nor for how long. It is the leaving which matters, and the fact that it is over.


         She takes my arm on the step outside and I do not object. The sun has slipped a little in the sky but it is still a beautiful day. The scree and grumble of lapwings can be heard at the waterline, a constant bitchy squabbling in the quiet afternoon. With her other hand she pulls the door closed behind her and readies me for the three steps down.


         ‘My painting-‘ I say suddenly.


       ‘Oh, which one, Lou? Did we forget it?’ She has bent to me, concerned.


         ‘No, no – the one in the sunroom – where I was sitting-‘ I am urgent, now. This is important. ‘I wasn’t taking it. But. I want him to have it.’ I nod sharply at the young man who is at the car, turned away from us. He is watching the water seethe and rumble in the distance.


         I can tell from her silence that she is taken aback.


         ‘Eamon? Oh…I see. It’s worth a great deal of money, of course, you know, Lou…are- are you sure?’


         Her face is very close to mine and her forehead is wrinkled as she processes this connection, eyes skipping back and forth between the boy and me. Her breath smells of biscuit.


         ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ I say, and give her my best glare. Compos mentis. ‘That’s what I want. Make sure he gets it, won’t you? Please?’


         She hesitates, and then nods quickly, in agreement. As a light sea breeze begins to stir the paper cups and crisp packets in the corner of the front garden, I clasp my coat tightly and lean on her to take the first step down towards the car. The sun will have gone from my room by now and be stretching its last fingers through the kitchen window at the back. The clocks, normally so silent, will tick loudly in the wide space of evening. As I go down the last step and the boy opens the car door I feel my house exhale behind me, ever so gently, and settle back on its heels. Empty. But in the sunroom my painting will burn fiercely in the dusk, a brave hot light in the gathering darkness.