My story “Beautiful things in his head” won the 2015 RTE Guide / Penguin Ireland short story competition.
The story was published in the RTE Guide of August 17th 2015.
I was previously shortlisted in 2014 and long listed in 2013.
Here’s the story if you’d like to have a read.
Beautiful things in his head.
The phone on the passenger seat was vibrating. Taking her eyes off the road she could see ‘Death Notices’ flashing. That was the caller ID for her sister. Veronica only rang when someone was dead. She loved to be first with the news. Veronica could wait. Bernie was on her way to the National Library of Ireland to see the Yeats exhibition. This was her first artist’s date. That’s what the book called it. She bought it because it had promised to guide her through a twelve week course of recovering her creative self (writing was Bernie’s latest obsession). Disgusted with herself for only managing three days of ‘morning pages’ suggested in the first chapter of the book, she was determined to make this second stage, the ‘artist’s date’, work. She could ring Veronica back over lunch.
The head of some parents’ association was being interviewed on the car radio. He was berating the teachers on strike because it would add to the stress levels of Leaving Certificate students. ‘Ah would you feck off’, Bernie said to the radio, ‘They’re delighted with the day off’. She quickly switched stations. Besides, she thought, she was spending her strike day doing something that would benefit her Leaving Certs. It helped to have more information than the book of poetry notes. It was good to keep one step ahead of the Google generation.
The presenter on the classic music station was in great form, impersonating Leonard Cohen as he introduced The Tower of Song. Bernie liked Cohen’s music and liked to make it known that she wasn’t one of the recent converts; one of the current batch of yuppies who had replaced their Catholicism with ‘Cohenism’. Suzanne was the anthem of her teenage years. Singing along…well more like talking along now, Bernie was feeling good. She had a thought: music. Music would make all the difference. Music was what was missing on her father’s ward
Her visit two days previously had been a depressing affair. Walking from the nurses’ station to her father’s bed in the corner of the room felt like running the gauntlet. The men stared at you through open mouths and broke a piece of your heart. Even the nurses were a bit deranged. They spoke loudly and deliberately and nothing was sacred.
‘Now Michael. Good man. The tube is gone, aren’t you a great fellow weeing on your own again’.
Bernie finished school early on Tuesday afternoons and was delighted to get in a visit with her father when nobody else was there. She could be playful with him when it was just the two of them. Paddy said very little these days.
‘Look at you, letting the lugs back to your mousse, no less’, Bernie said. ‘What flavour is that now, Daddy?’
Paddy looked at her. Staring blankly, he put another spoonful into his mouth. Bernie read the empty carton on the locker.
‘Strawberry. Very posh. Far from strawberry mousse we were reared, isn’t that right, Daddy?’
There was a pile of crusts on a side plate. Bernie pointed to it.
‘You’re a right rebel, leaving the crusts. Ah, what harm, eh Daddy?’
‘You’re a great man. What are you, Daddy?’
Paddy just shrugged and again Bernie answered her own question.
‘A great man’.
She said it slowly, looking around at the other patients, repeating it quietly.
When there was nothing left in the bowl, Bernie took it away. Paddy didn’t seem to notice. She couldn’t get the spoon out of his hand. He continued to prod it into the table and bring it to his mouth. His grip, she thought, had the strength of his glory days, when he could swing a golf club with the best of them. Bernie tried to cajole it from him. When that didn’t work she tried distraction.
‘Oh look Daddy, do you see what’s on the telly, Countdown, your favourite’.
She made the Countdown clock noise to jog his memory. The telly was muted. He looked momentarily at the telly and then brought his stare back to where the bowl had been. Getting the spoon from her father was no big deal, he couldn’t do any harm with it, but watching his mime of eating was upsetting.
She rooted in her bag to find something she could replace it with. Something dispensable. Everything had a purpose: keys, pens, notebooks. A sample tube of styling gel. Different tubs and tins of lip balm that she constantly forgot about, until her lips were raw.
Her hand closed on a round, plastic container. It was the rosary beads she had bought in Poland. She didn’t say the rosary any more, she didn’t even go to Mass, but there was something about her visit to Cracow that felt like a rebirth of something. Maybe it was the image of John Paul II everywhere you looked, reminding Bernie of her fifteen year old self in a Knights of Malta uniform in the Phoenix Park.
They had left the town in the Civil Defence ambulance at three in the morning. Bernie saw her first sunrise –– at least, the first that meant anything to her –– on that September day in 1979. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the warmth of that rising sun. She could still see the orange light radiating across the park, the lines of silhouetted pilgrims shuffling towards the cross. Her mother would be dead by the following summer. Over the years Bernie had connected the two events. In the line of pilgrims, laden down with plastic, tartan shopping bags, she saw her mother walking towards her, smiling. She loved that memory and wasn’t fazed by her older sister’s reaction when she told her about it at their mother’s twenty-fifth anniversary Mass.
‘It might be a load of bollocks to you, Veronica, but it’s my memory, my association’, she said.
When she saw the rosary beads in the John Paul II shop in Cracow, she had to have them. There was a round sticker on the lid with the iconic image of Saint Francis surrounded by doves. Saint Francis was her mother’s favourite saint. A fact that Veronica also refuted. Bernie had kept them in her bag since Poland. Her daughter laughed when they fell out one day and wondered if her mother was losing it. That made Bernie sad.
Paddy was getting agitated and noisy.
‘Daddy, stop banging the spoon. Here, look what I have for you instead’. Bernie said, offering the box of beads. Paddy hit it with the spoon. Bernie pretended not to notice.
‘Rosary beads, Daddy. Do you recognise that man with the birds?’
Paddy stared at her. There was menace in the look. In those moments he became a man she didn’t know. She hated this disease.
‘Good man. That is Saint Francis. Remember the film, Daddy? You loved it. And the song. What’s this it was called?’
Bernie wished he would answer. Anything. It didn’t have to be the right answer.
She pushed the box into his free hand. He held on to the spoon with the other. A doctor was washing his hands at a nearby sink.
‘Get him to open it himself, it’s good for him to use his hands more’, he said.
‘Did you hear that, Daddy, the doctor wants to see you take out the beads?’
The family knew that no matter how locked into this world of dementia he became, Paddy responded well to the word ‘doctor’. Nurses, care workers, attendants – in fact anyone in a uniform – could be told to ‘feck off’ or punched out of the way but the doctor got a smile and the odd conspiratorial wink.
Paddy put the spoon down and pushed it away. He held out his hands, palms up, his eyes widening in childlike wonder. For the remainder of the visit Bernie helped him open and close the box over and over again. Sometimes he took the beads out and laid them on the table but mostly he was happy to finger the box or gently rub the sticker of Saint Francis. Bernie remembered the song from the film and started humming it. He scowled at her and she stopped. He was still giving the box his complete attention when she left.
It was peaceful in the National Library, a contrast to the protesters outside the gates of Leinster House. Bernie was impressed with the use of technology in the exhibition. Instead of having to stand in front of walls or glass cases and read reams of information, you could sit down in small, intimate, room like spaces and watch documentaries.
Listening to the poems being read by familiar voices like Sinead O’ Connor and Paula Meehan, Bernie was struck by just how many poems were about old age. She knew Yeats wasn’t a fan of old age, but he had beautiful things to say about it. Her favourite image was how he described the old person as being ‘full of sleep’. She thought of a sleeping baby, full of milk.
Yeats’ recitation of The Lake Isle of Innisfree reminded her of her father. Would he sound like that if he could recite a poem? Was he too saying beautiful things in his head? The phone in her bag was vibrating against her stomach. She should really ring her back.
‘Hi Ronnie, everything alright?’
‘Did you give Daddy a rosary beads?’
‘Oh Jesus, no, did he choke on them?’
‘For f–– would you calm down Bernadette, you’re such a drama queen’.
‘Yes I did…why?’ said Bernie.
‘He lost them. He has us all driven mad repeating, “Bernie… beads”. It’s after taken us two days to figure out what he was on about. Some doctor remembered seeing you with them’.
Bernie smiled at the thought of the mayhem her father was creating. Yeats was right: why should not old men be mad?
‘Did you know, Ronnie, that Lady Gregory had a lisp?’
‘What?’ said Veronica.
‘When she was encouraging the men of 1916, she said, “Come on the webels!”’
‘Jesus Bernadette, sometimes – just get Daddy another pair of rosary beads. The same kind’.
‘I might get him a computer and headphones instead’.
Silence on the other end.
‘He could hear beautiful things in his head’, Bernie said.
Veronica hung up.
Bernie went back into the exhibition to listen to Yeats, and then Heaney reciting Yeats, and to be reminded again of the greatness of old men.