HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


2nd Place 2010 : ELECTRIC BLUE by PAUL McGUIRE

All around me the air’s thick and unbreathable, I can’t believe people are wearing coats and hats. Except for a young girl who runs past the cafe window wearing a crop-top, her arms folded high and self conscious across her chest. Flipping an old photo between my fingers, I feel something trapped inside. It’s emotional yet I want to take it out and reassemble it, so it sits easier. But it’s nefarious by nature, part of a hidden conspiracy which permeates the moments of my life. There’s just two other customers in here - a priest and an elderly lady. She’s rummaging in her handbag, pulling out slightly sticky objects she hasn’t seen for years. They’re covered with the type of grit and dust which accumulates in old unexplored pockets and bags. Wiping them carefully and holding them at a distance, she examines each one as though searching inside for the event which will bestow significance on them, and then she puts them back.
The priest, sitting at the table in front of me is weeping and as he does, a thick curtain of white hair dances like a muleta around his bull neck. His eyes, cast downward are focussed Christ-like on his upturned hands. It would seem in his case it’s the emptiness of them which carries the poignancy.
‘Why the hell?’ He cries.
I offer something human, a few words, to placate his pain, but he doesn’t hear me. I hardly ever go to cafes yet I love them, they seem like an intimate microcosm of the city. I’ll go to Paris one day.
Outside, two girls are sitting in the back of an old Peugeot 206 fixing their make-up. Turquoise-gray fumes swirl up from behind the car as two testosteroned boys in the front move their heads to a drum and bass mix that threatens to flatten the buildings around.
I haven’t seen my dad in twenty years, all I have is the hazy awareness of a five year old boy and this photo, ovalled with time, causing him to lean inwards to avoid anonymity. He was a moving target back then too; a kind of satellite to the family, never quite there; out and about, my mum would say. Tilting the photo to catch the light, I will the grains of ink to coalesce and sharpen so I’ll recognise him when he stands waiting for me across the road.
The Peugeot stops and growls backwards. Like a dance floor, the condensation on the window wriggles to the beat, eventually joining together and slinking off, congregating in pools at the side. The tar-coloured dregs of my hour-old coffee, bite back as I swallow them and my fingers buzz electric around the photo. Nerves? Caffeine? I don’t know which.
‘What will it be love?’ The young, overweight girl standing next to me, shuffles from foot to foot; I’ve made my coffee last too long.
‘Just tea thanks.’ She waits expectantly, my seat has to earn more than the seventy pence it’s done so far.
‘And?’ Her pink nylon overall rustles, the smell of sweat on polyester and the warmth of the air that transports it, is too personal to inhale.
‘That’s it, thanks.’ Staring at me, she leans forward and wipes the table down. Her breasts, too big for her age, swing as she moves some debris from the table onto my lap. She does a well practiced pirouettes, and her buttocks punch aggressively at her overall as she walks away. I turn and wipe a sad mouth in the condensation. I’m not sure if he’s there yet, it’s hard to see through the gathered crowd.
‘Holidays love?’ The old lady reaches across and touches my arm. ‘Is it a picture of your holidays?’ Her hair, white and smelling of lacquer, is solid and unmoving unlike the priest’s white vestment of hair, still moving in sympathy with his sadness. My eyes try to prise apart this tight congregation of people outside to see if he’s arrived. ‘Is my fella over there?’ she says. ‘Just got his final demand.’
‘Final demand?’ I’m now caught in a conversation I already want to extricate myself from. ‘Cancer.’ She picks out an old lipstick and winds out the harsh red stump. ‘Saved up for a specialist.’ She squints at the lipstick. ‘Diagnosis was the same though.’ She holds the lip-stick at arm’s length and I imagine it’s reminded her of a family party or a night at the bingo, and then puts it back. She nods towards the window. ‘He’ll be in soon.’
‘How long?’
‘Ten minutes.’
‘No.’ I pause, fruitless in finding another way to say it, ‘how long, you know?’
‘Oh, probably three months. The posh Doctor said about five, maybe that’s what you get for your money.’
I think I’ve got the same jaw line as my dad, certainly the bags under my eyes; that’s what I’ll look out for - bags. The edges of the Formica table top are worn; the light-blue gingham pattern melts gradually into the brown layer beneath. My hands, like magnets, pick up ingredience of salt and sugar and bread crumbs, I imagine something edible could be made from these. ‘You alright lad? Holiday no good?’
‘No, it’s of my dad the last time I saw him.’
‘Demons, that’s what they are. Our Jimmy had them. Never talked to anyone - took to drink in the end.’ She nods her head backwards. ‘Found him in Sefton Park, bless him - froze to death. Our mum cried every night.’ She pauses. ‘We didn’t have any kids, my fella and me, funny that isn’t it? We just didn’t get around to it.’ She looks into her handbag as if looking for some dusty relic of a forgotten offspring. “Gosh what am I like,” I imagine her saying if she did find something, “I did have one – here’s his dummy, bless him. I wonder what he’s up to now.” ‘What’s up with him?’ Mouthing the words she nods towards the priest.
I rearranged the salt and pepper. The larval-like eruptions around their necks of the sauce bottles make the photo stick to my fingers as I return it to my pocket.
‘No idea, something to do with his hands, I think.’
The sounds he’s making now are wordless and animal like. The man in the dog-collar, who probably would have just the right words for someone else, still stares inarticulate into his hands; something very personal, I imagine, was being dragged into the harshness of daylight.
‘I thought so.’ The old lady mouths these silent shapes of words at me, ‘I know him.’ She drops a white plastic Max Factor pan stick, into her bag. ‘Bloody hell it’s Father Kilkenny. Oh sorry lad, excuse the French.’ She pulls a pair of glasses from her bag; one arm has a liberal winding of Sellotape and stands permanently erect. ‘Give our Jimmy a good send-off, he did,’ her breathy words are just barely audible. ‘My fella stayed in touch with him, I didn’t. Drinks with him at the Martyrs club. He calls the bingo you know, the father, lovely voice – funny too. He says, “There’s only one – St John.” Don’t know if he means the fella in the bible or the one who used to play for Liverpool. He’s got loads of them saying has the father.’
The sad mouth in the condensation, has started to dribble at its corners, redirecting a flashing blue light from outside. The girls in the car have finished their make-up and all four look like they’re trying to inch the car forward, jerking their heads to the beat.
The waitress crashes down my cup of tea. ‘Hey you wanna have a bit more respect, you love,’ the old lady says, ‘he’s got things on his mind that lad, issues, demons or whatever you call them.’
‘Yeah whatever. What’s up with him anyway?’ She nods over to the priest.
‘Him. Him.’ The old lady chirps the words, turning them up at the ends and leaving an air of expectancy. ‘Him is a man of the cloth. That, my dear, is Father Kilkenny.’ The priest’s own name seems to puncture his sadness, and his eyes, wet and blood shot, look up and turn to face us. ‘And who’ll be calling out my name?’ His soft Irish accent belies his upset.
‘It’s me Father, Brenda.’
‘I’m sorry can’t recognising people at the moment. Not at a time like this. Not through eyes that have shed the tears of...’
‘Yes, yes.’ She cuts short what she expects is going to be a long sermon. ‘Father you do know me, it’s Brenda, Brenda Fitzpatrick. You share a drink with my Charlie, Charlie Fitz, every Saturday at Our Lady of Martyrs. And you call the bingo. And if you don’t mind me saying, you just sing those numbers, the Sinatra of the bingo hall us ladies say.’ But he’s neither amused nor flattered.
‘Ah I’ve just said goodbye to the man himself, not a few hundred yard away, may the Lord be with him.’
‘The Lord’ll need to be with him if he doesn’t get a bloody move on.’ And then she turns to me. ‘Sorry lad, it’s that bloody French again.’
The priest rubs his wet teared chin. ‘No Brenda dear you don’t understand.’
The sparkle of the flashing blue light is closer now. Cut to diamonds by the condensation, it pulses off the side of our faces, giving a kind of familial unity, a connection to the three of us. But it’s the name the old lady just said, Charlie, which rushes through me, quickly embracing the image of my dad. The photo in my pocket tingles electric again.
Charlie Fitz, my dad, has come home to me, bringing a long haired priest and an old lady with red fingernails and rigid hair and I’m wonder if there’s a part of me in her bag somewhere, a reminder of his son which my father has entrusted to her.
The ambulance picks up its load and drives off at a more sedentary pace and the mouth in the window looks sad stripped like an old Christmas tree of its blue sparkling lights.
The crowd, now clear, shows a void where an old man dying of cancer should be standing waiting for his son. The old lady’s bag lies open in the aisle between us and the photo sails out of my hand and easily across the short distance nestling expectantly amongst her other things.
‘Is my fella there yet?’ She picks up her bag, to pay the bill then smiles. ‘Saint Peter’s at the gate eighty eight, that was a good one father.’
The chair groans loudly backward as I stand up. I thought on his death bed he may have paid me one of those unconditional compliments that dying people do.
The old lady, rooting in her bag again, doesn’t look up. ‘You off are you lad?’
As I pass, the priest grabs out at me with hands that feel warm and holy. ‘Will you stay a while my son, just ‘till I tell the old lady. Or maybe you could tell her for me, lad, I’m all choked up you know.’
The greasy blinds rattle on too long after I’ve opened the door.
‘Hey look, this is a picture of my Charlie,’ she offers an old rounded photo, ‘He looks young there but you can still recognise him.’ She turns to Father Kilkenny, ‘Hey Father I’ve got another one of yours - God’s up in heaven seventy seven.’ She stops and thinks for a moment. ‘Seventy seven, the age of my fella today, now fancy me saying that.’
I turn to the priest open mouthed and ready to say something, I don’t know what. But whatever it was, the Peugeot 206 roars past taking my words with it.
I pull my hat low and my collar up; it’s gone quite cold now.