HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


The Fall

Pak woke farting. At first he thought that's what had stirred him but the pain in his gut was no more than usual, so it wasn't that. There was something else. Maybe the cats? It wouldn't have been the first time he'd woken with a message from those blasted creatures lying on him. He looked around without moving his head. Nothing in the vicinity but with cats that was no guarantee. He stifled a shudder, thinking of what was after rolling into his ear when he woke up a few weeks back. Damn cats. It wasn't them anyway, he was sure. There was something else.
Beyond his covers he could see Benjy asleep in his chair. He couldn't see Johnjohn, who was behind him in the bed. He didn't need to see Johnjohn to know that his older brother was there. He could smell him. Johnjohn's breath, a distinctive mix of cabbage and whiskey blew past him in slow shallow blasts. Grand. Keep it that way. If Johnjohn woke up, all shouting and growling then Pak would never be able to remember whatever it was he was trying to remember.
He did another sweep of what part of the room was in his line of sight. Nearer the door was a pile of newspapers with a bag of onions on top. There, beside the papers for warmth, were the cats, snuggled up in his old jumper. He'd have to remember to give that a good shake before he put it on. Was it anything to do with the cats, with the onions, the papers?
Or perhaps the door itself? Was he meant to go out or something? Maybe. But for what? They had food. The onions told him that. He didn't even have to ask if they had drink. They always had and they always hadn't, seeing as the bar was downstairs. The bar. Pak's bar but not this Pak. The father's. Now none of them owned it. They lived above it and it kept them in what little money they had and all the drink.
Next to the door was Benjy, mouth open, asleep and dreaming, more than likely of his Mammy, long gone.
Ah this was useless. He was only listing things off now. What was it?
He must have grunted in his frustration because Johnjohn stirred behind him. In that instant Pak made a dash, more of a fall, from the bed. The brother would either wake or not so it was as well to get as much out of the moment as possible.
He stood stock still, half bent and watching Johnjohn's twisting and tossing. He could see the decisive moment when the big fella almost reached the surface, nearly pulled up from wherever he went when he was asleep. Pak didn't want to even guess where Johnjohn's mind went when he was asleep. The breathing straightened out again, shambling back down whatever dark lane it had peered out of.
Pak relaxed and straightened himself to his full five foot four. The room was cold. That was the first thing he noticed now that he was out from under the eiderdown and coats. He decided he would have one of those coats and put it to more traditional use.
If anyone could have seen in through the grime and condensation on the single window they would have thought that perhaps they were looking at some kind of Dickensian magic lantern projection. Images were flickering past in slow, uneven, order. In one a short heavy man was trying to lift one of many coats off a bed where either a hairy man or a small animal was sleeping. Subsequent frames showed the first ginger efforts repulsed by stirs from the man-beast, then exasperation followed by a quick careless grab that succeeded by luck and luck alone.
But there was no one to see and no way they could have seen, had they existed. The window to the room was not in line with any other windows. The bulk of the room was over an archway and few who walked under it bothered to look up. There was rarely anything to see. This mythical observer might have wondered what it was that was hanging from the windowsill this morning but they would have moved on because it was biting cold and nothing that happened up in that room mattered to the world at all.
Pak stuck his hands deep in to the pockets of the greatcoat. In the instant he was regretting that action he froze.
"And they're off..."
Pak whirled on the spot and stared in horror at Benjy. He made a half step forward, wanting to put his hand over his younger brother's mouth but there was no point. He would have had as much chance stopping the horses that were racing in Benjy's mind.
The race was the 2:45 from Galway, August 10th 1963 and Benjy knew every word of the commentary. It normally took at least eight pints to get him started and usually more like twelve. There had been an occasion once when it had only taken four but he wasn't at all well that day and in fact, they had later discovered, he had a severe bout of pneumonia from falling asleep in the pub cellar. Anyway, he was off and there was no decent way of stopping him.
Pak didn't mind Benjy so much. In fact he had heard the race so often he could more or less tune it out like the radio broadcast it had originally been. He didn't have time to puzzle out why now of all times Benjy had launched into a recital. He was too busy ducking the boot that came flying from under the once pink eiderdown. It missed his shoulder by inches and slammed against the newspapers, sending onions flying amidst an explosion of squalling cats.
"Yeh woke him," Johnjohn roared, dragging himself upright in the bed.
"I did not."
"Me arse," Johnjohn dismissed him, searching through the nearest pocket of the nearest coat for his tobacco. Benjy knew full well where his tobacco was but he wasn't about to say a word.
"...the Bonnie Prince is flagging now but he might have the legs..."
The race formed a backdrop to Johnjohn's muffled search.
"...coming hard on the rails in the blue and red stripes of the Kilbannie stud is Gripper's Kiss followed by..."
Pak knew they had a fair bit to go before the incident but much less time before Johnjohn turned his attention back to him.
"What are you doing up anyway?" growled Johnjohn, giving up on the hunt for a smoke.
"Nothing. I'm looking for something."
"And you'll get it too," Johnjohn threatened vaguely but Pak knew his heart wasn't in it.
He turned his attention back to searching but there was no thinking now. The cats, six or was it seven now, were tearing around the place, cranky as only cats can be.
Pak stumbled over them into the kitchen, a small area with a cooker and a sink. Pak tried to avoid the kitchen since the episode with the pigeon, cats and the matches but there was no way round it now. It would be better if the Fire Brigade didn't figure this time. He could still taste that bloody foam.
"Tea," commanded Johnjohn.
Pak rolled his head. He hated making tea.
"...all three are neck and neck as they approach the ditch..."
Here it comes, thought Pak. The Fall.
August 10th 1963 was famous among the three of them for two things. It was the day Benjy won one hundred and fifty pounds on an accumulator bet on this very race.
It was also the day their mother died.
The money from the race buried the sainted woman. Benjy had turned six shillings into one hundred and fifty pounds and put it all down to divine inspiration; "God making arrangements for one of his own," as the priest had put it.
What made the win even more remarkable was that Benjy's horse fell during the race, got up, then went on to win. A miracle indeed.
Pak kicked the kettle by accident. It was on the floor for some reason so it was almost inevitable that someone kicked it. That didn't make the wet cold seeping over his feet feel any better. He hated the kitchen. He salvaged what he could of the water and stuck it on the cooker ring, letting the gas hiss as he searched for matches in the coat pocket. He glanced across at Johnjohn, knowing that if he took out the matches he would reveal that the tobacco was in there as well.
Johnjohn wasn't looking at him. Johnjohn was looking at Benjy. There was a strange expression on his face. Pak couldn't work it out.
The commentary, Benjy's never changing recreation of that fated horserace. It had stopped.
Pak looked at Benjy, trying to remember when exactly he had stopped talking.
The observer, the one outside who wasn't there would have had quite the sight now. One brother, Johnjohn, who's only catalogued expressions were a frown and a leer, had the look of a five year old seeing mammy kissing Santa Claus. The other brother, Pak, who had never held the same expression on his slack face for more than two seconds, was now a statue with a look of wonder. And all this because the third brother, for whom expressions had long since become unhitched from thought, had tears sliding down his baby face. What a thing it would have been to be an observer of this but there are many more things unseen by humans than seen by cats. Even they had calmed their yammering.
Pak remembered. The silence had begun just before the incident. He hadn't recited the fall.
Benjy was trying to catch his breath. He made a start to speak but couldn't. His face jumped, electrified. He tried again.
"They're down..." his voice broke and the words slipped out the cracks.
This bit wasn't new. Pak had heard it before but it never sounded like this. He knew what to expect; "They're down," Benjy would say, "Gripper's Kiss is down and so is Bonnie Prince..." He'd say that, then his voice would rise in amazement at what he was seeing, "Gripper's Kiss is down and out of it. The jockey's off. Unhurt I think. Yes he is. But Bonnie Prince. Bonnie Prince is up and Michael Kinnane is still on board!" That's what he would say. That's what he always said.
So why wasn't he saying it?
"They're down..." Finally. Pak felt the fist let go of his heart.
"They're down. Gripper's Kiss is down and so is Bonnie Prince..." That was right and still it was wrong. What was wrong.
Why was Benjy crying?
"Gripper's Kiss is down and out of it. The jockey's off. Unhurt I think. Yes he is. But Bonnie Prince. Bonnie Prince is..."
"Is up," whispered Pak, prompting, desperate to help his brother through this thing that was hurting him so much.
"Bonnie Prince is..."
Pak almost shouted but found he couldn't. The fist that had been on his heart for so long was now on his throat, silencing it, drying it, choking it.
"Bonnie Prince is not moving. Oh lord. This looks bad." The word came in a stampede now, unstoppable and irrefutable in their truth.
"Bonnie Prince is still. Michael Kinnane is having to be helped from under. Oh this is terrible. Kinnane is...Yes he's standing but I'm afraid Bonnie Prince is..."
Whether that broadcast in that far ago summer contained more information or not was never clear to Pak. He never gave a damn about that; if truth was told, which it rarely is.
He knew a truth now. He knew that Benjy's accumulator had never come off. Bonnie Prince, the oft feted provider may have striven heroically but heroism and failure are at least as frequent allies as heroism and success.
So that was a truth. What about the lie? If the money hadn't come from Benjy's win then what had buried their mother?
Benjy looked happy now. The face was still damp but the tears were drying. A weight off, might be the expression.
Pak carried the weight now. He looked to Johnjohn. It was lucky that he couldn't speak. If he could have he would have said it wrong. He would have asked the wrong question, used the wrong words. Instead he said nothing and it was eloquent.
"All right, yeh thick, I'll tell ye," said Johnjohn under this fierce silent interrogation. "I took the money from the pub. Yer man that had it then, Lettner, was scared of me so he said nothing. I fecked it and buried her with it. Jesus damn it I couldn't bank on you shower could I?"
"Bonnie Prince is up..." burbled Benjy. Pak didn't look at him but he did smile. That's grand. Benjy's all right.
"And your man," continued Johnjon nodding to Benjy, "Your man stumbled across me and I couldn't have that," he shook his head. "I couldn't have that. I gave him another story..."
Pak knew what he meant. Another story. He gave them all another story.
"Yourself?" said Johnjohn.
Pak knew what he meant. It's what he used to say when they were boys and he'd gotten himself beaten up again and Johnjohn had to sort it out. Beat someone up usually. What it meant was "Are you all right yourself?" but use had worn it thin.
Pak shrugged and the fist fell from him.
"Fine," he said and he knew he would be. He also knew what had woken him this morning. It had been a stone cold foot. His own.
"Where's my feckin sock?"
"I'll tell you that if you give me my bacco,"
Pak handed over the tobacco and matches.
"Open the window and let out that gas, before I light up," said Johnjohn. Pak had forgotten about the gas ring. Again.
"Window first," said Johnjohn, slapping away a cat that had tried to climb across the top of the bed to reach the cured hams hanging there.
Pak went to the window and heaved it open. Cold air rushed in. It almost knocked the question out of him before he could repeat it and then he found he didn't have to repeat it. His sock was hanging there, a stone pinning it to the window sill.
"Is there anything in it?" asked Johnjohn.
"Nothing," replied Pak; curious but not overly so as to why Johnjohn had done this thing.
"Ah well," said Johnjohn rolling over in the bed so that his back was to both Benjy and Pak.
Some day, Johnjohn thought, she'd forgive him for what he did. Some Christmas morning there would be an orange in the sock like there always used to be when she was alive.
Pak farted as he pulled the window shut.

Tom lives and works in London but originally hails from small town Ireland. He has written scripts and short stories as well as corporate and technical pieces for pleasure and occasional profit. Several of his scripts have been made into short films and he has had feature length screenplays optioned. Since switching his focus to prose he has had some success in short story competitions and is currently working on a novel.