HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


The Players

“Music falling from their hands like gold
To the empty purses that they hold”

from The Players by John Spillane

The Starlight Serenaders
They rode into town in tandem. And stopped at The Starlight Hotel. They swapped glances. Waited a moment in silence. Then swung out of the saddle and looped their reins over the tie-rail. Dust fell from their shoulders as they walked. Their spurs buzzed like snares on the sidewalk. Music drifting out from the bar. Lavender blue. (Dilly dilly). Lavender green. They push the swing-doors through.

Muswell Hill, the Broadway
Muswell Hill. The Broadway. Your dad in a light-grey suit. Prince of Wales check (you found out years later when you bought one like it for London). His shoes have steel tips that clip against the pavement like flint. Family on the way to Mass. Happy in the fading summer. Ryan racing ahead. A family friend but mad as a hatter. Doing cartwheels down the street to impress the kids.

For the love of God, Ryan, you’ll get us arrested.
Boo boo, says Ryan (a catchphrase) and hurtles himself forward.

Our Lady Of Muswell
The small church is full. Smells of incense and cedar. Vestments and Sunday clothes. The pews are tightly packed. Collection time. Dad is ‘doing the plate’. You see his white-gloved hand reaching in through the crowd. His fingers grip the brass edge while coins fall softly onto the velvet centre.

And afterwards. Outside The Green Man. Smiles as he hands you a soda. Conversations sparkle and fizz. Laughter like ice in a glass. Your sister chatting with friends. Your dad talking to others. The sunlight is soft on your face as you close your eyes in the still-warm breeze of summer.

A Robin
Dad, there’s a bird on Mikey’s nose!
The young boy ran into the room - interrupting the remnants of lunch.
What’s wrong with him, Dad?
There’s nothing wrong with him, son. He’s probably just taking a rest.
But he’s lying down, Dad. And there’s a bird on his nose…
You’d better take a look, says Ann.

Morris Minor
As he crossed Doody’s yard earlier that day he heard the familiar beep of the Morris. He looked up. Raised his hand. It was Phil – as if there was a doubt! A wave and a smile as he passed. On his way back the road to work. It was mid-morning. He couldn’t help but smile too. He thought of the dance at the weekend. They could do with a practice. He felt for the folded scrap of paper in the dust and mortar of his jacket pocket. Words of a song. It’s over. Over the mountains. Where the little birds sing on each tree… Would make a nice waltz.

Jesus, Ann! Call the doctor…

Mum, like a flower
On the rare occasions your Mum would go out he would come down from the bandstand to dance with her. Among the swell of dancers; through drifts of cigarette smoke; on the small, beer-stained dance floor; she stood out like a rose. A flower among the rocks. Tall. Slender. Radiant. They danced together. Like fascination, I guess.

Last to leave
The band as ever the last to leave. Tales of Chicago from the bar-owner (which had to be well attended!). Anecdotes from Cricklewood and Camden Town. And stories from the wild, wild edges of Ireland. Cycling home with the dew. Accordions strapped to their backs. Falling asleep on a ditch. Waking to a blanket of crystals. The inevitable reckoning of sunrise.

Going home time finally comes. Outside the village is deserted. Starlight sparkles along the length of the street. A solitary vehicle awaits. Glistening with frost from boot to bonnet. LIU 339. The numbers shine in the moonlight.

Your Mum is tired but keeps up a smile. The serenaders still share the glow of performance. (And another booking has been secured!)
How will we ever get up in the morning, she sighs, smiling at me.
I’ll be ok, I say, with what bravado I can muster.

Phil pulls up in the car. It is freezing inside. Soon I am asleep against her shoulder. In the icy air. On the cracked red leather of the back seat. So Tired. Russ Morgan and his Orchestra.

Helen, and the Capri
And so. Called out of school. The teacher is sombre. His words are strained. Outside, a Capri. Yellow with a black roof. Helen is in the passenger seat. She works for the driver who is also a neighbour and friend. I remember leafing through a Ford Capri brochure she once brought home from the office. Think I chose a GLX. Purple with a black roof.

A Short Drive
We do the short drive out from town. Foreboding looms at every bend. This is what happens to writers, I think, as we come to the crossroads. We stop at the place where Dad works. Helen and Tommy get out. Helen goes in to see what has happened.

Others are there. Voices low. Words trailing off or unfinished. Shock. Concern. Disbelief. Confirmation nonetheless. I get out. Walk a little way along the road. Past Delee’s house. Hunkered down, I watch the huge clouds sail by overhead.

Moonlight Serenade
The car lurched to a halt. The engine died. Headlights flickered and went out. He had maintained the driving position throughout. But now his head fell against the driver’s window. A dark bruise beginning where his temple had struck the windscreen. Lavender blue. Outside, the off-side wheel was spinning freely. Like an old ’78. A cymbal in the moonlight.

Suddenly the radio burst into life. Its green light glowed from the dashboard. Glen Miller’s brass section blared into the cabin. The sound of muffled horns carried far into the fields on the crisp night air.

The Players
All my players are gone now.
Phil, propped up in his bed.
Mikey, God be good to him.
(My father. Button accordion).
(Phil’s brother. Piano accordion).
Mikey Houlihan…
(Self-styled Earl of Rathcahill. Tenor sax).
All gone now. Only myself left.

Phil didn’t get up after that. He held out for a good while but he didn’t get up again. He often joked about the night of the accident years before. Between the eerie light and the sound of music he thought he was waking up on the other side! Maybe a small part of him did. And thought it wasn’t a bad place to be.

Paolo Soprani
The marbled red of the Paolo Soprani smoulders in the dim stage light. Black straps cross his shoulders. His shirt is wet where the cotton is pressed against skin. Sweat runs along his brow. Into his eyes. Sparkling. Intense. His smiles mask the effort.

In The Mood. Stripped back. Bare. No honeyed horns or woodwinds here. Rustic Italian accordions. Tempo tapped out on the buttons. Phrases forced out through the reeds. Hoarse. Raw. Infectious. The crowd surges and sways. Dancers whirl by with abandon.

29th November 1977
I probably saw him that morning. Working jacket; hat; overalls. Talking nonsense to the dog as he left the house. Leading his gold-coloured bike onto the road. His breath becoming mist in the winter air. A couple of strides to gain momentum. Then swinging his leg over the bar. And back the road to Doody’s. If I did see him that morning, it was for the last time. He never came home again.

A Selection of Waltzes
Ladies and Gentlemen.
We’ve come to that time of the evening….
(‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the dancers who slow to a gentle rocking)
You’ve been a wonderful audience…
(More good-natured banter from the crowd)
But it’s time for us to go.
Thank you for coming out.
‘Til we meet again –
Good night.
Safe home.
And God bless you!
We’ll leave you with a selection of old-time waltzes…

All the players are gone now. So too the frontier towns and trading posts they played. Long since closed. Abandoned. Husks rustling in the breeze. Only dust remains. Drifting across the high places where they once rode. And echoes. Echoes of the music. That fell from their fingers. Like gold.

Mike was born in London, 1961, repatriated soon after to the parish of sweet Monagea, in West Limerick. Recently returned to writing after many years, encouraged in no small way by a short listing in HISSAC 2012. Thank you, HISSAC