HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Third 2014

Summer’s Psalm drops you right into the middle of an estate in the hot summer months and, more importantly, into a single family’s lives whose patriarch’s behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic. As the heat intensifies, so does the tension, right up to the shocking climax.

Nicola Daly has had short stories in Honno Women Press anthologies.
Her work has also appeared in North West Arts Council UK anthologies and magazines such as Puffin Review and Notes From The Underground.
Nicola’s poetry has been published in magazines and anthologies, such as Myslexia and many others. One of her poems had been selected to appear in a Bloodaxe anthology due out in spring 2015.

HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Summer's Psalm

I wait for the shuffle of his flip-flops. The steady tick of the landing clock, this is usually followed by a rap. Yada, Yada, Yada, he will talk at me. He’s oblivious to the beast. That’s what our media teacher calls the twenty first century. If he knew it existed he would try and slay it. He thinks nice girls wear knee high socks and ride bicycles to libraries. I can just see him now. He goes out there in the gloaming. I watch him under the streaks of light that clash with the pomegranate sky that hangs like a net over all our heads on these summer evenings in the city.
Ordinarily he is out there, bending down to pick used condoms and shiny wrappers out of the rhododendrons. Later he will go out on the balcony to feed the Koi Carp my brother brought him. I remember when they arrived.
“That’s cruel,” I whined.
“It’s something nice for the old man isn’t it,” Pellumb hissed.
“Take them back now. They can’t live in a paddling pool,” I said.
If there is one thing I know about it’s out growing your surroundings. I got sick of this place long ago. Sometimes, I close my eyes for seconds and wish the whole place away from the molten glow of the takeaway to the amber light carried in the windows at night.
Neither of them listened.
My brother is on a mission to save Baba. That’s why he brings him herbal grass jelly and dried sea horse to sprinkle on his Weetabix. That’s why he steals the banana sauce and the young jackfruit in tins from Mr Wang’s Mini Market where he works as a security guard. The truth is, nothing will save Baba, not even the sun that has shone for weeks now. It’s shaping up to be one of those kind of summers when the shops run out of charcoal; when all the kids off the estate bike over to the playing fields carrying ghetto blasters and towels they’ve pinched off washing lines. I watch them smoking, eating jerk chicken and kissing. Sometimes I think: why can’t my life be simple like that?
Normally about now I can at least hear the sound of his flip-flops on the threadbare floor as he moves about sticking his thumb into pot plants to test for dryness. Usually there is a strong tang of sweet, smoky meat and onions. When he cooks there is always too much. He makes things with cow’s feet and pigs cheeks. He makes so much rice that we ladle it into Tupperware boxes for the neighbours. However, today there is nothing apart from the sound of the wind rushing up the passage way to ambush the gate at the side of the estate.
It’s the caretakers job to keep it locked. It’s on an automated time control, according to Pellumb. My brother and his mates try to beat it as it slowly swings shut. A little kid got chewed up in its sharp teeth last summer. I can still remember the scenes. There were ambulances and bald men with dogs running up and down the stairs trying to get everybody out. Baba reckoned there was talk of a riot. Pellumb was sat on the step, rolling a can backwards and forwards under foot like the fat agitated bee Baba found trapped in the extractor fan.
Sometimes Baba brings me tea you could stand a teaspoon up in. Mostly, he doesn’t notice me at all. He trundles around holding a radio he calls a wireless to his ear. Baba is happiest in the café. He sits amongst the skull-white crockery, sipping cold tea, pretending he still knows the answer to four down. I fill it in for him when he closes his eyes. He claims to be searching for inspiration, but what he’s really doing is dreaming about the nights he spent dining at the Chinese Embassy.
“In a previous life, I was part of a group of musicians from Bucovina and we often got invited,” he explains.
People don’t listen. All they can see is a man with a comb-over in a bobbly cardigan.
“The duck was hung outside for days, as is the custom, and there was always something juicy with lychees for the final course,” he says.
They think he’s lying, or else he’s mad.
I wait, and still I hear nothing but the rush of traffic. The windows rattle whenever buses pass by. The clock continues to tick. I reason Baba can’t be at the shops. He buys nothing. Apart from fly spray, herrings and blankets.
“My bones are always cold in this country,” he complains.
He used to make me keep a fire burning, even in summer. We laughed at him. Baba can’t remember a thing. He has these cassettes called the art of memory, but they don’t help.
“He can’t remember what buttons to press,” Pellumb shrieked.
This was after we found him smashing the tape recorder up with his fists.
It started with the rust bucket my brother bought me. Pellumb had gone to the fish bar. I was warming the plates and Baba wasn’t himself.
“Moo, moo, moo,” he chanted.
Baba kept dancing the plastic cow that came in the cornflakes across the tablecloth.
“Is that the noise they make?” he whispered.
I swallowed hard.
It upset me to see him like that. The kitchen was sweltering. The window was open, which was how the bird got inside. It floundered like a drowning man. Then it hit the window. I screamed as it bounced. Baba smiled and showed the gaps in between his teeth. Then he cupped the bird in his hand and stroked it with his thumb and gave it back to the breeze.
Pellumb looked sheepish. He had Theo with him. I knew him from around the estate.
Before I could reply, or point out Baba needed to eat, Pellumb took us down to his lock up that’s stacked to the ceiling with old records, snow globes and tins of mandarins. The car he had bought me was under a sheet.
“What do you think sis?” Pellumb asked.
I smiled and nodded. It didn’t matter to me that it was a wreck; it meant freedom at last.
“But you said we couldn’t afford any more lessons,” I said.
“Theo owes me a favour he’s going to teach you,”Pellumb insisted.
Whenever Baba argues with me I pretend not to listen.
“It’s just a driving lesson,” I screamed.
Baba shook his head and stood firm, like he did when he led the strike that ground all the trains to a halt. He never lets me go anywhere. Sometimes I feel like the moths that get snared in the sugar traps he leaves out on the balcony. He wouldn’t even let me go to the end of term dance when he found out Hussein had asked me.
“What’s he like?” Baba had asked.
“Just a boy with a tartan scarf and a gold sleeper who wants to be an astronaut,” I snapped. Obviously I didn’t tell him that he made my heart melt faster than a brick of Yorkie clenched in a toddler’s fist.
“You are still the most treasured fruit on my tree. Besides, when you get to university you will thank me,” Baba implored.
Baba can be so stubborn. He refuses to kill the mice even though they eat through my wardrobe.
He wouldn’t get rid of the terrible whiff even when the men came from the public health.
“But Baba,” I protested.
The health inspector wanted us to throw away all the broken instruments, tennis rackets and old radios. He said even Baba’s collection of bus tickets had to go. Even the huge suitcase Baba kept under his bed.
“I’ve been a refugee almost all of my life; how do I know if I’ll have to leave this place in a hurry?” he moaned.
He keeps thinking that Pellumb is his father.
“You’ve come back to me,” he yelps.
Then he falls on his knees and it’s not easy to get him back on his feet.
I never wanted to talk about the prognosis. I know the tumour is now larger than an eggplant, according to the doctors. So I do what I can. I pray. I cover him with blankets, wash his soiled clothes and read letters to him, letters he insists are from an old flame but I can see they are gas bills. I speak in whispers when I am making up the words unless I am angry about the mice munching through another dress.
“For Christ sake buy some traps,” Pellumb roars.
“They’re God’s creatures,” Baba bellows.

Baba loves summer. He goes to the pond sometimes and collects specimens, although it takes him longer to get the microscope in focus these days. He thinks it is just like blackening your shoes with polish, because it lifts the spirit.

I seem to remember the door bell ringing as I was about to slip out. I thought he was sleeping. Baba came out of nowhere. I steered him towards his armchair because I thought they had probably come to cut something off.
“I wish it was my head,” Baba wailed.
“Be quiet,” Pellumb snapped.
“This is still my house,” he ranted.
He pushed me into the cooker and I scraped my shin. It turned out to be Melanie from downstairs.
“How are you Mr Albu?” Melanie asked.
She had brought more holy water and she wanted to sell him a seat on the bus for Knock.
“He went to Lourdes last year when the tumour was the size of butterbean, and now it’s colossal,” I said.
I kept my eyes on her tights as I spoke. The most interesting thing about Mel was her hosiery. She even wore tights in the heat. Her legs on that occasion were decorated with a pattern that reminded me of pillow-lava.
“How is your dad today?” Theo asked.
We were sat in my rusty Mini at the time. I didn’t repl, because I knew Baba was gradually getting worse. He had drawn an eye on his palm and wherever he went he pushed it in people’s faces.
“That’s what they do in the old country for protection,” Baba chortled.
It felt good to be out in the car on a warm summer day. We drifted past the mobile police station, a beautiful building that was now a mosque and bar with people outside drinking under parasols. We didn’t really speak that first time, other than to say left or right or turn here please.
By the fifth lesson he had abruptly stopped the car.
“All the years, I’ve been doing business with your brother and I’ve never noticed you,” Theo said.
I don’t know what I loved most about him: his soft brown eyes or his lithe limbs. He ran his fingers through my hair and he talked about leaving his girlfriend Melanie. Then gradually, he rolled back his seat. I can still feel the heat of the sun on the beaded chair-cover as it touched my knees.
Suddenly in my mind we were together waving goodbye to the salt-fish eating squirrels, Melanie, the broken panes of glass, long grass and graffiti.

The air hung heavily over the estate. Thirty one days of constant sunshine and the nights wet with the sound of laughter and the thrum of guitars.

Baba ate prawn crackers and did his Sudoku, whilst the Mrs Khourchi covered his head with a green paste that smelt like earth and rotten eggs.
I was trying to revise, but none of the words would stick. I couldn’t help thinking about Theo, because I hadn’t seen him for weeks. Suddenly I saw it all: a long chain of summers stuck here in this sink hole. I could see myself stood out on the step in a pair of worn flip-flops. There were tears pressing on the insides of my eyes, just like when they told me Mama was gone. My lips were quivering, and I was making sobbing noises like a baby. When there was a knock on the window.
It was Theo, balancing on the rail that divides our balcony with Mrs Khourchi’s.
I opened the window.
He wondered why I hadn’t replied to his texts. He came to the window because Baba wouldn’t let him in the front door.
He looked concerned when I told him that they had stopped Baba’s chemotherapy. He didn’t say a single word. We kissed, and then we bounced down onto the bed. We forgot about Baba, and Melanie who might have been doing tai-chi on her balcony directly below us. Then it all happened so quickly. There was a blast of Gardener’s Question Time followed by a splinter of light from the hall. Baba stood in the doorway with his radio. Then he let out a cry. He dropped the radio and held up the eye as we grappled for our clothes.
Baba attacked Theo with a cosh he made to protect himself from muggers out of ball-bearings and an old sock. Theo floundered and flailed. He tried to leave but Baba kept blocking his path.
In seconds it was over. I just froze. Baba dusted his hands and slammed the window on the long, piercing cry. Then he pushed me in here and locked the door. I protested, but he wouldn’t listen. He sang in that wide voice of his - the one he used as a boy to call his brothers home when they were high up in the mountains.
Then there was nothing.
Suddenly I’m afraid to pull back the make-shift curtain on the pinkish twilight that will reveal the kids on bikes and men with dogs gathered below. I can already feel the eerie silence punctured by sirens. The pigeons have stopped cooing in the eaves.
“Baba,” I holler.
But there is no reply.
I imagine this will go down in history as the summer that ended with us all praying for the boy who fell from the balcony.