THE IRISH LITERARY scene has long been a source of national pride, but its health is particularly poor at the moment. Yet with so many pounds to catch up on, it can be easy to lose track of what’s out there.
Enter The Irish Read, where we feature an excerpt from a work by an Irish or Ireland-based author.
The taste of a novel or short story should encourage you to learn more about the writer and his work.
This week, we bring you an excerpt from a short story by Northern Irish writer Wendy Erskine. Anyone familiar with his writing will know that his characters are precise, his observations of the nuances of people’s behavior are spot-on, and his love of music and culture has an elegant way of adding layers to his stories.
Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast, where many of her stories are set. Her debut collection, Sweet Home, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Award and the Republic of Consciousness Award. He was also shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and won the 2020 Butler Literary Prize.
His latest collection is called Dance Move and is published by Stinging Fly Press (home to the excellent journal of new writing, Stinging Fly).
This excerpt is from the story His Mother, by Dance Move. It’s ostensibly a story of family tragedy, but Wendy finds so many other interesting nuggets in the interactions between those involved that are both humorous and enlightening.
There were two weeks of coordinated search of forest areas. So many people have helped. Logan went, but Sonya didn’t. Craig wanted him, but he was too young. He was angry when they said he couldn’t and locked himself in his room. Logan came back, his big hands torn with brambles. Cold nights with the wind howling in the old mantel and Curtis was there somewhere. When he was young, he always wanted the hall light to stay on when he went to bed.
There was that afternoon when she interrupted cleaning the kitchen to see that she had six missed calls from Logan. Sonya knew that was it. She knew what that meant. But she still couldn’t bear to talk to him. When she heard the car in the driveway, she began to shake so violently that she couldn’t utter a word. When Logan walked in, he said, We got it, Sonya, we got it. And then he sat down at the bottom of the stairs and started making a little animal noise.
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They put Curtis in his nice clothes for the funeral. Sonya took forty minutes to iron her shirt, cleaning the expensive white sneakers with the tiny silver lettering that were clean anyway. It was a sunny day in Roselawn. Logan stumbled to the end of a Bible reading and Jade read a poem, collapsing halfway through. It was decided that the last song as people paraded should be the one Curtis liked. Craig picked something.
Is it his favorite? Sonya asks.
I don’t know, mom. We didn’t sit around making lists of our favorite songs, you know? just know that he liked it.
It was called “Your Love” by Frankie Knuckles. It was quite pleasant at first. But then a guy started sighing and huffing and blowing in a sexual way. Sonya didn’t think it was suitable for a funeral. But no one seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. Craig managed to get a paper cut on the edge of one of the programs they handed out and got blood on his shirt cuff. After Roselawn, they went to a golf club. Sonya was busy helping with the food, which was chicken curry or beef bourguignon. Almost everyone took the chicken. She couldn’t stand Curtis’s friends hugging her, the softness of their necks, the smell of their aftershave.
Sonya walks past a trash can but she doesn’t see Curtis, only a poster for a long-running protest at town hall against pay cuts. Further, there is an electrical box. A noise comes from these boxes, a hum like a pylon. When she walks away, she imagines she hears him again, the air quivering with a painful, insistent sound. Those placid people at the bus stop, don’t they hear? Two young men walk by, laughing at something, and Sonya watches intently. It looks like they’re laughing, of course, but is the one on the left really? She’s made these oven fries over and over and they’re perfect every time now, perfect.
It was a month after the funeral. On Sundays they always sat in the right room with the newspapers. The fire was on and Logan had dozed off after lunch, the extra color on his chest. Logan also didn’t sleep at night; she felt him twist, get up to get glasses of water, check his phone. As usual, Craig was upstairs. The clock on the fireplace said three o’clock. Next to it was their wedding photo and this orchid that the people from work had given her as a birthday present. And then, leaning against the orchid, there was the picture of the four of them in a restaurant in town. At the end of the fireplace sat the old school photo of the boys, Curtis with his arm around four-year-old Craig. Curtis’s new teeth with jagged edges had just come out. His tie was not straight and the collar was pulled to one side. Couldn’t those stupid teachers have fixed you up a bit before letting the man take the picture? she had said. Suddenly it occurred to him that it was raining outside, and Curtis was there, scattered all over town on the posters, the rain falling on him. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer and got into the car, Logan still asleep in front of the fire.
Ormeau Road was one of the places she knew they had put up posters. She remembered them saying, we did the full length of the Ormeau. The first poster she saw was on a metal shutter. It’s okay, son, she said, starting to scratch with the knife. It came out in long strips this time because even though it had no water, the paper was soaked with rain. But there were so many! She could see another poster across the road on the bus shelter outside the Indian takeaway, and another one lower down on a lamppost. That one wasn’t so easy to remove, being on a curve, and the knife slipped, so she sliced between her finger and thumb. She was wet from the rain without a coat, but she had to take off her cardigan to wrap it around her severed hand.
At first, Jade was still calling. There were dark roots where before there was honey blonde. Jade always liked to reminisce about the vacations she and Curtis had taken. Sonya, she had to admit, enjoyed seeing Jade more now than she ever had when she was with Curtis. One night after she left, Craig said, why is she bothering to come here when she’s seeing someone else now?
That’s not true, Craig.
Yeah, that’s it.
But that would be far too soon, Sonya said.
Well, you might think so. I doubt she does.
Jade canceled coming home two weeks in a row.
When she finally appeared, Sonya didn’t want to ask.
Sonya, Jade said. You’ve probably heard of it. Heard what?
It is nothing serious.
Your life, Sonya said. Up to you.
When Jade left, she told Logan.
He shrugged. Just as it goes, he said.