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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

My Granny's
by Edward McWhinney

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I returned from London to the street where I was born. Only my grandmother lived there now in an apartment overlooking the church and the bridge. It was on the third floor, up a narrow, dusty stairway; no lift, and as she said herself it was like Pana or The Grand Parade, that is the door was always open and a flow of people came through, mostly doing favours for her or just in for the chat. I sat behind the curtain that separated the corner where I slept from her spacious front room, reading, listening to music with the earphones or surfing You Tube on the lap-top like a wretched but happy hermit. I also listened to the conversations going on outside the curtain, my grandmother sitting on the beautiful timber-framed chair with the high back and the wide shiny arm-rests. When alone she read her library books, played patience and watched Sky News and RTE News, listened to political discussions on the radio, and on Saturday mornings she filled in the football coupon and the lotto slips while sucking lozenges. However, as I said, she was rarely alone. The flow of people was continuous. They called in with a bit of plaice from Fish Mahony Fish, or a few lamb chops from Michael the butcher. She was like a psychiatrist for most of them, listening to their problems and trivial complaints.

I'm aware that I'm going mad. I believe that there is a set of conspiracies against me, said Mrs. Manning. It's evident in the timing. Today for example, twice, the timing went perfectly against me, in that I walked into situations at precisely the wrong time. It's a matter of luck and can go one way or the other. The bus arrives just as you come down the steps to the bus stop, the tide is in just when you want to float your boat, if you know what I mean, you wake just before the alarm clock goes off, the door is open before you knock. Sometimes things fall beautifully into place.

Today I walked in the door to work as they were talking about me. I heard them calling me a name I'd be ashamed to repeat in front of my father. It concerns a miserable bird who bleats like a lamb. Someone turned the radio up very loud when I appeared and they turned away to disguise the laughter. What timing, I even heard one of them say, the one who started it all.

My grandmother had two original Willie Harrington drawings of which she was immensely proud on the white walls of the apartment. One was of the church, one was of the bridge. The artist himself had been known to call on her in the old days. Now when I glanced through the curtain to get a look at Mrs. Manning, the source of the whining, lisping voice, I noted how my grandmother seemed to have her attention fixed on the etching of the bridge while remaining so still and silent.

And I hate it when people are whispering about me, Mrs. Manning continued, it makes me feel naked even in my cardigan. I had to wear my cardigan today because it was cool enough to pull it on, the cardigan.

Last night I dreamed that the man who originally gave me the nickname hanged himself, she said.

Mrs. Egan came with a linen bag full of books from the library for my grandmother; though I liked to go to the library too, Mrs. Egan had the habit of calling in once a week to see if she needed to change her books. Buukes, she said in her charming Dublin accent. She was soft-spoken and gentle and wrote down in a pocket-book the names of the authors my grandmother requested. I was impressed by the neatness of her movements, the manner in which she licked the lead on the pencil and the neat, steady way she wrote the names down in a beautiful, flowing hand. She was a woman who could show you how to do simple things, I thought. My grandmother got the names of writers from the weekend literary supplements in the newspapers or from listening to the afternoon arts programmes from RTE and the BBC. Without the reading she said to Mrs. Egan, the head remains soft and full of demons. But with a good book... and she held up a book Mrs. Egan had brought the previous week; it was by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He actually went mad she said. Her all-time favourite writer was Edgar Allan Poe, prompting her to repeatedly remind me to stick pins in her if I was to find her dead of a morning, just to make sure she was really gone.

I should add that I also found an escape route via the library books, my own and sometimes the ones brought to my grandmother by Mrs. Egan. That's why I mentioned Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose stories I read with a passion.

I too stood upon the precipice of reason, teetering on the verge of madness. Have you ever tried the TM? asked Stanley, a shopkeeper with a fine moustache and god only knows what kind of accent, to my grandmother. Stanley was a very good friend of hers, though she laughed not exactly flatteringly at his accent and mannerisms and the little dickey bows he liked to wear.

What is TM? she asked.

TM, said Stanley, in the voice of an English professor you might hear on the BBC, is Transcendental Meditation. I have been thinking of it as a means now for some time, he said.

As a means to what? she asked.

As a means to clearing the mind of the rubble it picks up on a daily basis, though I should remark from the outset that the method has to be taught and not learnt from books and CDs as some philistines might think.

What bird bleats like a lamb? my grandmother asked him then, no doubt in an effort to change the direction of the conversation.

A writer in his seventies from the top floor, called Seanie, dropped by on Fridays with a bag of chips and a potato pie from Tim's Chipper for my grandmother. He was usually pretty mouldy from drink, if not altogether plastered. It's younger looking you're getting, he liked to say to her. It's all a state of mind, isn't it, like being alone? I really do love being alone you know. It's the truth, said Seanie, who was always out and about. He spoke of his sister who lived in New York, a city where one imagines getting lost. The flood gates open at the thought of it, driving from one side over to the other, I don't know from what direction, through street after street, across avenue after avenue, hundreds of small communities surviving there, black, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Russian, all linked together by such a network of roads and underground trains, the subway, that it gives me a migraine just to think of it, and my poor sister widowed there, her eyes dull and empty.

My grandmother shuffled the cards.

How do you know that about her eyes? she enquired.

She sent me a photo taken by a friend, said Seanie. She's seated in her apartment staring into the lens. She has a sad smile on her face and I have to say that about her eyes, dull and empty. He produced the photo from his wallet.

My grandmother adjusted her glasses and took a look.

It's all very well to joke about it, he said. But when it happens it's a different affair. I imagine her having a nervous breakdown over there lost in that jumble of humanity. Then he took his cap off and began to cry quietly, the tears rolling down his gnarly features, trickling through old scars, drunken falls, brawls.

On Sunday morning Stanley called with the Sunday papers; The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Tribune which my grandmother would browse through during the course of the day.

I am having a personality crisis, said Stanley. He seemed a little subdued. There was a dull shine from his moustache and he was wearing a dark brown dickey bow to top the starchy white shirt inside a blue blazer with gold buttons. The irony is I have never had it so good, he said, if I survive as they say I'll be sixty in the Spring, a fine age if you ask me, an age of full-blown maturity, so really all I have to do is cultivate my mind to the best of my ability and accept all that the ignoramuses can throw at me with impunity.

There had always been a word on the street that Stanley was gay but it was taking on a larger shape of late and people were becoming louder about it.

My grandmother read at regular intervals during the night, her bedside lamp going on and off. Then there was the sound of pages turning, the acrid tang of eucalyptus lozenges followed by the clip of cards being shuffled, interspersed with coughs, low groans and sighs. Insomnia. I barely slept but picked out every other sound too; bedsprings upstairs, snoring, the hall door slamming at any hour, intermittent bursts of uncontrolled voices, late night drunks with inebriated lack of inhibition, creaking floorboards, a door shuddering in the breeze, the sudden rush of water as a toilet is flushed and of course the hum of water pressure and electrical appliances in the quiet hours, creaking floorboards and the headlights of the all-night traffic creeping in an eerie line across the ceiling and down the window blinds. Insomnia. And behind all the local sounds was the distant caterwaul of trains shunting down the line and cranes unloading ships in the docks. Smell of gas and lead. Insomnia. Then the first bird in the chute and another dawn as though they were infinite, the explosion of life, frenzy of the morning rush to work, school, though we are guests passing through, as Stanley said with a vague twitch, only passing through. We lived without ever being able to put a finger on why, without being able to achieve the independence of true free spirits, without realising the dream of making permanence of any single moment, Stanley said. True, some people seemed to have an innate understanding of the transience of life, they upped and did things without explanation, without hesitation, they took off on adventures. They went away to breathe more rarefied atmospheres. They engaged in escapades like stealing cars and racing them down the hills of the city. Why would anyone do that, people said? They couldn't understand behaviour like that unless it was drugs. It had to be drugs.

Others, like Johnny Gallagher, stepped in from the tarnished backdrop to the theatre of life, the street, over-used, over-exposed like a place made stale by being photographed too often. Johnny Gallagher came in for a smoke with my grandmother. Hello my darling, he said to her in his brash voice made husky with nicotine and the effects of asthma. Ex-football and hurling star, he made me think that smoking was as essential as art, affording as it did a glimpse into the high risk scenario of our fragile lives, the beauty of his smoke rings curling towards the open window, the frailty of human flesh, each smoke ring like a moment spent and on its way, all the moments of our lives wafting beautifully but meaninglessly away. Johnny Gallagher, always upbeat and generous of heart could break into a song in a plaintive voice without inhibition, laying the cigarette in the grid on the ashtray, throwing his balding head backwards and letting it go, the high melancholy strain unrelated to his brash, upbeat street voice, rising to a crescendo as he reached the final chorus of his favourite song:

Flow on, lovely river, flow gently along

By your waters so sweet sounds the lark's merry song

On your green banks I wander where first I did join

With you, lovely Molly, the rose of Mooncoin.

My grandmother had not asked me anything about myself, so about three weeks after I came back I began to tell her things. I came back, I said, because... Then I realised I couldn't finish that sentence. I became inarticulate. She didn't prompt. She hardly moved. She was playing a game of patience, the cards laid out on the hand-rest that was part of her marvellous chair. I came back because... Do you remember a girl called Agatha who used to live at the other side of the church, over by the fish shop? The Tynans or the Dillons? she asked. The Tynans. I remember being at a wedding in The Arbutus Lodge, when for no apparent reason she began to attack me, verbally that is. He doesn't speak much, she said. He's so quiet. He must be autistic. She said it across a table covered in drink. You are so quiet. I've never met anyone so quiet. She began to curse and she looked at me with hatred in her eyes. There was a band playing very loudly, no-one else seemed to pay her any attention, leaning forward, buck teeth dripping vodka, braying like an ass. I've spent a life searching for the line to answer her. I haven't found it yet, maybe I never will but I keep searching. In a way the search is life. Everybody is searching. No-one seems to find anything.

The girl thought you were autistic. That's strong. I hope you're not fooling around with words like that. It's serious business.

She used the word. I wasn't autistic, just incredibly shy. She was tall and ugly and she had a vulgar voice. She swore often. Once when I went for an interview for a job in London, something happened at the very beginning which reminded me of Agatha Tynan and cost me the job as I became an incoherent, blubbering fool. You're too quiet, the woman interviewer said when I walked in and sat down at her desk. It was out before I had even sat down or spoken a word. When I looked at her I saw that other one, the eyes, the teeth, a certain madness. It turned out that she was mad. The firm she was chief partner in went bust. Her husband kicked her out and she ended up walking the streets of London. I saw her one time lying on the steps of a tube station where a million feet skipped past her head. That woman interviewed me for a job once, I said to my companion. She thought I was too quiet to work in the firm. I had merely been five seconds in her office. She sensed it of course with the kind of intuition mad women have and are not slow to give voice to. There she was thrown down on the entrance steps to a tube station, seemingly oblivious to the millions of feet passing by.

That afternoon I went out along the streets for a stroll, trying not to think about what I was going to do next. I could stay here forever, living like this with my grandmother. That was nonsense of course, but I didn't want to think about it. What was forever anyway? I felt the energy of the living and, in the spaces between, the atrophy of the dead. A bus full of tourists heading for Blarney was stopped at the traffic lights on the bridge. A group of youths loitering outside a corner shop, leaning on the sill and against the wall in a line, raised their hands in unison as though in salute, and with practised symmetry, dropped the hands onto the back of their heads to scratch. The lights changed. The hum of the traffic got in between the energy of the living and the listlessness of the dead, whose spirits I imagined wafting aimlessly on the air like empty paper bags carried by a cross wind. The hum of the traffic had a continuity linking present with past. The back of my head began to itch.

As I passed by a chemist's shop the conversation of two working men registered with me and made me feel envious. They looked so much a part of all this, speaking about storm damage and scaffolding in fine, upbeat voices. Not for them the morbid self-conscious analysis.

I stepped into a dark little bar that had once been a haunt of my father's, only it was no longer a dark little bar but a cafe with a casino in the back. A man sat behind the counter and there was a woman scratching the head of a pit bull terrier. The man was dressed all in black. I could hear a television speaking somewhere in the background and the sound of the one-armed bandits rolling and tumbling and whirring behind a heavy green curtain. I ordered a black coffee. It's the day of the dead, said the man, November 1st. Don't I know your face? I used to live here, I said, but I've been away for years. Why did you come back? I came back because there are people I have to find, I said. Go on, he said, why do you have to find them, why does anyone have to find anyone? The woman, probably his wife, listened while she continued to mechanically caress the ugly head of the pit bull terrier, whose savage aspect was quite attractive in a way. The eyes were big and wild and the mouth seemed to be a large chunk of leather that had got wedged in by mistake. I'd say she loves that dog more than the man in black, I thought. The woman looked up, so did the dog. He held his chin in an upward position for her to scratch. Obsessions are dangerous, the man said. I'm not obsessed, I said, I believe that everything has to happen in a natural way and of itself. You don't look like you believe that, he said, what do you think Little Bird? now addressing the woman for the first time in a voice I did not like at all. A sigh was the most succulent sound she could come up with. A sigh is not a word but it says more than many sentences. There used to be a bar right here you know? I know, the man said. My father ran the place. She loves that dog more than me, the man said. Is she your wife? I asked in a whisper. Whatever, he said, but look, she loves that dog more than me. She calls him Love. Look at the balls on him and that savage mouth. Love will tear us apart, isn't it right Little Bird? You should try the karaoke machine in the back, said the man, beginning to flail his arms in a circular motion while singing: Love will tear us apart again.

The woman remained on her haunches caressing the dog's head, scratching his chin, all the time I was there. Her eyes were distant, reminding me of the woman on the steps of the tube in London.

Little Bird stopped scratching the dog for a moment. She seemed about to speak. The whole day paused. All my lovely years, where have they whirled? But she didn't speak yet. People stepped into the cafe. Some went on into the casino for a little gambling.

The water under the bridge was like glass. I crossed the road, stepped off the bridge. I felt the same as when I had stepped onto it. As I walked up the street I caught the reflection of a face which seemed to be staring at me from the glass door of Michael the butcher's. It pulled back into sawdust and meat smell.

When I got home Mrs. Manning was there, not feeling at all well; she didn't even interrupt her monologue on my entrance. I placed a bag of cherries I'd bought for my grandmother on the table and slid behind the curtain to turn on the laptop. Not feeling at all well, said Mrs. Manning. All I had was a bowl of porridge this morning, that I could hardly get down the hatch, so I didn't go to work today. They call me names and make sounds to mock me. Her voice suddenly dropped to a whisper. I am lost, can you help me, I thought I heard, but of course I only imagined it. Here, have a cherry, said my grandmother in an upbeat voice. It'll cheer you up. Oh, lovely.

You know, you must think I am very weak, said Mrs. Manning. I often wonder how I'd react if I got cancer like our poor David. I'm ashamed of myself. The doctor sent me for tests last week. They did everything, even a chest x-ray. There was a lovely Malaysian doctor, a real gentleman who finally recommended a psychiatrist. By the time I got home my decision was made. I haven't been to work since. Again the voice was lowered to a whisper and again I imagined I heard, I am lost, can you help me, like the refrain to a song where the words are indistinct and you have the wrong words for years.

Later that evening Seanie called in with a bag of chips and a potato pie. He spoke of a new bar called The Crystal Palace on Shandon Street. They gave out free sausages and black pudding at six o'clock, but I didn't forget your chips all the same. What happened to your head? my grandmother asked. Mother of God, Seanie, were you in a scrap or something? I looked through the curtain. He had a gash on his head. Congealed blood matted his hair and there was blood down his face. He had pissed in his pants. Don't sit in my chair, my grandmother said. Go and clean yourself man. There was a small argument, said Seanie. There was a security man. He said to me, now boy there are three ways of doing things; the right way, the wrong way and my way, and he must have clobbered me because look. He pointed to his bloodied head. Go on up to your sister Seanie, said my grandmother, go on up now right away, she'll take you over to the nurse.

By the time Stanley arrived I was sick of it all. It was more like a sanitorium in there than anything else, and once more I was in need of deliverance. I will have to leave here, it is inevitable, as inevitable as death. Where do we go? The inevitability of what is happening, of what is taking place. The lights were on in the street and they were all getting on and making the most of it. I heard the drone of Stanley's voice without tuning into the meaning.

Where are you going? asked my grandmother.

Just out for a stroll. I think she sensed a weakness, picked up something from the dreadful expression on my face as I passed. Stanley called to me too but I kept walking and passed out through the door and down the stairs. It seemed to me that there was something frenzied in the fatuous behaviour of the people outside the shops. The air was clogged up with noise.

I began to walk. I walked through the streets on the wings of one final push, abandoning all forever with nothing but old age before me, the integrity, the work ethic, all useless, the masses of people, what outlets had they? Something Stanley had been talking about suddenly registered and it was the final push into the darkness. He had said that his father was born in a town in the country whose name rhymed with a venereal disease. My country was diseased. I became confused in my head, my tongue began to click in an unruly manner inside my mouth as though I was having some kind of fit, words vaguely picked up from the radio programme my grandmother had been listening to before Stanley came; in this sad little country now the oldest fiscal standards are being abused, the perversity of power, commercial corruption, a country poisoned from the top down, the leader of the nation stood daily on a dock called the Tribunal, I had no idea what it all meant but it felt dirty, it felt filthy, filthy morals and low standards, morally inept leaders devoid of class, values that had filtered right down to the street upon which I walked, a deadly bedrock of depravity. Little Bird from the Casino passed me with her dog Love, the pit bull terrier. Little Bird's eyes were hidden by dark glasses as she strained to keep in step with the powerful animal. He lunged eagerly forward into the night, the leather leash stretched to its maximum, his glassy eyeballs bulging, a slavering red tongue lolling long as though eager to get at some innocent victim in a hurry. Then I saw some men jostling each other outside the doorway of a pub, and a third man, an intermediary, saying, cool it, come on, cool it, and those words stayed ringing in my head as I moved on, only those words, cool it, come on, cool it.

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