He took the unusual step of returning home, four years after leaving for the New World. His family had thought never to see him again.
‘Well, to be sure,’ said his mother, ‘there’s no place like home.’
Patrick, third-born of her eight sons, took her last-born on his knee, a child with golden hair whom he had never met. He jigged her up and down, clicking his tongue, pretending to be a horse. She squealed with delight as he let her tumble, catching her before she hit the ground.
‘There was no gold worth the having,’ he said. ‘The winters, so harsh. Men died,’ he said, and shot her a sidelong glance. ‘In the thaw, you’ve never seen so much mud. You’ve never seen such violence.’
His mother looked at the sodden grass, the muddy track, the deep pool of rainwater at the bend in the road.
‘This isn’t mud,’ said Patrick. ‘Out there, you can drown in it.’
Later he said: ‘My brother’s wife, she wrote me about the little one.’
His mother thumped dough on the bare tabletop.
‘She’s very fair,’ he continued.
‘She is so.’
‘The only one of us,’ he said, ‘the rest of us black or red Irish. None fair. Not even you, Mam.’
‘That is the truth.’ She slapped the dough, pulled it apart, divided it into four large pieces.
‘I wish I’d seen my Dad before he died.’
She took his coat to wash while he was digging peat. The mud and grit, hard knobbly lumps somehow worked into the seams and lining, she had never seen the like.
He returned, weary, towards sunset. She held out her hand. Something glinted in the firelight.
‘It’s not what you think, Mam.’
‘I think nothing,’ she said.
First published in To Carry Her Home, Ad Hoc Fiction 2017
We Left All Our Valuables in Our Tent
We didn’t need money on the dawn game drive to see elephants, nor phones or watches, whose bleeps and glints might scare off the animals. Nobody mentioned the noise of the jeep.
We saw elephant (plural), zebra (zee-bra, plural), and giraffe (plural), and one lonely eagle, circling the sun. The day grew expansive in the heat and we ascended forested hills for the view, looping back to camp before dusk.
Our tent was a mess. Clothes scattered, pages ripped from books, blister packs of malaria pills tossed around outside, bags and rucksacks unzipped and empty. All valuables gone.
The cook stood trembling and defiant before us. Monkey, he said, gorilla.
No, said Doug. Where is my iPad?
Monkey take. Gorilla.
We turned to our guide, who shrugged. He would never advise bringing a computer on safari, he said.
It was so clearly a scam. We ate energy bars and trail mix alone in our tent, refusing the dinner freshly prepared by the cook, and slept fitfully. Rising early, we informed our guide that we wished to return to the city.
There was no reduction in fees, paid up-front in any case. Bloody scammers, muttered Doug.
We left in the heat of the day. Something glinted on the track before us. Our driver retrieved it. Doug’s phone. Hundreds of new photos – tent roof, dirt floor, grass, blur after blur, trees, blue sky, the corner of a rucksack, and the bright eyes of an olive baboon.
Longlisted, Bath Flash Fiction Award 2016; first published in To Carry Her Home, Ad Hoc Fiction 2017
I stand beneath the thrumming blades of the turbines and gaze at my knee-high wheat, a drought-resistant variety guaranteed to thrive these hot years which have come season after season since I was a child. The empty field shimmers in the scorching air. Blades above, me and the wheat below. No birds, no insects, no dragonflies, hoverflies, butterflies or any flies at all. The stalks are a pale silvery-gold but the tiny grass-seed sized grain is the colour of oak. The wheat has died, and with it our livelihood.
I blame the giant to whom I am in hock for pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers and this revolutionary wheat seed which is supposed not to fail. I blame my family, for we have been complicit in our disregard for the soil. We have done nothing in three generations to nourish this earth and it is dry as dead bones, cracked into large ragged scales in shades of brown paper and ash. It has hungered and thirsted for manure and mulch and the dredgings from our silted-up river, and now, starving, it cannot hold water, nutrients, or microbes. Worms and other small creatures died long ago. In our arrogance – no, our hubris, I see that now – we knew better than nature.
My debt is so enormous the bank will take the land and house. We will beg friends and relatives for help; we will sleep on their sofas and attempt to find work, a home, and schools for our children. Those we have failed to feed with our stillborn wheat will blame us, pity us, curse or ignore us. We will queue for food handed out at street corners and in church halls and at the night-time soup kitchens when it is cool enough to venture out and we will compare sunburns and peeling skin and stories of sleepless days in searing heat, wet curtains hung over the windows to cool the air, wet sheets over our naked bodies. Too hot for work or exercise or sex, too hot to speak.
We will look back at golden summers and chilly winters and say ‘Remember? Remember drizzly springs and misty autumns? Apples and pears, plums and tomatoes, and the joy of playing in shady woodland? Remember dew and frost and snowy landscapes, the blessed cold and wet that we didn’t understand gives us life? Remember how we longed for blazing summer days, sizzling on fiery sandy beaches, burning for the fun of it? Remember?’
I stand and gaze at the useless wheat and know that we – so clever and cunning, so inventive and shrewd – we have not been wise. We have not valued what we had, not treasured the cradling of the earth, her caresses, her generosity of purpose. We will understand this at last, and, retreating further from the sun, we will hide our faces.
I gaze at the wheat under the thrumming turbines, and my heart beats faster than a butterfly’s wing.
Winner of First Prize, Writers Online, Autumn 2018. First published in Writers Online, 2018.