Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
A Short Story by Sandra Bunting
I offer my great thanks to Sandra Bunting of Galway for allowing me to share this short story with my readers. The story is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.
"THE WIND THROWS IT BACK"
He could hear his father shout through the closed window.
“Get in here, Martin.”
No one could accuse his father of speaking too softly. His mother, God rest her soul, always said that there was no ignoring him. He called attention to himself from both God and the Devil. There was no telling how it would turn out in the end.
His father, Dan, looked him over when he entered the room.No smile, no handshake. He hadn’t seen his father for well on a year, but yet still jumped to do his every command. His father moved to England six years ago after his first wife, Martin’s mother, died.
“And how’s Martin?” he asked.
“Not bad,” Martin responded. “And how’s yourself?”
“I’m all right.”
Father and son looked at each other searchingly as if in a staring contest. His father looked away first.
“She’s all right. Pregnant,” he said.
“Figures,” said Martin under his breath.
His father caught him or at least picked up the tone.
“What did you say?’ he boomed.
“I said that’s great.”
Martin’s father didn’t push it. He knew there was a soreness in the family that he had remarried so soon after his first wife had died. But Mindy had mended his shattered heart. He’d have to go easy. Martin was the youngest, the baby.
“And how’s England?” Martin asked.
“It’s not like here,” his father replied stroking his hands over his belly and coughing hard.
Martin looked away and waited. The huge framed picture of the Sacred Heart loomed above him in garish colours. Around it, covering every possible wall space were blown-up photographs of his family and ancestors. In black and white, most were taken on their wedding days, serious faces that didn’t suit the occasion. There were his own parents up there staring straight ahead of themselves. They looked even younger than Martin did now. His eyes strayed over to his father. He hadn’t changed much from the picture, just made the transition from boy to man.
There was a flash of light.
“I’d better take another. I don’t want everyone in London to think that you go around with your mouth hanging open.”
Martin couldn’t help himself. He started posing, subtly at first and then going into slightly more exaggerated movements.
“Always acting the idiot!” his father grunted. Stay still, look straight ahead and be serious.” His father took the last photo and Martin wondered what criminal sentence he was in for.
“I’ve found a girl for you,” his father said, and Martin felt as if his heart were nailed into the wall along with all the serious faces.
His grandmother sauntered in with some tea and a plate of Fig Newtons, the only biscuit she could eat since she contracted diabetes several years ago. She put the tray on a small table near the sofa and sat down beside Martin, all the while keeping her eyes on his father.
“Have you told him, Dan?"
The father remained standing.
“I have, Theresa. I’ve just taken his picture. I’ll send it off to England tomorrow.”
“And do I get to see a picture too?” asked Martin.
Dan laughed. “Only if you get on the short list. She’s in great demand that one.”
His grandmother shook her head.
“You promised the boy could stay with me,” she argued. “When I lost my Maire and you went away, you told me you would never take the boy.”
“He's a man now. You have to let him go,” he said.
His grandmother poured the tea without looking at him.
“He’s too young.”
Dan downed his cup and walked out the door mumbling that he had things to do. The door slammed and then there silence.
“I have work to do before dinner,” Martin said.
He always joined the older lads as they drove around with carts on the back of the their bicycles picking up scraps of metal they could then sell on. He knew a lot about metal. He used to watch the old ones work with it when he was small and he hoped to get on with the company laying the gas pipeline around the city when he finished school.
His grandmother came out as he was wheeling his bicycle out the driveway of their small terraced home. It was at the end of a row and had a small yard at the side and in the back. ‘The best view in town’ his grandfather used to say when he was alive. Although it was local authority housing, it was on a hill with the town on one side and a wild field on the other. You could see the hills of Clare and over to Connemara in a sweep. .
The Pomeranian dog, usually curled up in the rocking chair just inside the entrance, heard the old woman outside and scratched to get out. Grandmother Theresa opened the door a crack and felt the dog at her heels.
“Martin, you’ll be back for your tea.”
“I’ll be back,” said Martin.
“We’ll try to keep you here,” she called after him. “It’s not right to take you away from here”.
Martin, out of hearing range, smiled and waved.
Martin followed his mate Ronnie back to the centre of town. They parked their bikes outside a house with a long drive. When Ronnie knocked, a lady came to the door, led them around back to the shed and pointed through the open door to a line of old paint cans on shelves along the side. Ronnie and Martin loaded the cans onto their carts and twent up to the house again to collect their money. Ronnie then brought him to a bushy area of the canal. They leaned their bikes against a wall and sat looking down at the water, legs dangling over the side. Ronnie rolled a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply.
When he finished, Ronnie told Martin that they’d better finish the job. He walked over to the bicycle cart, grabbed a couple of paint cans and threw them into the canal, where they sunk slowly.
“C’mon Martin. We’d better hurry up.”
But Martin stayed where he was.
“Wait. There’s a place to get rid of those,” he argued.
But Ronnie said it would be too much trouble.
“No one will know if we do it quickly,” he said.
Martin still hesitated. “I fish here in the summer.
“It’s just a few cans.” Ronnie yawned.
“Paint cans,” said Martin. “I bring my fish home and my grandmother cooks them for us to eat.”
But Ronnie was going to throw them in anyway, so, in the end, Matrtin thought that he might as well get it over with. They separated at the crossroads. Martin kept imagining fish coming out of his mouth, a strange expression on their faces, each one a different colour.
“I’m home, Gran,” he said.
“What kept you?” she called from the kitchen.
“Just some things I had to do. Where’s my da?”
“He had some things to do. Men! They’re all the same.”
Martin smiled. “I’m starving. What’s for tea?”
“Ah,” said Martin.
The Pomeranian stood under the kitchen table to receive the offerings, almost all the fish, from Martin’s dinner plate.
Dan arrived home long after they had finished eating, his face red from exhaustion. Loud incessant barking could be heard from the back shed and the Pomeranian joined the chorus.
“What’s that racket?” asked Grandmother Theresa.
“I bought two dogs. Going to fight them. Just leave them out there. I’m going back to England tomorrow but I’ll be back.”
“What are their names?” asked Martin.
Dan’s face got redder.
“They are not fuckin’ pets. Can you not get it through that thick skull of yours? They’re fighting dogs.”
“We’ll look after them when you are gone,” said Grandmother Theresa.
“Just leave them alone I said”.
“But we’ll have to feed them. They’ll starve.” Martin opened the fridge to see if there was anything he could give them.
“That’s what I want. Them nice and hungry. Now leave them alone, I’m warning you.”
Dan then got up and said he was going out for a jar. Over the barking, the door slammed.
Grandmother Theresa was sitting in her worn armchair when Martin came down to his breakfast. He gestured to her to stay where she was. He could find something to eat himself.
“He’s gone back,” she said.
Martin nodded, buttered a piece of bread, found a few sausages in the pan and leaned against the wall eating. The Pomeranian slid off its chair to place itself in a position to receive anything falling. The sound of barking could be still heard in the shed but was weaker and not as continuous.
He took up the remaining sausages from the pan and a bowl of potatoes from last night’s dinner and went out the back door, not noticing the shock of the Pomeranian as the door closed behind him. Martin stayed outside the shed for a long time before lifting the latch and entering. He whistled a few tunes to get the dogs accustomed to him before addressing them in soft murmurs. The barking quietened. Martin slowly lifted the latch and opened the door a crack, still whispering and calming. He squeezed himself inside and gently closed the door, a prickle of fear rising up for a moment as he realised he was enclosed in a small space with unknown beasts.
Their heads hung down as they watched him from eyes that seemed too large for the tiny, slim heads. Muscles twitched on their bodies. Not an inch of fat. Tails moved tentatively. Martin wanted to run his hand along their sleek forms. He had not been this close to purebred greyhounds before. He emptied the food onto an old newspaper.
At lunchtime Martin grabbed his bike and cycled into town. He went to the backdoor of restaurants asking for scraps for the dogs. Some were happy to see him carry away bags of waste; others told him not to bother them again.
The dogs were quiet when he arrived in the back garden. Curled up at the back of the shed, they pricked up their ears when he came in. He made soothing sounds again and braved a brief pat on the head of one of them.
Late back to school again! Martin realised that he had not had anything to eat himself. As soon as the last bell rang, he raced for his bike and made it home in record time. Grandmother was still having a nap upstairs so he quickly coated a couple of slices of bread with jam and rushed off to join Ronnie and the others along the river by the university where they searched the large skips behind new buildings in search of scrap metal. Martin didn’t stick around with the lads after they were finished.
“I’ve got things to do,” he said.
The dogs were waiting for him this time. With the same familiar noises and whistling, Martin knelt down, put out his hand and lightly stroked the side of one of them. The skin was soft, strong muscles underneath, ready to run. He made a loop in a rope and put it around the neck of the closest dog. He did the same with the other. Gripping the end of the ropes, he guided them out of the shed and up to the field on the hill.
Martin wasn’t sure if they’d come to him if they were let free but the kind of exercise he could give them on the lead was quite different from a good run. He let them go. They bounded off and Martin could feel their happiness. It was contagious.
With the food and exercise, the dogs were getting stronger and even more beautiful. Martin would have loved them even if they didn’t run so fast. But to see them race like the wind, made his heart jump. It was if, for a short while, he was part of the great connection of things.
On another occasion, he took the dogs down to the beach. They trembled as they watched a bearded heron sitting on a rock. Martin kept them on the ropes until the bird stretched and lifted off into the air, its peace disturbed. The dogs ran after it but stopped when they got their feet wet. They didn’t seem to mind running in the shallow tide near the sand, but would not go further into the sea.
“C’mon girls,” he called and they came to him.
Later instead of doing homework, Martin thought up names he could give the dogs. Once he had settled on what would suit each one, he felt that they were really part of him.
“Martin, come down. Your father is on the phone. He’s ringing from over there”. Grandmother Theresa called up the stairs and then went back to her chair in the kitchen, warm by the range.
Martin scrambled down the stairs. The phone was waiting for him on the table just inside the front door.
“How are ya?” he asked.
“What were you doing? Dreaming again?”
Martin didn’t answer.
“Well, boy, we’re in with a chance. I’d say 5-1.” His father sounded cheerful for a change but Martin had no idea what he was talking about.
“What?” he asked.
“You’ve made the short list lad. The girl wants to meet you.”
“That’s great!” Martin couldn’t help but sound bored but his father didn’t appear to notice.
“A photo is on the way. You’re going to be blown away.”
“And how’re the dogs doing?” his father inquired.
“Out the back,” Martin replied.
“Good lad. I’ll be over for them soon.”
A large brown envelope arrived from England in the post addressed to Grandmother Theresa. Martin had just come in from the dogs’ walk and saw it lying there on the floor. He walked into the kitchen and handed it to his grandmother. She took it and handed it back to him.
“Open it yourself. You know it’s for you.”
He ripped the envelope open and reached inside. There was a photo of a girl. Not an enlarged glossy or anything like that. It was just an ordinary photo. Looking inside to see if there was a letter or card with it, and seeing there was none, he held out the photo and looked at it. She was pretty. Long dark hair, big eyes, rosy complexion, about his age. What was the big deal? There were many girls just as pretty around home.
Martin handed the photo to his grandmother.
“Nice,” she said.
She tried to hand it back to Martin but he shook his head.
“You keep it,” he said.
On his way up to his room to do his homework, he realised he didn’t even know the girl’s name.
Dan slammed the front door and hollered for Martin. There was a short, stocky man with him. Grandmother came out of the kitchen with the Pomeranian at her feet. The dog took a dislike to the other gentleman and snapped at his heels causing the man to back up and lift his feet away from the dog. He looked as if he were trying out a new kind of dance.
“Get off, Tiny,” Dan growled as he gave the dog a kick into the kitchen.
He then turned to Grandmother Theresa.
“This is Gina’s dad, like I told you. We won’t be staying. We just came to get the dogs.”
“Good to meet you.” she said to the man. “I thought we’d be seeing you daughter here.”
Dan didn’t give the man the chance to reply.
“You’ll be seeing her soon enough.” Dan told her. “Now, we have a fight on and don’t want to be late. I’ll just get the dogs.”
Grandmother was secretly glad that the stranger was not staying with them and when she heard Dan cursing in the back garden, she was glad that he was not staying either. Although the front door opened and slammed again, she did not get up from her chair in the kitchen.
“I told Martin not to feed those god-damn mutts. I have a lot riding on them. You tell the lad that he’s in big trouble. Where is he anyhow?”
Dan did not wait for an answer.
When Martin came home from his bike rounds, he went right out to the shed and, not finding the dogs, tore into the kitchen.
“Where are they?” he asked.
“They’re gone,” said Theresa.
“Where?” he cried.
“Leave it, Martin. I don’t know.”
Martin pounded the kitchen table with his fists.
“He told you to leave them alone. They aren’t yours,” his grandmother said.
Martin slammed the door on the way out. He started asking around if anyone knew where a dog-fight was taking place. No one could help him.
It soon got late. A few stars glowed in the blackened sky and the night wind was up. Bed, however, seemed somehow inappropriate. So he cycled around the town until the sun peeked over the barracks.
Grandmother Theresa frowned when she opened the front door to find the man who had been with Dan the previous day. Martin hadn’t come home to sleep and she had hoped it was him. However, she soon lightened up when she found out that the man wasn’t alone.
“Gina’s going to stay around for awhile and get to know you,” the man said.
“Where’s Dan?” Theresa asked.
“Gone back to England. Didn’t do too well last night, thanks to our lad!”
She nodded solemnly and then welcomed them in.
“Martin’s just doing some of his rounds. He’s a hardworking lad, that one.”
She brought them into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
“Not for me,” the man said. “ I have to go down the country. I have business. Be back for Gina in a few weeks.”
He left without saying anything to his daughter, and without saying goodbye to the grandmother.
The older woman shrugged as if to say, “men, who needs them?” Over tea she asked Gina to tell her about herself. As the girl talked, she almost forgot her worry about Martin.
Grandmother thought that if she heard the front door slam again, she would scream. But when she heard Martin’s voice, she felt something rise in her chest.
“I’m not going to school today. I didn’t find them.” he called from the bottom of the stairs.
“There’s hot tea,” Theresa called back.
“Not now. I’m going to sleep. Up all night.”
“Just come here for a minute, will you?” asked Theresa.
Martin reluctantly made for the kitchen. He was about to say he was ok and retreat up to his room. But he came face to face with a young girl, the girl in the photo.
“This is Gina,” said Grandmother.
“Christ!” he said.
“Watch what you’re saying.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t sorry me. I’m used to you. It’s sorry to Gina. She’s staying with us for a while.” His grandmother smiled. “I hope you’ll show her around,” she said.” She’ll be bored with an old one like me.”
Martin moved Tiny off the chair opposite Gina’s and said he’d take a cup of tea but that then he had to get a bit of sleep. The two young people stared at each other without saying a word. Then he got up, put his teacup on the counter and went upstairs to bed. When he came down. Gina was waiting for him.
“Where are you going to take me this afternoon?” she teased.
“I have to meet the lads and do a few jobs.”
“Can I come?” she asked. “I’ve hardly seen anything of this place. I’m supposed to come from here and I don’t even know it.”
“Sure, come if you like.” Martin looked at Gina. “You talk funny.”
“And so do you” she said. Martin looked away and smiled.
Martin went around and looked at the empty shed before attaching the cart onto his bicycle and helping Gina onto the bar in front of him. They raced along the road, Gina howling with delight. The lads were waiting behind the hospital.
“Who’s that?” asked Ronnie.
Martin shrugged. “A friend of the family’s over from England ”.
The job was to take bags from the hospital to the dump. They wouldn’t just toss them anywhere this time. There was too much. Each of them would have his cart loaded to capacity. Martin went to help bring out the bags.
When they were finished, they started off on the long cycle to the dump. The load in the carts was heavy and the journey was slow. It was especially hard for Martin with Gina on the front. But he didn’t say anything.
The little convoy arrived at the dump. Martin suggested that Gina stay at the entrance as she was gagging from the smell. The lads, used to it, drove close to one of the piles and started hurling bags onto it. They were almost finished when Ronnie nudged Martin.
“It’s just as well your one didn’t come. I think I see something moving there.”
They all laughed but as Martin looked at the pile expecting to see a rat, his face dropped. The ‘moving’ thing was a dog, or what was left of one. He was frightened to approach it, frightened at what it had become. It lay there, large raw gaping wounds, its face half off, barely recognisable.
With a deep breath, Martin approached the animal making the comforting noises he had made when he was getting to know the greyhounds. The dog was quiet now, breathing shallowly. It had made a tremendous effort when it had heard Martin’s voice. Then it lay still again. Martin bent down and touched it lightly.
“It’s ok, girl. It’s ok,” he said.
The lads approached to what was going on.
“She’s my dog,” said Martin. “And there might be another one around here.”
They split up and combed the pile.
“Over here,” called Jackie.
Martin left one dog’s side and found the other in worse condition. He put his ear to her smooth chest and heard a faint beating.
Lengths of cloth were found; old curtains, sheets, horse blankets. They weren’t exactly clean but the priority was to get the animals out of that place. The lads lifted the dogs onto the carts. Promising to go slowly, they told Martin they would meet them at the house. Gina was a bit confused until, back at the house, Martin told his grandmother what he had found at the dump. She sent them back the shed and proceeded to boil water and herbs to clean their wounds.
“Martin, listen to me,” she said. “ I don’t know if I will be able to do anything. They seem very bad.”
Martin looked at the ground.
“Martin, listen to me.”
“I know. But we have to try.”
Gina piped up. “I think you should take them to a vet.”
“A vet will only put them down.”
“That’s so they won’t suffer too much when there’s nothing you can do.”
“But there is. Gran is great when it comes to making things better.
Waiting with the dogs in the shed, he thought that only yesterday what strong vibrant creatures they were.
Theresa came carrying water, disinfectant and her mixture of herbs to help the wounds heal.
She first went to work on the dog that was not as bad off. While Martin soothed the dog, she cleansed the wound, applied disinfectant and covered the sore in geranium leaves. Then Gina passed towels soaked in a solution of boiled blackberry leaves, which the woman pressed gently over the wounds and bound them with a clean strip of torn sheet.
“This one’s bad,” she said looking at the second dog.
Martin couldn’t talk.
“Watch me carefully. This process has to be repeated three times a day in the beginning,” said Grandmother. “Until healing begins.”
“We’ll have to get more old cloths,” Martin managed.
Grandmother shook her head.
“I have more than enough sheets, towels and blankets than I can never use. People keep giving me sheets. They think I like sheets.”
Martin helped her up when she finished. The dogs had winced with pain when the disinfectant was applied and were whining softly.
“Come in the house ‘til I give you some blankets to put over them.”
Gina put the dirty cloths in the bucket and followed her.
Once inside, she took the bucket from Gina.
“We’ll burn these,” she said.
Grandmother Theresa sent out some extra blankets because she knew that Martin wouldn’t be leaving the dogs. She also sent some bread and a bit of bacon for him to eat. When Gina arrived back at the shed, Martin was soothing first one dog and the other.
“I’m staying too,” said Gina.
Martin opened an eye and for a moment wondered where he was. He had formed his body around the sleeping backs of one of the dogs and Gina had done the same with the other dog. She was still asleep and her hair was loose, hanging over the dog. Martin didn’t know why he didn’t think her beautiful before.
Listening to the sounds of the day - birds, cars in the distance, building work - Martin knew that it was later than when he usually woke up. School seemed like something far away. He went out in the back garden to urinate.
“Martin,” called Gina. “Are you there?”
Back into the shed. Gina yawned, stretched.
“Come here,” she said.
Martin knelt down beside her.
“Feel her,” she said. “She’s cold and stiff.”
Martin felt her and put his ear to her chest.
“It is good you were near her” he choked.
They wrapped her tightly in a blanket and put her under the back porch while they carried out Grandmother Theresa’s instructions on the other dog. The lads came by in the afternoon and helped them dig a grave in the top field the dogs had enjoyed running in.
Martin continued to sleep with the dog but Gina moved into the house. After a week Grandmother came out to the shed to examine the animal.
“It’s time to go back to school,” she said.
“No buts,” said the Theresa. “The dog is better. Gina and I can look after it”.
So Martin went back to school and even helped the lads out a bit. But as soon as he got home, he was in the shed with the dog. He would find Gina there.
“Don’t you go to school?” he asked.
“I can catch up,” she replied.
The dog was getting better. In a while she struggled to get up. Theresa had a look before Martin would let her stand and go out to the garden to do her business.
“She’s very scarred,” said Gina.
“Aren’t we all in someway? She’s lucky to be alive."
Slowly the dog got strong enough to go to the top field again and start running a little bit at the time.
Martin moved into the house. He was in his room when the phone rang.
“I’m never answering that thing again,” he called down and let it ring. Grandmother scolded him as she lifted herself out of her chair and caught it just in time.
“It could be important,” she said.
It was Gina’s father. He’d meet her at the bus station. They were going back to England.
Martin walked out, took the dog out of the shed and brought it to the top field. This time he let it go where it wanted. It took off into a run that it hadn’t done since it was hurt. It seemed to run for its pain, for its dead sister, for its whole breed. Martin was so entranced that he didn’t hear Gina come up behind him.
“Will it come back?” asked Gina
“It will come back,” said Martin.
Martin edged closer to her and put his arm around her.
“You know, you are truly lovely,” he said, pulling her closer and touching her lips with his own. When they opened their eyes, they saw the greyhound bounding for them at full speed. Jumping up on them, they fell to the ground, laughing, the dog licking their faces.
"We'll be married then?" He was tentative but gained confidence as he went on. “No one will be able to tell us what to do then."
After dinner, Gina got out her Polaroid camera and had Grandmother take their photo with the dog. Martin got an old frame from the attic and hung their picture on the sitting room wall with all the family pictures. Grandmother wasn’t sure it was the right place for it, but Martin insisted.
“I love you,” he whispered to Gina.
“I love you too,” she whispered back.
The next morning, as she was leaving, Gina put down her suitcase to look at the photo.
“At least we look happy,” she said.
He carried out her bags to the taxi.
“Alive is the word. We look alive.”
I really enjoyed this story and I again thank Sandra Bunting for allowing me to publish it.
Sandra Bunting lives and writes in the west of Ireland
Sandra Bunting studied and worked in communications (radio, television, print media, PR) in Toronto before travelling and living in France and Spain
On the editorial board of literary magazine Crannog, she has been a member of the Galway Writers' Workshop that meets at the Bridge Mills since 2002. She also helps edit Tribe Vibes, a newsletter of the Galway City Community Forum.
A writer of both prose and poetry, she is now working on a novel.
Besides writing, Sandra enjoys silk painting, batik and print-making and has an exhibition at the local library in March, 2005.
A writer of both prose and poetry, she is now working on a novel.
Besides writing, Sandra enjoys silk painting, batik and print-making and has an exhibition at the local library in March, 2005.
She has published extensively both online and in print journals
Sandra Bunting has kind agreed to complete a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Month Year III so please look for that soon.