Short Story Competition Winner 2018:
Scairbhín na gCuach
(An undefined period of unsettled weather in April/May)
It wasn’t a cold day, just damp.
My father drove the thirty-mile winding road carefully. He always drove carefully. It was fortunate he found himself stationed in West Kerry; in the thirty-five years he drove the squad car, I can’t imagine he ever needed to break the speed limit.
‘We’ll go around,’ he suggested, before leaving home, ‘the day is too dirty for the mountain road.’
Passing the dilapidated old school in Clooncurra, I remarked that it was a pity the roof was now almost gone.
He didn’t hear me.
It was on this stretch of road, twenty-five years earlier when heading home late at night, he saw something in the sky above the school. He told us that when he realised what it could be, he pulled in, switched on the flashing roof lights without the siren, jumped out and raised his hand in a friendly manner. ‘To be fair,’ he said recounting the story to us in the morning, ‘it wasn’t like I was that near to him, but when he waved back, I knew there was no question. It was definitely him.’ We loved this story and couldn’t wait to tell our friends. We couldn’t stop ourselves. I mean, what were the chances? There were Gardaí on duty all over the country that Christmas night and yet it was our Dad who had spotted Santa Claus and Santa had acknowledged our Dad.
I watched my father clutching the steering wheel, hands in the ‘ten to two’ position. This was the first tip he gave all of us when teaching us how to drive.
A great man to tell a story, he hadn’t much to say these past few weeks.
I sat in the back with James who needed entertaining. An ill-tuned radio, thumping wipers, fogged-up windows and a high pitch heater; I felt faintly sick.
Still, I was glad of the lift to town. Dad’s solicitor had said although it was early days, there was no harm in ‘getting the ball rolling’ and he had managed to squeeze him in with an appointment at three o’clock.
As the car climbed the hill towards Gleann na nGealt, Dad commented on how strong the primroses were looking this year. I hardly heard what he had said with the cacophony coming from the car engine and I strained to see what he was pointing to in the ditch. He switched the windscreen wipers to top speed to make it all the more obvious.
When we were children, my father picked the first primrose in our garden one day in late April and as we were leaving for school, he asked which of us would like to bring it in to show the teacher that spring had arrived. I liked the idea and would have done it in a heartbeat but Tim, the youngest of the four of us, was given the honour. He put the flower in his trousers’ pocket as we walked up the hill to school and didn’t give it another thought. It was only while playing in the yard three hours later that he found the squashed primrose and foolishly showed it to John Michael Brosnan.
John Michael ran straight back to the classroom to tell Sister Dolorosa that Timothy Collins had something for the nature table in his pocket. Walking down Grey’s Lane on our way home that day, Tim told me how his palms were actually sweating thinking about having to show everyone Dad’s wilted primrose, knowing it wasn’t the best example of Spring and as Sister Dolorosa would say ‘all the hope it brings.’
He said the worst part of it was watching it being put in a vase and placed with great ceremony in the middle of the nature table at the top of the classroom.
Our house was behind the Garda station and when Dad hopped over the boundary wall at tea-time that evening, he was keen to know what Sister Dolorosa had made of the primrose.
‘Loved it,’ Tim said. Dad was happy and said if he waited a few weeks, he could bring-in a good handful of them. They’d be plentiful by then and maybe they could be put on the May altar. Primroses were always put in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary.
Although the rain had eased off slightly, the windscreen wipers, radio and the heater were still going full throttle.
James arched his back to get out of the car seat. We were nearly there. I just needed to keep him happy for another twenty minutes. I searched for a rice cake in my bag in the hope that I could prevent him crying. As I replaced the damp dribbler round the neck of my red-cheeked baby, I watched him rub the small rice cake against his gums.
We found parking opposite the courthouse and Dad helped me lift the buggy from the boot of the car.
James protested when I pulled the plastic rain cover over him. As we set off, I watched my father stride business-like away from me, the brown envelope tucked neatly under his arm. He said he’d come to find us once his meeting had finished.
James and I walked the back way to Bridge Street avoiding the steaming traffic of Ashe Street.
In no time he managed to get both feet outside the plastic rain cover and wriggled his toes under the heavy drizzle. I stopped several times to adjust the cover as I didn’t have dry socks for him and we were still a good five-minute walk from Walsh Brothers.
Such heavy rain didn’t seem to fit late spring. Then again, in West Kerry, they’d say that rough weather at this time of year was the nature of the Scairbhín and would be over before the call of the first cuckoo.
Dad arrived in just as the shop assistant was carefully sliding the bar to meet James’s toes. The plastic strap was then pulled across the width of his foot. ‘He’d really need the wider fitting,’ she said, ‘particularly as these are his first shoes. A well-fitting first shoe will set him up for life,’ she assured me as she left to see what options were available in his size.
My father’s meeting was shorter than he had expected.
The shop assistant returned with five small shoe boxes stacked under her chin. We looked through them quickly and I suggested we try on the blue shoes with red stitching. ‘They’re a good choice,’ she said as she placed his foot in the shoe. ‘A practical shoe,’ she said, ‘the T-bar design makes them easy to get on and they’re versatile - very popular, to be honest.’
The buckle of the second shoe was fastened with some difficulty as James struggled to slide off my lap. The shop assistant said she’d need to see him standing still just to make sure they were a snug fit. As I put him upright on the blue carpeted floor, he immediately lifted one leg, bringing his raised foot towards his knee while holding on with one hand to the soft-topped bench where I sat.
Dad stretched out his hand and taking James’s free hand, he suggested they go for a little walk around the shop. James looked down at his weighty new shoes and pointed to them as they walked back towards me.
I asked Dad how it went. The solicitor had said that dying young and so suddenly meant that my brother Tim had died ‘intestate’. Letters of administration would now have to be sought. Although a straightforward procedure, this would take a few months. As soon as he received a copy of the death certificate he could start getting affairs in order. We could pick this up from the hospital on our way home, I thought and was about to suggest it when the smiling shop assistant approached us. Gently clapping her hands together, while looking at James, she said: ‘Well? What do we think of the new shoes then?’
‘We’ll take them,’ I said.
‘Will we leave his new shoes on him?’ I heard Dad ask quietly as I reached into my bag to find my wallet. By the time I had located it under the packet of rice cakes, Dad was already silently handing her a neatly folded fifty euro note.
I didn’t want him to pay for them and, as I was about to protest, my father reminded me that it had been Tim who had discovered James was cutting his first tooth a few months earlier.
Dad took his change and picking up his umbrella, he and James headed off in the direction of the door.
Two months earlier I had walked into the kitchen to find Tim bouncing James on his knee while singing ‘An bhfaca tú mo Sheamuisín’ to his nephew. The baby howled with laughter as he watched the words coming out of his uncle’s mouth.
It was only when James had thrown his head back while laughing that Tim noticed a small white shape cutting through the baby’s gum. We laughed at the time as my mother reminded Tim that, in keeping with family tradition, he who discovers the first tooth will have to buy the first shoes.
The assistant put the small empty, apple-green box in a bag. ‘It might come in handy for storing things,’ she said. ‘Can I do anything else for you today?’ she asked. I shook my head. She looked a little perplexed as I stood there silent.
I walked away pushing the buggy towards the door but turned when she called after me, ‘What am I like!’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘A balloon comes with the baby’s first shoes. I’ll have it filled with helium in a jiffy and you can tie it to the buggy. Wait here.’
‘I don’t want a balloon,’ I said. Seeing the expression on her face, I quickly added ‘thank you.’
I was anxious to catch up with Dad who I could see standing outside, ashen-faced, struggling with his umbrella. James had already found puddles in which to test the new shoes. There would be no stopping on the way home. I knew my father was anxious to get going on our journey west.
Our business in town was done and we both knew my mother would be waiting.
For Tadhg Óg Ó Coileáin, 1973-2004