Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Nowhere Man

I spent part of Christmas day writing a piece of flash fiction - the idea was appealing enough that I had to let it unfold. Originally I was thinking that it might form the start of a short story, but now I'm wondering whether there's something more there. I thought I'd post the opening section and invite some critical feedback. I know it's difficult to judge a story on the opening gambit, but we all do it whilst browsing in a bookstore, so what I'm interested to know is whether this piques your interest. The story is set in 1924 in Ireland, immediately after independence and the civil war.

‘Harry? Harry!’ His pyjama top was sodden with sweat, his massive back twisting away from her gentle touch. ‘Harry, love.’

He woke with a start, momentarily lost, sucking in air.

‘You were having one of your nightmares,’ she explained, tugging him over onto his back.

His boyish face was ashen, unseeing, grey-blue eyes bloodshot. Nightmare seemed too tame a word for the hell he’d just re-lived. Great showers of soil and blood erupting all around, the thunder of artillery and the rattle of machine guns, the cries of the wounded and dying, the vicious tug of barbed wire, then the searing pain of shrapnel tearing through his left thigh, the brains of Private Conor Costello coating his face.

‘You alright, love?’

He blinked, his eyes darting left.

She was leaning up on her elbow, gazing down at him, wearing a once white, long sleeved nightdress. She pulled a tight, concerned smile and tucked a lock of her long, red hair behind an ear, moving a slender hand to his chest.

He let out a long sigh and swallowed hard, laying a huge hand over hers, giving it a light squeeze.
Costello had been eight years his senior, but he’d made the young officer promise that he’d take care of his wife and four children if he failed to make it back to Ireland. Harry Rutherford doubted that had meant sharing his wife’s bed, but things rarely turned out as Harry expected.

When he enrolled at Trinity College Dublin in September 1914 to study law, he’d expected the nascent hostilities with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians to be over by Christmas. When he dropped out of university before completing his first year of study to enlist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he’d expected his father to be understanding and supportive. As a junior officer in the 8th Battalion, he’d expected war to be rational, honourable and heroic. During Easter 1916, as he choked on deadly chlorine gas at the Battle of Hulluch in Northern France, struggling to drag on his cumbersome gas mask, he’d expected that if he survived the mayhem and madness he would be returning to the Ireland he left. And when the shell exploded just a few feet in front of them as they advanced towards Ginchy in the Battle of the Somme, he’d expected to go the same way as poor Costello.

Instinctively, Harry moved his hand to his face as if to brush off the warm blood and tissue. ‘What time is it?’ he asked, disguising his movement to pinch the bridge of his nose and then rub his eyes.

‘You’ve plenty of time, yet,’ Mary Costello answered, tugging the sheet and rough, wool blankets up over his barrel chest, dropping down from her elbow to lie by his side, her head resting on his shoulder. ‘It’s barely gone five o’clock.’

When the telegram arrived in September 1916 to inform her that her husband had died for a King and Country which she didn’t consider to be her own, she’d never anticipated anybody but her children would share her bed again, let alone a Protestant policeman seven years her junior; a man who as a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had probably aided the British in the war for independence.

She knew what the neighbours thought of their tryst, but the neighbours could go to hell; they hadn’t had to live with the loneliness, the hunger, the cold and damp, the humiliation of being a single mother barely able to make ends meet. To try and save her modesty Harry ghosted in through the back yard late at night loaded with supplies, and slipped out again in the wee hours.

He tipped his head down so his cheek rested on her crown. ‘I’d better go,’ he mumbled. The only way to shift the vivid memories was to fill his lungs with cold morning air and plod the city streets. ‘I’ve got a couple of things I need to do.’

Mary didn’t move. ‘Harry …’

‘Sorry.’ He eased himself up, swinging his legs out of the bed, rubbing at the knotted scar tissue at the top of his left thigh.

‘Harry, stay a while longer.’

He reached down and picked his crumpled, uniformed trousers from the floor and shoved a hand into a pocket, withdrawing a couple of creased notes, placing them on the bedside locker. ‘For the children.’

‘Thanks, but there’s no need …’ she lied.

‘I know,’ he said standing, confirming the lie, ‘but they deserve a treat.’

She watched him dress, taking a clean shirt from the wardrobe, pulling on his tatty uniform. Tall, broad and sturdy, he would have made an excellent rower. At twenty eight he should by now have found himself a nice, young wife, settled down and started his own family. She felt a tinge of guilt and wondered how long Harry’s nightly visits would last and what she’d do once he’d gone.

He lent down and kissed her on the cheek. ‘I’ll see you tonight. I’ll bring a ham.’

‘Take care, Harry.’

‘Like always.’ He crept to the door, slid through it and down the stairs, and quietly exited the rear of the decrepit house. It was still dark, the sky overcast, a light drizzle falling, the air tinged with the taste of peaty smoke and the smell of stinking drains. He placed his hat over his short brown hair, his pug ears sticking out, and pulled his cape around him, tugging up the collar. There was a café on the South quays which catered for dockers that was open all hours. He would pick up a hearty breakfast and some information before heading to Pearse Street station. He set off at a brisk pace, splashing through oily puddles, a noticeable limp in his gait.


Margot Kinberg said...

Oh, Rob, I *am* intrigued! You've got me already, and I want to know what happens to both of these characters. You could go a number of ways with this, too. If you wanted to do crime fiction, you could have Costello's death not really be an accident of war. Or you could have either Mary or Harry somehow become a victim. Or a perpetrator. I was especially intrigued by Mary's conflicted feelings about Harry (On the one hand..well, there's the obvious. On the other, all of her feelings about Harry being Protestant, etc.).

Uriah Robinson said...

I like the characters and the clever way you have included so much of Harry's back story. It is a very good opening because you immediately want to know what happens to this relationship.
I suspect there were a lot more Mary Costellos than Daisy Buchanans around in the twenties, which are one of history's most fascinating decades.

Dorte H said...

Harry is a very interesting character: "Harry Rutherford doubted that had meant sharing his wife’s bed, but things rarely turned out as Harry expected."

I also like they way you make the environment come alive in a few, well-chosen words: "...the air tinged with the taste of peaty smoke and the smell of stinking drains."

So as far as I can see, this opening shares some of the qualities of The Rule Book, and I would love to read more.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks for the encouraging comments. I spent part of the day researching basic information about Dublin in 1924 - tram routes, cost of bread, street names before they were renamed (Harry couldn't have been going to Pearse Street Station as it was Great Brunswick Street until 1926). I've got the bare bones of the story worked out and I've drafted out the second section and have most of the third complete. I might put them up and then get on with drafting the full story. Not sure how long that'll take me, probably the best part of a year given other projects.

critical mick said...

Great choice of setting, conflict from page one, intreguing character. And, a readheaded love interest- bonus!

I'm not aware of any crime fiction authors wo have already laid claim to Ireland in the 1920's. You might be on to a good thing, Rob!

Just be careful not to use material already hashed and rehashed. Shell Shock (as they called PTSD back then) was real, but has been described countless times before. Charles Todd wrote a bit of crime-fic set in England in the 20's about a shell-shocked detective. It was crap.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks, Mick. I hadn't thought of using PTSD, I'm more interested in Harry being caught between two worlds - Protestant/Catholic, gentry/working class, British/Irish. And the period is an interesting one. I'm not though going to play with history or real characters; just situate the story in the time, place and general politics. All I have to do now is write it!