GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19

VIJAY KHURANA
‘Zenith’

TANGERINES AND CHEDDAR, not the most exciting car food. My wife Marie is quartermaster on this voyage across the island. If one of us asks she will unfoil, she will cut a polygonal piece of cheese, hand over a tangerine. Mine she peels: I am helming.

Count your segments, Marie calls to the back seat, Twelve is lucky! Her mood expands to fill the space, we are on holiday, we are going to find the place of her great-great-grandfather’s birth.

We being the rhizome of the family tree she has brought with her. It is secured with a hair elastic, safe in a cardboard tube in our shared suitcase. Behind us, all that we love: Console, who is smarter than he lets on, and our sparky little Journalist, who likes to prod life’s hull in search of cracks.

That’s superstition, Mom, Journalist says. She is not quite eleven. She has picked the word up, it is a jigsaw piece, she wants to know where it will fit.

In a way, says Marie, But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Super-duper-stition, Console says, and we laugh. Super-duper-mega-stition! He is nearly-nine. The car has filled with the smell of tangerines.

A moment ago there were dry-stone walls on either side of this road, now they are replaced by hedgerows. An open field. Graves. A church. I see one half of the church door darkly open, nobody around. Briefly, I am able to watch us from the outside: I can walk from the churchyard into the road, into the wake of our rented Volvo. A dark gray fluid drips from the tailpipe, serrating the tarmac, as though the road were zippable, or unzippable. As the engine noise fades, the hedges and trees come alive again. Flitting blackbirds, their beaks orange against their black bodies.

The rustle and still of last year’s leaves. Earthworms, humus, cream-coloured bones. What to do now the car and the family are gone—go back inside the church? Burrow underground?

The vision scatters and I am easing my wife and children around a corner, covering the brake as my sight-line decreases, feeling the transmission growl into second. Console asks Marie for a piece of cheese. He is polite. Our kids are polite. I can sense him wiping his hands on his trousers. I imagine the game’s smeared screen, its lurid, habit-forming colours. He is wearing the headphones that came with my iPhone. They are his now, more or less. Journalist counts her segments, counts twelve. She doesn’t trust herself (or perhaps just enjoys the attention) so she counts again. We tell her: Now see if something lucky happens to you.

We pass a playground, chrome slide glinting, sand pitted with last night’s rain, swing hand-roped from horizontal bough. The site must have been chosen for that perfect branch because there isn’t much else around, no houses, just a field behind with some horses, a line of trees beyond that, signifying a little river or perhaps a lane.

Can we stop, Dad? We cannot stop. My daughter sighs like a tiny engine. The other one barely looks up from his screen. We have a swing at home, he says, a little wisely. And she: Not like that one, ours is plastic, and ours isn’t hanging from a tree, it’s hanging from a metal frame. Suddenly I want to stop and go back, or at least pull over and build a statue of her. Instead I say that we need to get to our destination, need to see the village her great-great-great-grandfather grew up in.

Why was he so great, Console asks.

Great sometimes just means big. And big sometimes just means old.

Marie feeds me, a few segments at a time, sharp on my tongue like a battery. White noise as I lower my window and spit out the pips, hiss back to gentle hum, no, it’s not littering, they’re just seeds. If you come back when you’re eighteen a tree will have grown.

Will the swing still be there, my daughter spitefully asks.

You won’t want to go on a swing when you’re eighteen, says her mother.

We also have a bag of walnuts from a shop called Dunnes, which Console loved because we are also the Dunnes. But our nutcracker, brought across the Atlantic by Marie, who adores nuts, is, we suspect, still on the patio table at the School House Bed & Breakfast. With the kids asleep we sat outside in the evening air, cracking shells and feeling the rain’s approach, wondering if there were any other guests and if we were disturbing them. My voice vibrated in my throat as I tried to keep it just above a whisper, a pleasing sensation. We didn’t say anything much, just about the night and whether we would meet anyone who bore her family’s name, the one she gave up in favor of my monosyllable (the family joke is that it’s the sound to use when imitating the dramatic music from a horror film). She was O’Halloran, Marie O’Halloran, a perfect undulation until she married me. We must have left the nutcracker there on that plastic table, next to the upturned flowerpot we eventually realised was an ashtray. When I went to the bathroom I crept through our room, heard my children’s duelling breaths. I didn’t flush the toilet in case it woke them. We flushed it once, just before we went to bed, our mingled waste chemical-bright in there. The patio door slid softly shut and locked, the nutcracker still outside.

*** 

Marie has inserted three segments into my mouth, done slowly this time, with my two hands on the wheel, my mouth open around her fingers. Her pinkie touched my bottom lip. She has painted her nails—when did she paint her nails? I crush the fruit, it is four o’clock, the car’s sun visor is down. Somewhere I have a pair of sunglasses, probably in my bag in the trunk. Marie says she saw a sign that read 9 miles. Nine miles to her people’s village. She puts her right hand on my left leg.

Where are we staying again, I ask, wanting to know if this is one of the nights for which we have booked an extra room. Usually we crowd in together, a double, a single (Journalist), a fold-up (Console, who is barely two years younger and complains bitterly). But we have added little breaks along the way, like the ones we take while driving. They come twice on this 12-day trip. Marie scratches at my jeans and says through a half-yawn: It’s the one that used to be a windmill. Her eyes are on the road. There is a teasing pause, then she says, You kids’ll have your own room tonight.

Gross, says Journalist, who might be referring to having to be alone with her brother. But she has long been onto us. Marie has been quite frank with her, I have heard it. My turn to have this conversation has not yet come.

***

The Volvo arrives in a village of whitewashed houses, slate roofs. The church tower bodes somehow well for our mission, it has a parapet. Like a castle, Console says. Not for the first time, his New England accent (much stronger than mine) reminds me of the voices we’ve heard in this country. Marie is turned away from me, taking in the graves. Slabs, most of them. The odd Celtic cross. I put my foot down, lightly, then a lemon and green post office, a pub called the Mill Inn with flowers in great buckets outside. Continuing as though to leave the village, as instructed by our confirmation email, we find the windmill.

Brian, the owner, is ready to welcome us as soon as we step onto his gravel. He beams cream-colored teeth, jovial, but keeps his hands in the pockets of his corduroys, and when I extend mine and say, Doug Dunne, it seems more than he bargained for.

The windmill still has its sails, though they are reduced to wooden frames that no longer turn. Brian shows us the chains that lock them in place, so they don’t keep everyone awake with their creaking. The top level is the dining room. It has a circular balcony with wrought-iron tables and chairs, where breakfast will be served if the weather holds. Our rooms are tiny, partitioned spaces in the lower level where grain was once pulverized. Brian and his Slovenian wife Ana (Marie asks about the spelling when she hears it pronounced) live in the house behind.

They bought the windmill twelve years ago, when they moved from Dublin. They met in Ljubljana as students, but came together by complete chance a decade later, after the wall came down. It sounds like a story Brian has told many times. Marie responds not with the story of how she met me, but with a précis of our mission. Tomorrow we will look around the village, go to the church, look at headstones. She slips in her maiden name, to see if it will trigger anything. But Brian is not from here, and his smile hints at all the other Americans who have come here and done the same thing. Is there anyone we should speak to, an expert on local history? The priest might know something, there would be marriage records somewhere. Ana says: But isn’t Father Michael on holiday? Right enough, Brian says, He’s in Corfu. I didn’t know priests went on holiday, I say.

Brian and Ana make dinner for us, lasagne, garlic bread, salad, fish fingers, peas. We play cards. I read my son a story at bedtime, pretending they won’t each reach for their devices once the light is off. All of this is a prelude to being alone with Marie. She has been teasing me all day in tiny ways, making sure the thought doesn’t leave my head for too long, making sure the driving doesn’t tire me. We unpack as much as we need to, and with the bag of walnuts on the bedside table, the family tree leaning against the wall near the en suite, she unbelts me as we kiss. In her mouth I am full, relaxed, the mouth that ate lasagne at dinner, that steered Console away from a tantrum over a denial of sticky toffee pudding, the mouth that will keep saying her rounded maiden name to strangers in this place. O’Halloran. She is warm and she knows me. I look down at the hand around my penis, the burgundy nails, the wedding band, the engagement ring she picked out herself. Come back, I say. Come here.

We are a condom couple, we always have been. What’s changed is that they have somehow ceased to be my responsibility. Marie packs them now in her wash bag, along with tampons, toothbrush, make-up, razors, vitamins. She folds around my body the way we have practised, puts her teeth on my collarbone, holds me there like an animal play-fighting. She used to be loud when we lived alone. Since having kids, we’ve become librarians. Even if there were no one for miles, we would still be subdued. We roll like waves a long way from shore. We love each other. My semen ends up knotted in latex, wrapped in a tissue, placed in the little bin beside the toilet.

The morning is no less bright than the previous day, though it is windy, and the decision has been made to serve breakfast inside. Silverware glints on tables edging the centrepiece, the axle running through the building like a skewer. There are other guests: a young couple who whisper close across their table, and what look like father-and-son hikers, booted and taciturn. Marie is strangely quiet too, letting me prod Console through his breakfast, issue the usual mild threats about there being nothing else until lunchtime and a big walk around the village before then.

Our Journalist begins her press conference as soon as we set off. Why did Gabriel O’Halloran move to the US. Was he in trouble with the law. Did he fight in the Civil War. Why didn’t they just grow more food. Beside us a stream crinkles, shines silver in the sun.

Our family might have walked up this road hundreds of years ago, Marie says. She starts the children on a game, giving names to their ancestors. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was called… Annabel, says Journalist. Marie says, My mother’s father’s mother’s father’s brother’s cousin was called Jim. My father’s father’s mother’s mother’s… begins Console, but his sister cuts him off: They’re not Dad’s relatives, only ours and Mom’s.

The post office is also a general store. Marie picks up a stick of deodorant and the children come running with souvenir spoons bearing the name of the village at the handle, letters curved around a windmill. You must buy us these, they seem to say, or how can you pretend to be serious about our family history?

Look after them, Marie says as she pays, I want you to have them when you’re grown up, so you can think back on this day. Then, to the plump young woman behind the counter: We’re from Boston. My family, the O’Hallorans, came from this village, we think.

The woman—the girl—makes a polite sort of grunt. Her arms are tattooed.

She holds out a handful of shiny euros, which Marie pours into her purse.

We pass a man and a woman, both elderly, and my wife says Good Morning in her thick accent, as though she is begging them to stop and ask her what we’re doing here. The old man is in slippers, his trousers stained with something at the knee. The woman is pulling one of those shopping trolleys older people have. We pass the pub, which is already open, receive a stare from a half-obscured face in the dark bar. Console has been made to leave his console at the windmill, and is restless. I hold his right hand and he grips the spoon like a dagger in his left. There will be the afternoon, lunch in the pub, more chances to talk to people, to mention Marie’s maiden name, but for now all we have are church and graves. Pulled by the past, we head for the tower.

The church door is locked so we can only walk across the mown grass. There are birds, it is a fine morning. It is the reason for the flights, the Volvo, the B & Bs. Marie tells the kids to search for a grave with O’Halloran on it, as though she were a queen summoning subjects. Find my people. The oldest are pocked with lichen, barely readable. I look up at the dull stained glass, which must be beautiful from the inside. As a teenager I asked my mother where our family was from and she said, flatly, Vermont. What about before that, I asked. Or at least that is what I think I asked, what I remember asking. It’s always been Vermont, she said, Vermont all the way back. I walk up and down lanes mown between the graves. It’s been done in the last few days, the smell is sharp, fresh and good. The mower could only go so close to the headstones, so each one is skirted by tufts of green. Mary Kenny. Michael Timmons. Joseph O’Brien. Francis O’Connell. Coming around a corner I spot something shining in the grass. I assume it’s a coin and plan to leave it for one of the kids to find, the joy it would bring, the sensation of luck. But when I’m standing over it I see that one of them has dropped their spoon. I pick it up, open my mouth to curse their carelessness and hear my daughter shout, Mom! It is the loudest thing so far today, too loud for a churchyard, too loud for a girl of ten. What is it, Marie calls, Have you found an O’Halloran? The three of them converge. Marie practically sprints. As I watch them between the stones, I see myself finding this spoon again, in a cork-tiled kitchen, late-afternoon light, a chill, the hollow rumble of a dishwasher. I will find it in the back of a drawer. Its badge will long ago have come unstuck, taking with it the name of the village, the windmill logo. In its place will be a blank oval of textured metal where the glue has failed. I will let my thumbprint graze the contours of the handle as I study my reflection.

Marie was the last one to give up her name. My Journalist will not do it, I can tell. We came looking for a long line of men, which we have found. The light from outside will fall across the cork tiles in that cold room, and I will be alone. I will hold the spoon dumbly, see myself upside down, a man unravelled. I raise my head at the sound of a car passing through the village, run my thumb across the smooth plastic on the spoon’s handle. Then it goes into my pocket, scrapes against the key to the hire car, and I walk towards them.

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