July 2020 Competition WinnerPosted 3 weeks ago under Uncategorised,
Andy Martin is a philosophy teacher in the UK. He has had a number of short stories published online, and in the literary magazine Adelaide. This one is loosely based on a true story.
A pound coin clatters down the slot. I scroll through the song choices of the old jukebox, and punch in 624. A seven inch of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’ moves into position. The tonearm slides across and there’s a crackle as the needle settles into the grooves. A distorted guitar chord erupts from the speakers into the silent pub, and the familiar driving rhythm starts. The church-like organ, the bouncing bass, and the jangly guitar, churn up feelings that stir my gut.
I’m in The Angel, a pub Siobhán and I used to frequent in the early nineties. Tonight, the heavy snow’s left it empty though. I go back to my seat and undo the top button of my shirt. I remove my Anglican clerical collar and place it on the table. I’m twenty again.
The place hasn’t changed. It still has the same decor: oak beams, lead windows, black walls with torn posters of The Charlatans and The Stone Roses, the smell of ale and stale cigarettes. I stare at the door and imagine Siobhán walking in. It’s been eight years since I’ve seen her.
As ‘Lovesong’ plays on, I take out a photo of her. There’s a white fold line across the middle of the picture but it’s the only one I have. It’s from her student house in Leeds. Her eyes, wild and dark, stare back. Her skin is unblemished with naturally pink cheeks. Her blonde cropped hair hangs long at the front, blunt cut to her jaw-line on one side. She changed hair colour frequently, but blonde suited her best. She’s wearing a T-shirt from the Cure’s Brixton Academy gig. Robert Smith’s face is stretched across her chest, and at the bottom in red are the words: ‘MIXED UP’. I place the photo on the table next to my dog collar.
Out the window, snowflakes tumble in ever-changing courses. Fleeting shapes fall and disintegrate on the glass before my eyes can catch them, and I’m lost in memories of her again.
We camped a short distance from here one weekend. It was different then. Sitting outside the tent under the cloudless blue skies, we took in the moors and breathed the sweet summer air.
‘Lovesong’ came on the battered stereo that I brought. Siobhán pulled me to my feet and we held each other and danced close. Her hair smelled of perfume and shampoo. She looked into my eyes. “When you hear this song, think of me.”
I wanted to ask her to marry me, but I was scared she’d turn me down. Instead, I asked, “Do you think we’ll still be together when we’re in our thirties?”
“Maybe,” she said, glowing.
And then, to ensure we didn’t lose contact, I came up with this ridiculous idea: “Let’s meet back here on my thirtieth birthday, no matter what. Midnight.”
“Okay.” She smiled, the type of smile that’s difficult to read.
“All done for the night!” My thoughts are interrupted by the barman who’s putting on his coat. Two men stand by the door. A glance at my watch tells me it’s five to twelve. I apologise for keeping them and put my collar and photo in my pocket.
I step outside into the cold night air. The moon is big and bright. It’s stopped snowing and the wind has died down. There’s no sign of anyone. Everything is white. I pull my coat collar tight around my neck and stroll towards the hills where Siobhán and I camped.
We met at university. She studied art, while I read theology. I’d never known anyone so fearless and unpredictable, yet contemplative and thoughtful. We started going out after lectures, drinking and smoking together, and talking into the early hours. She lived in the attic of a Victorian house in a part of Leeds where the rent was cheap. Her room was full of canvases and books and clothes hanging from random places.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
We’d finished eating and were sitting at her kitchen table. She poured us both a glass of Glenlivet. “Limerick. My da left us when I was six. My ma didn’t cope very well, and they took me off her a few months later. I was brought up in a Catholic orphanage. I didn’t want to go, but they dragged me, kicking and screaming.” She laughed.
“Have you seen your mum or dad since then?” I lifted my glass and took a sip.
“I don’t think they’d be interested. All I know is I don’t want to be left by anyone again.” She paused. “I prefer not to get too close to people.” She took a gulp of Scotch.
“It takes a while to gain trust, doesn’t it?”
She downed the rest of her drink in one. “I’m no good, Dan. I’m no good for anyone. My ma told me, the nuns told me. It’s all I ever heard.” Her voice broke and she looked down.
I put my arm around her shoulders. “Hey, don’t listen to that. People may have told you you’re no good, but it’s not true.”
I moved the glass away from her and touched her face. “You’re beautiful.” I guided her towards me. Our lips touched, and for a moment, nothing else existed.
A single snowflake lands on my nose. Then another. I pull back my coat sleeve and look at my watch. It’s a quarter past midnight. I can’t remember if the idea was to meet at the pub or where we camped. I wander further down the lane.
“How do you know if you’ve found the person you want to marry?” she asked me one evening, as she was painting.
I moved my legs off the bed and placed my feet on the floor. “If it feels right, I guess.”
“But what if you’re not sure? How do you know?” She added some purple paint to the canvas in bold strokes. It showed a woman who looked like her, but without hair, and the body curled into the foetal position.
“Maybe it takes a while to know?”
I walk through the falling flakes along a deserted path in the direction of the rock face, close to where we had camped. From the gate on my right, the lane slopes towards the open countryside. I sink up to my calves in soft, fresh snow. All I can hear is my own breathing and the crunch of each step as I proceed.
She gave no explanation before she left me, except she needed to get her head straight. A week later, I received a letter from Ireland. She was staying with an aunt and working on some more paintings. She wrote she’d be in touch soon. Five weeks later, the lease ran out on my house. I tried everything to get in touch with her, but no one could help. The university wouldn’t provide me with any information and no-one knew her address or even which village she was from. I never heard from her again.
I stop for a moment and hold my breath. There’s no sound except for the whisper of snowflakes landing.
As I set off again, the crunch of my footsteps is deafening.
After I read her letter, I downed half a bottle of Scotch, then stumbled to the nearest pub. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Guinness. To my left sat an old man with a pint of beer in front of him.
“Have you ever been in love?” I slurred.
He didn’t answer. I don’t remember much afterwards. I spent weeks smoking and drinking myself into a numb haze. It took a while to realise it was pointless carrying on like that. Then I turned back to my studies and trained for the ministry to help all those other broken-hearted people.
I take a deep breath. The air is crisp and still. Where is Siobhán now? Ireland? After tonight, I’ll be able to put old ghosts behind me. Nearby, branches crack as they strain under the weight of fresh snow. I stand motionless on the moor, listening.
Yesterday morning when I met with the bishop, he poured me a cup of tea in his office. “Where are you going for your holiday?”
“Back to Leeds for a few days.”
“That’s where you attended university, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“How old are you now?” He peered over his cup.
“I’m thirty tomorrow.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Have you thought at all about marriage?”
I smiled and sighed. “There was someone, at university, but it didn’t work out.”
“That was a long time ago. Have you considered dating anyone else? Lacey’s been asking after you. She’s a beautiful woman. She’d make a lovely wife.” He peered over his cup again.
Lacey was a member of the congregation who was responsible for the flowers in church. She was sweet, but I couldn’t lead her on with Siobhán still on my mind.
I shook my head. “I’m not ready.”
I arrive at a steep bank and the snow slides away in clumps. I grab a branch above my head and a dusting of white powder falls, but I’ve made it. I’m in an open space with a view of endless hills. I stand for a long time, taking it all in, looking for any sign of life on the beautiful, desolate moors.
Moonlight shines through the clouds and my eyes become accustomed to the light reflecting off the snow. Apart from black shadows under bushes, everything seems as bright as daylight here.
I hear a faint thud and feel a chill on my neck. I listen intently. Someone’s near. Maybe two metres away. I’m too scared to turn.
A rustle. Is it just the sound of winter on the moors?
I turn, but there’s no-one.
It’s stopped snowing.
On our weekend here, we discovered a tree that had been struck by lightning. All that was left was the remains of the trunk; the top brown and charred.
“That is so rare,” I remember saying.
Siobhán took out a pen-knife and held it up. “This is the only thing I took from my ma.” It was about five centimetres long with an image on the side of a shamrock. “It’s not good for much. I use it for my art sometimes.”
She crouched in the grass and carved words into the trunk:
Think of me’
I’m not far from it. Around the side of a mound is the rock face. At the top, Siobhán and I held each other, surrounded by endless, isolated beauty. I stand motionless, absorbed by the familiar sight, and it feels like she’s here with me.
I take out my MP3 player and find the song. I put the headphones in my ears and press play. That desperate guitar chord. I close my eyes and lose myself in the pulsating rhythm and Robert Smith’s melancholy voice.
When I open my eyes, all I can see is a desolate landscape.
I reach into my coat and take out a small bottle of Glenlivet and take a generous gulp. The acrid taste of Scotch burns the back of my throat. Warm tears roll down my cold face and I throw the bottle as hard as I can onto the heath. It lands with a quiet thud and disappears into the snow. The song continues to play in my ears.
I stumble backwards a moment, and through blurred vision, I see the burned out tree. One side of it is covered in snow and the other is untouched. I stagger towards it and see the words scratched into the bark:
Think of me’
And below, in the same writing: