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|Gerry McCullough award-winning Irish writer & poet – author of Belfast Girls|
Short Stories: Primroses
This story won the 2005 Cúirt International Literary Award from Galway Arts Centre, Ireland
Listen to ‘Primroses’ being read by Irish actress, Kate O'Toole
Clare came down to see me the other day and she had the youngster with her.
"Well for some," she said. "Now, Clint, get down off that table and leave your Granda’s books alone. Watch, now, you’ll have the photo cowped if you grab the shelf like that!"
"Sure the child’s doing no harm, Clare," I said.
She paid me no heed. "Away you go outside and play, and give my head peace."
Then she gave me a look.
"Well, Da, it’s a great wee set-up you have here, and no mistake."
"Is that a fact?"
"It is, aye. You should count your blessings, Da, there’s many a one would think theirselves lucky to have a nice house like this."
"I like it fine, Clare," I said, "but the thing is I don’t know my neighbours."
"Thon other old dump was falling down round you. I never knew how you could stick it as long as you did."
I said nothing.
"The Executive’s done well by you."
I got up and went and looked out of the window.
"The youngster’s gone out of the garden onto the street, Clare. Is he all right, d’you think?"
"Och, you and that child, you never stop worrying about him. He’s fine! Now, I’ll make you a wee cuppa tea. I’ll have to be looking out for my bus, in half-an-hour or so."
It was quiet after she’d gone. The child was looking as fit as a fiddle, every time I saw him it was hard to believe the size of him, he was growing that fast.
I went and stood at the window for a bit. It was still light. The sky was getting some pink in it.
There was a crowd of weans playing about, doing a fair bit of laughing and carrying on. One of them was about four or five, and something the cut of our Clint, foreby it was a girl.
I was thinking about things, when a big dog came round the corner and scared the life out of them.
Well, they all got away okay, nearly, all but this wee girl that had the look of our Clint, and what way she managed it I didn’t see, but she tripped herself up someway, and came a clatter down on the pavers, and from the howls and bawls of her, it might have been sore.
And there was thon big brute of a dog set for lepping on her.
I’ve always been one for keeping myself to myself, like, but I took off and out that door like the devil was after me, and had the old brute chased off before he knew what hit him.
The wean was still bawling her head off, but when I got her up, and had a look at her, sure it was nothing but a scraped knee.
There was some sweeties in my pocket that I’d been hoping to slip to wee Clint, but Clare had been watching me too close. When she saw them, the youngster perked up rightly.
"Now, away you home to your mammy, and get her to put a bit of plaster on that terrible injury, and it’ll be as right as rain come the morning."
And so off she goes all beams, and I thought that would be the end of it.
Howandsoever, the next day she was round knocking on the door.
"Mammy says to say thanks."
"Sure that’s all right."
She was twisting and turning and acting shy, so I reckoned it was up to me to help her out.
"I’m just away out here to sort out my garden. Are you any good at the gardening at all?"
"Yes I am."
"Well, there’s nothing like a bit of confidence. Come on, then - you’d be quare and good at the heavy digging, I’d think."
After that she used to come round most days, and think she was helping - dear knows, she did more messing than helping, but sure she seemed to enjoy it.
I let her plant some nasturtium seeds, which is easy to grow, and she was that pleased when they started to come up.
"Tommy, can I plant some more?" was the cry after that. For some reason she had taken the notion into her head that she would like to plant some primroses.
Now, I can manage fine on the pension, but I’m telling you it doesn’t go too far when it comes to the extras. I didn’t reckon I could stretch to buying plants.
Still, the wean had her heart that set on it, it were a pity if nothing could be done.
I kept my tongue in my teeth, but come the next Sunday, when she was away off visiting, I got on the bus.
It was a while since I’d been out this way, but when Annie and me was courting, we used to go for walks most Sundays, and as often as not we’d end up down Bradford’s Lane - Lover’s Lane it used to get called. It came to me that I should have been back long before. What with working the bit of overtime to fix the house up nice, and then later on with Annie not always feeling the best, the years had fairly gone in, but it was late in the day now to be regretting it.
The driver gave me a shout when we were getting near the stop. And, mind you, it was well he did, for I could easy have missed it. I was looking for open fields, with the cows out grazing, and a turn off between the hedges, but, dear save us, it were all built up with dinky wee new bungalows like Clare’s always saying she’d love, every one the image of the next, and to tell you the truth it fair sickened me to see it. Still, the folks has got to live somewhere when all’s said and done.
I got off the bus and looked around me, but heaven knows, I couldn’t have told you what I was planning on doing next. It was looking like I’d wasted the time coming.
Well, I set off up the road past the neat wee gardens.. After a bit, there were seats and a bush or two - not much size to them, so you could tell the place was new.
I sat down on one of the seats, enjoying the sun. There was a border, with some flowers in it, beside me - wall-flowers, and some daffodils on their last legs, and a few primroses.
I had brought a Tesco’s bag folded up in my pocket, to carry the primroses back in. Piles of them, there used to be, down Bradford’s Lane, and Annie would lie back against the bank and laugh, and the scent of them got into her hair when I leant over to kiss her.
"You’ll ruin me dress, Tommy!"
"I’ll do more than ruin your dress, girl."
Long, slow hours, in sun, or wind, or rain. All the time in the world, and nothing to stop us.
Where had everything gone?
Well, waste not, want not, and I didn’t like to see the Tesco’s bag going to loss. Nobody noticed anything, and I was soon away back on the bus again.
When I got home, I put the plants in the cool near the back door until we could get putting them in the next day.
Clare came down that afternoon. She hem’d and she ha’d, and then out with it.
"You’d need to be careful, Da. People get ideas into their heads. Peggy Allen, that lives up the back there, gave me a word of warning to pass on to you. She used to go to school with me, remember. "
"I mind her fine."
"These days, you hear all these things on the television - people get suspicious easy. Peggy tells me the wee girl’s round here all the time. It doesn’t take much to start the talk. You were giving her sweeties, I hear. Och, Da, do you not know that’s one of the things they warn kids about in the programmes?"
I don’t mind saying I was angry. Clare’s the only one I’ve got left, now our Desy’s away in Canada, Clare and the wee one, but I was as near as that to having a row with her.
I caught myself on in time.
"I reckon I know the sort of talk people get up to, Clare," was all I said. "The wean’s never been over my threshold, much as I’d have liked to ask her in - and it’s peoples’ tongues that’s the reason."
I didn’t think she looked too convinced, but it was time for her bus.
I went and looked at the primroses in the Tesco’s bag.
I was in two minds about throwing them in the bin.
I sat up late that night, rereading my library books. By the time I went up to bed and turned the light off, it was near daylight.
I thought maybe I would go round and have a yarn with Jaqueline’s Mammy - just so they could get to know me and not be worrying.
Or there, maybe I’d just tell her when she came round that I was too busy, and not to come bothering at me any more.
There’s an old photo album Annie used to keep up to date still kicking round in the bedroom. I was getting into bed knowing rightly I wasn’t for sleeping that night, when it caught my eye, and I picked it up.
First page I opened it, there was Annie, looking like I remembered her - well, maybe younger. She was standing in the garden of our house, and smiling the way people do for the camera - not quite real looking.
I turned over the page, and there was Clare with her face covered in muck, not much older than Clint now.
I remembered Annie yelling at me not to take the child with her face in that state, and me saying at least she looked like a human being. I couldn’t remember at first what she’d been doing to get into the mess. Then it came to me, that was the day we'd been picking out the bit for her to have for her own wee garden.
I minded well sitting on my hunkers beside her and showing her how to turn over the earth with the trowel, and the job she had getting a hold of it rightly, with the size of it and the size of her hand, and I minded going for the camera to get a snap, she looked that pleased with herself.
We’d been going to do great things with that garden - but though I thought long, I was hard pushed to remember anything much else that we’d done. A few seeds had got planted, but, sure, she’d had to do that herself, for what with the overtime and the house needing work I’d never had a spare minute in them days.
I had another wee look at the picture, and I thought, if it wasn’t that I knew it was Clare, I wasn’t sure that I’d have recognised her, she’d changed that much.
Sharper in the face, she was now, able to look out for herself. Not expecting much from anyone, maybe.
I fell asleep still holding the album, and I dreamt I was back years ago, walking up Bradford’s Lane with Annie and Clare, and Clare was crying and wanting to pick the flowers.
"There’s no time," I was saying to her. "There’s no time. They’ve done away with all the time, and all the primroses, and there’s none left now."
But when I woke up, my face felt wet, and it was me that had been crying.
When Jacqueline came to the door in the morning, I came out, and we planted the primroses together.
The Cúirt prize was judged by celebrated Nigerian writer, Helon Habila, who had this to say about the winning entry:
I choose Gerry McCullough’s ‘Primroses’ as winner because it is a simple and well judged story about very difficult themes: courage, paedophilia, and growing old. The author has managed to truly inhabit [her] narrator, to use his voice, and to clearly see his point of view Ė these make the story so convincing that the reader is not aware how difficult it is to achieve.
Age and the passage of time are shown in the change in the landscape, in the ugly square houses that have sprouted to replace the beautiful flower gardens of the narratorís youth. The relationship between the narrator and the little girl, Jacqueline, is used to recapture the relationship between the narrator and his dead wife: youth and age, present and past are thus simultaneously captured in a single frame.
The narrator refuses to back down from his purely innocent relationship with Jacqueline even at the risk of being seen as a paedophile, this takes courage. Finally the story is about flowers Ė primroses Ė those beautiful, non-utilitarian things that symbolise the brittleness of existence, the fine balance on which everything rests, transience, and trust.
Listen to ‘Primroses’ being read by Irish actress, Kate O'Toole
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