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|Gerry McCullough award-winning Irish writer & poet|
Short Stories: Slipping
This story was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Ulla’s Nib magazine, published by the Creative Writer’s Network, Northern Ireland, (and won the Star Prize in that issue).
Thin slivers of ice cracked underfoot in the puddles.
Faint and tenuous, the moon slanted long fingers of light through the trees, to touch and illuminate stones slippery with frost.
Anna shivered and pulled her thick jacket more closely about her.
She picked her way slowly and carefully; fearful as always that a foot, slipping unavoidably, should precipitate her, without warning, over the edge of the narrow wooden bridge, into the fiercely rushing stream below.
Her mind thrust forward a vivid picture.
Herself plunging sideways.
The crash of the flimsy handrail as her weight struck against it.
The icy shock of the deep waters, seizing her, pulling her down.
Her saturated clothes trapping her slight body, like chain mail or concrete –
"Stop!" she told herself sharply. "You’re not going to slip. Stop it, now."
But the images in her mind were beyond her control.
Then she was over the bridge, and making her way as quickly as possible across the rough ploughed field.
Was someone following her?
No, of course not.
There was the barn.
It loomed above her, dark and somehow threatening.
But there was nothing to be afraid of.
Seamus would be there, waiting for her.
She felt suddenly safe, uplifted even.
How strange to remember that it was only six months since she had met him.
That evening at the pub.
Herself laughing and talking, with Peggy and Mary.
The tall, fair haired young man who had come in with Kevin McBride.
Who had stood and stared at her across the crowded bar, until she felt herself blushing, even when she had turned her eyes away.
Then Kevin’s voice in her ear.
"It’s yourself, Anna. Looking good, girl. This here’s my mate, Seamus Doherty."
And how Peggy and Mary had flirted with the stranger for the rest of the evening.
Until, when the goodbyes were being said, she had found Seamus Doherty’s arm around her, and his voice in her ear.
"Walk you home, Anna."
That had been the start of it.
They had stopped at the barn.
She couldn’t remember how it had all happened.
What he had said.
Only the warmth of his body, pressing down on her against the rough straw.
Afterwards, the cigarettes.
"What is it? It’s not the usual …"
"Blow. Don’t you use it? Here, try."
The floating sensation. The intensified feelings.
Her father had been angry when she came home.
A respectable farmer, whose wife had left him some years back, he had strict rules for his only child.
"You’re too like your mother. Running round, out till all hours …"
Anna had said little while he talked on, still floating in her dream.
How many times had she and Seamus met now?
She didn’t know.
The heroin had come early in the relationship.
"Don’t be daft. Try it. It’s great. Just like you, girl."
The pattern had been established, had grown, had taken in new threads and colours.
The excitement of taking the notes from her father’s wallet, or from the locked drawer in his big oak desk in what he called the office.
Stealing in quietly when she knew he would be asleep.
The key, on the shelf behind his notebooks.
Long ago, during an illness, he had told her where to find it. She needed to take some housekeeping money. He was helpless, unable to crawl out of bed himself to fetch it for her.
He had never changed the hiding place.
Seamus needed the money, she knew.
He was unemployed.
The gear cost.
"If you want it, you’ve got to help out."
She didn’t know, any longer, what she felt for Seamus.
But she knew she needed the heroin.
She went into the barn.
He was late, tonight.
She stood in the middle of the high, empty building, keeping away from the edges in case of rats.
She never worried about rats, never even thought of them, when Seamus was there.
But now she stood, shivering, hugging her arms round her. Growing more frightened each minute.
She rushed towards the open door at the sound of his footstep.
"Where have you been? What kept you?"
He slid in quietly, putting one finger to his lips.
"Don’t make a sound. Someone might be listening."
Then he put his arms round her and drew her down onto the pile of straw and all her fears disappeared.
Afterwards, she handed him the money, and he gave her enough heroin to do until she saw him again.
At least, she hoped it was enough. Every fix now seemed to last for a shorter and shorter time.
He seemed edgy, uneasy.
"Did anyone see you come? Did you notice anyone hanging round?"
"No. What do you mean?"
She stared at him, suddenly frightened again.
"Do you mean my father …?"
"No, no." He was impatient. "I’m not worried about him." He hesitated. "Have you heard of Red Murphy?"
"You mean, the terrorist? The one who used to be in the IRA?"
"He used to be, yes. They chucked him out. Even before the Peace Agreement. Then he came up here, to County Antrim. Now he’s into drugs in a big way. Kevin told me he’d heard …" He stopped.
"Oh, it’s probably nothing. Just. Kevin heard there’s a word out on me. Red Murphy thinks this is his patch, right?"
"But you don’t deal, Seamus," Anna said. It seemed important, all at once, to get that clear. "You’re only a user, like me."
"Well …" Seamus allowed the word to trail off. "A man has to get money somehow, Anna. I don’t do all that much. But Red Murphy thinks …" His words trailed off again.
"Just be careful when you come here next," he said presently. "Don’t let anyone see you. Or follow you."
He slipped quietly out of the barn.
She knew that she was always to wait for five minutes before leaving in her turn. Seamus had always warned her to be careful that they weren’t seen together.
But until now, she had thought it was because of her father.
They were to leave it for three nights before meeting again.
The days crawled for Anna.
Her father was unusually surly. The work of the farm seemed more irksome than ever.
She would be glad when she was able to leave home.
Seamus had talked at first about how they could move in together.
She realized that it was months now since he had mentioned it.
She had to get up early to help her father with the milking. Even with all the expensive new machinery, he and Peter, the cowman, couldn’t manage it on their own.
He was getting old, Anna suddenly realized with a shrug.
Half dreaming, she pressed the wrong switch, as her father and Peter herded the cows in. Immediately the carefully controlled exercise was out of synch.
"Careful, you stupid bitch!" roared her father.
He hurried over, sorted out the mess.
"More like your mother every day," he muttered to himself. "Can’t get anything right."
Anna didn’t care.
It all seemed unreal.
Everything was hidden under a thick, insulating blanket, these days. It was hard to care about anything much.
That afternoon, she took out the Mini and drove over to see Peggy.
Her father had given her the car on her eighteenth birthday. Just a month before she met Seamus, that was.
She enjoyed being with Peggy. They talked about Seamus, and about Peggy’s boyfriend John. It was good to be able to have some happy, normal talk. The days were too full of shifting, insubstantial thoughts and visions.
"You all right, girl? You seem sorta ... weird."
"I’m fine, Peg. Just happy. Lit up."
Sometimes she thought she was seeing things that weren’t really there, hearing noises intensified to screaming pitch, feeling presences she couldn’t identify.
She took the last of the heroin the next night before going to bed.
Hours later, it seemed, she found herself in the depths of a vivid dream.
It was dark, except for a frail, faint moon.
She walked slowly, carefully, across the bridge.
Her foot began to slip, and as she grasped desperately at the handrail, she knew that someone was coming up behind her.
She hung there, half over the edge.
The footsteps grew louder.
They came nearer.
Then there was a thundering in her ears, a searing pain in her chest.
She fell into the rushing, icy water, and as she fell, she knew she had been shot.
She felt the water begin to seep into her clothes, turning them to concrete -
Anna woke up.
It was some time before she dared to risk going back to sleep.
The coming night, she was to meet Seamus again.
The remnants of her dream clung round her all day, like the ragged clothes of a diseased beggar, spreading the infection of fear, so that at intervals her whole body was taken with fits of shivering.
She went up to her room early that night, telling her father that she was going to bed.
She sat on the edge of the bed, not undressing, waiting until she could escape from the house without being heard.
Presently she heard her father’s door close, heard his light click off.
It was cold outside.
There was frost on the ground again.
Anna hurried along as fast as she dared; fearful as always of slipping.
Suddenly she stopped and looked over her shoulder.
She had heard something.
Or had she?
Anna went on again.
There was no-one really there, she knew that.
There was the barn at last.
She gave a final shiver, as much of anticipation as of cold, as she stepped over the threshold.
At first she thought the huge, looming space was empty.
Then she heard something.
A groan, so weak that she almost missed it.
Anna moved forward.
On the ground, over to the left, was a dark bundle.
She was almost on top of it before she could see clearly enough to be sure what it was.
Seamus was lying in a huddled heap, his eyes clenched shut, his arms clasping his chest. A dark liquid mess oozed from the hole ripped in the front of his jacket.It was too dark to see the colour, but Anna knew without telling that it was blood.
He opened his eyes briefly.
"Red . No ... don’t!"
Then he managed to focus on her face.
"Anna. Go away. Go quickly. Not safe …"
His head lolled back. His eyes were closed again. Anna put her ear against his mouth, but there was no sound of breathing.
She stood up.
For a moment she remained where she was, frozen, dazed.
Then she began to run.
Out of the barn.
Across the ploughed field.
Her breath came in gasps, and she heard someone saying over and over again, "No! No!"It was only when she had almost crossed the field that she knew it was her own voice.
When she reached the bridge, frosty and dangerous to a careless foot, she slowed down.
Putting out shaky hands, she took hold of the fragile rail.
All at once she knew that there was someone behind her. Coming closer.
Footsteps, growing louder and louder.
This time, there really was someone there.
Because of her dream, Anna knew exactly what would happen next.
The shot. The searing pain in her chest.
The plunge over the edge of the bridge into the icy, drowning river below.
The water soaking into her clothes; turning them to chain mail, to concrete.
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