We're delighted to present a new short story by Rachel Donohue, the current Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year.
Rachel won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award in 2017, having been previously shortlisted for the first fiction and emerging fiction categories in 2013 and 2014. She was also a runner up in the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition. Rachel is currently working on her first novel.
Waiting for River Phoenix
I live in a cul de sac. There is a large sign indicating this at the entrance to our road. Last year Freya and I decided to start a campaign to change the sign to Dead End. We thought that would be funny. We even made up placards, just like when there was talk of travellers moving into the green beside our road. Everyone’s parents made signs and rang politicians, except Mrs Sneem in number ten. Dad said she was a hippy. This was interesting news. Its 1992 and Freya and I hadn’t known there had been any hippies in Dublin. Ever.
The green stands empty and the sign still reads Cul de Sac. Freya is sick now anyway and you can’t protest on your own.
Freya is my best friend, has been since we were 11, two years ago. She had been best friends with this very stuck up girl who had a pony but they fell out at. I never found out what exactly happened but Freya gave up riding and her mom invited me over before school started that September. I didn’t want to go at first, we had just moved in to the road and I felt embarrassed all the time. But that first afternoon, we took a packet of Mr Freezes from her Fridge, climbed over her back wall and sat in a tree at the edge of the green.
Our houses are big white bungalows. There are ten of them in a kind of figure eight. We even have two front gardens, one near the road and then a second one close to the house where we park the car. Whenever someone comes to visit us, who knew where we used to live, Dad says things like "the great thing about this place is that you’re not overlooked". I think he really wants to say "haven’t we done well?". Anyway you are overlooked, if you hang out my bedroom window, you can see lots of stuff. Claire for example. She’s 16 and smokes out the back window two doors down. She is very pretty. She doesn’t talk to me and Freya. She has really nice clothes and we think a boyfriend.
The Norwegians live on the other side of us. Different, usually very tall, people move in every year. Mom says they come from the Embassy. At the moment there is a family living there with twins. They are about seven and are completely identical, no way of telling which is which. Both blonde with blue eyes and always together in the garden. They freak me out a bit, they always go silent and stop what they are playing when you walk by, and this was before Freya’s brother let us watch The Shining on video.
No one knows what’s wrong with Freya. She left school in April and didn’t come back, not even for sports day. This was a big deal. Freya is on the tennis team and we were meant to win the league this time. Everyone was pissed off. Even the teachers started taking me aside to ask how she was. I was important in a kind of strange way. The school trip to Bunratty was the worst, even though I have other friends it’s not the same as sitting on the bus with Freya.
Before school finished I called over every afternoon and sat on the floor of her room doing my homework. Her mom, would bring in cake and ask me about the day. I could never think of anything to say and I believe she thinks I’m a bit slow. Her mom is really easy-going, unlike mine. She smokes, wears make up every day and drinks wine in front of the TV. Freya’s Dad lives in Brussels with the woman who used to be his secretary. Once when I was getting a drink from their fridge, Freya’s mom was on the phone to someone. I heard her say that his secretary had tidied them away when she was clearing his desk. I imagined Freya as tiny and stuck in a drawer. Her mom doesn’t seem that sad about it all, none of them do.
It’s the end of June now and Freya is still not able to come out. It’s not the summer we had planned. Everyone else is in the tennis club or at Irish College. I call over to Freya every day and sit at the window to see whose passing and tell her about it. Even though we are in cul de sac people take a shortcut through the green at the end of the road. I am hoping to see Conor O’Leary who lives in an estate the other side of ours but never do. Then I lie on the bean bag beside her bed and we read Smash Hits. Freya’s brother buys them for her. He’s very good looking and has a new girlfriend every week it seems. Some of them are really nice. The last one especially, she put make up on us and advised on hair styles that suit the shape of your face. Freya is an oval and apparently this is a good thing. She can wear every type of hat or sunglasses. Mine is round which is more tricky. I asked Freya what happened to her after a new girl turned up one evening, she said her mom had advised her brother not to get too serious. Apparently, his previous girlfriend was training to be a hairdresser. Freya’s brother doesn’t seem as happy as before.
Freya’s father came back to see her the other day. He had this giant black car with a driver. It only stayed for an hour or so. I was helping Dad wash our car when he drove up. Dad says he works in the UN or somewhere really important and speaks a zillion languages. I’ve seen pictures of him. I thought he might bring his secretary but there was no sign of her. In my head she looks like Marilyn Monroe. When he drove off about an hour later, Dad said he had heard Freya had the yuppie flu. Apparently with this disease, you are usually very high achieving and then suddenly, take to the bed and lose interest in life. Lots of people in London get it. It doesn’t make sense to me. Freya wasn’t that high achieving, except in tennis. I asked her what happened with her Dad but she didn’t want to talk about it. He is arranging tests for her was all she said. When I was leaving I noticed her mom had gone to bed and it was only dinnertime. Freya asked me to leave the menu from the Chinese restaurant with her. That’s another thing about Freya’s family, they get takeaways at least once a week. My mother will never let us get one.
Anyway, one benefit to the summer of staying in has been our ability to work through every film that River Phoenix has been in, even the less successful ones that never made it to the cinema. We are in love with River Phoenix. I am dying to see My own Private Idhao but it hasn’t come out on video yet and we weren’t allowed go to town to see it in the cinema. We both think River has a kind of depth to him that is lacking in the likes of Tom Cruise. He is also a vegetarian and plays in a band. His eyes look like they have something to tell you.
River is going out with a girl called Martha Plimpton. She’s been in some of his films and is not overly good looking. We take this to be a sign that if we did meet him he would not mind our physical shortcomings and fancy us anyway. I brought Freya a poster of him from Golden Discs and put it up on the wall opposite her bed. It’s from a few years ago, around Stand by Me time, but still good. He has his arms folded and is wearing a white t-shirt. He looks a bit plump but in a nice way. Her mom came in just as I’d finished putting it up. She said when she was young she wanted to dye her hair, go to Hollywood and marry Robert Redford. For some reason this annoyed Freya. She said she hates it when her mother talks to us.
Freya wants to be a writer. Her essays in English are always the best and she reads a book a day sometimes. Though I’ve noticed lately she isn’t reading as much. Her stories always have a really good twist in the end but our English teacher this year, Ms Mulligan, wasn’t a huge fan of her work. The last essay before she got sick only got a C which for Freya is really bad. Ms Mulligan had put a note on the end that it was well written but obscure. It was loosely based on a River Phoenix film we had just watched called Dogfight but instead of the boy character having been to Vietnam he had been to Irish College. Neither Freya nor I have been to Irish College yet, we were supposed to go this August but with Freya sick I am refusing to go. Anyway, the point of the story was that having undergone a life changing experience in the Gaeltacht he views things differently and understands the realities of life. I thought it was really good. Freya said Ms Mulligan lacks depth.
Blaithin O’Shea in our class had gone to Irish College the previous summer and had come back smoking and thinking she was gorgeous. Apparently she had been really popular when she was there. The thing was she had never been very pretty or popular before but afterwards she was and everyone likes her now. Freya and I are waiting for this transformation to happen. I stare at my face in the mirror for half an hour every day expecting my cheekbones to rise and my eyes to get bigger. I’m not sure but I think Freya is prettier than me, when we go out people look at her more. At first I thought it was because she was taller than me, so you see her first but now I think that’s not it. Mom says she has eyes like a cat. Maybe that’s the reason.
My parents are planning to take us to France for most of July. My aunt has bought an old farmhouse or the folly" as my Dad calls it and is renting it out to family and friends. We are going on the boat from Cork. I’ve never been out of Ireland before. Dad has started getting the suitcases down from the attic and last night put a large IRL sign on the back of the car so people know where we are from when we get there. I’m not sure why you’d want people to know where you are from. My little brother says the police in France have guns.
I am worried about leaving Freya. I haven’t been able to tell her about my holiday. Everyone else is away as it is and I have become her only link with the outside world, me and River Phoenix. Mom says time apart is healthy. Sometimes I don’t think she likes Freya. And she definitely doesn’t like her mother.
I am going to call over tonight and let Freya know about the holiday and something interesting I have just discovered about yuppie flu. I saw on the news that scientists have discovered that it’s really all in your head. My parents kept making gestures to each other when it came on the TV and looking at me. It seems that Freya can get up if she wants, like Lazarus, except he’s dead. But she’ll know what I mean.
I will go over at dinnertime in case they are getting a takeaway, our packing is almost done and there is no food in the house here anyway. Mom has cleared out the fridge. There is nothing but lemons left.