The winner of this year’s RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition is The Rain Falls Differently Over There by Niall McArdle, a meditation on loss, reconnection and the power of memory.
There’s lots needs sorting out now, said Siobhán back in the peace of the house. The last of the funeral crowd had left. His other sisters had gone to bed, but Siobhán and he stayed up and shared a bottle of whiskey. She was two years younger. When they were kids he’d helped her with her sums, and when he was a teenager she used to pester him, always hanging around because she’d a mad crush on his friend Sean. Over there when he was teaching the children about ‘family’, it was her and only her he thought of.
They were in the kitchen. He rubbed the surface of the table and ran his fingers over the scratches. Nothing about the place had changed in all the years he’d been gone. The table still wobbled on one side and still had one leg propped up by a tattered copy of Reader’s Digest. The clock above the sink still ticked too loudly and was still hung at a skewed angle. He knew that if he looked in the press he’d find a bottle of Holy Water from Lourdes, and he knew that if he looked in the shed at the back of the garden he’d find Da’s collection of nudie magazines.
"Bills, like, said Siobhán. There’s not much owing, but it’ll take forever to sift through. You remember how she always started organising everything but never actually finished anything. Stuff everywhere."
Used to drive the old man crazy. "She’d give God a headache rearranging the clouds."
"She only got worse. You should see the attic. Looks like she was getting ready for the Apocalypse."
"We’ll sort it."
"We will? Does that mean..?"
They refilled their glasses.
"To Mammy," said Siobhán
"Ah, Jesus, give over, would you?"
By the day of his mother’s funeral, he was past all concern about how past all concern he was. He sat with his sisters in the front pew, his shirt collar chafing his neck, suffering under the knot of his tie. It had been a long time since he’d worn a suit. Over there he had no need of one, and ambled freely around the island in t-shirt, shorts and sandals. There was the cabin, small and sparsely furnished, the ocean breeze through the window doing nothing for the heat, the lazy buzz of the ceiling fan, and the clink of empty beer bottles piled up at the door.
It had been so long since he had seen his family, when he stepped off the train he didn’t recognise the three faces there to meet him. He couldn’t reconcile these tall, handsome women with his memory of the rowdy, snot-nosed, sticky-plastered girls he grew up with. Siobhán hugged him and wouldn’t let go.
"Is this what we have to do to get you to come back? Die?"
When he first went into his mother’s room, he briefly thought he’d walked into the wrong house. This tiny woman in the bed couldn’t be her. She’d shrunk to half the size he remembered and her auburn hair had grown silver. He smelled the room’s greyish funk, his eye fixed on the dried flowers in his mother’s spidery hands. Downstairs there was music and a small crowd in the parlour, and the cloying fug of limp sandwiches and whiskey and pots of tea. "Is it really necessary, he asked, to do this wake thing, like we’re peasants from the nineteenth century? Could you not have taken her to O’Malley’s and let people gawk at her there?" "It’s tradition," said Siobhán. "It’s what she would’ve wanted.£
"I don’t recognise anyone here. Who are these people? That old man who says he’s her uncle. Never seen him in my life."
"Well, he’s a sort of uncle. I think he’s her second cousin or something, on Granny’s side."
A week of this. A week of soggy food and stewed tea and firm handshakes from strangers and I’m sorry for your loss and fusty hugs from stumpy women and eyes that never quite met his and old men in farmer’s caps drinking and rocking on their heels by the fireplace.
The rain was coming down heavier at the cemetery. People shivered beneath dirty umbrellas and stared at their shoes. He stood in a muddy puddle and watched the pallbearers put his mother into the ground. The gravedigger stood off to the side leaning on his shovel next to a pile of earth as tall as himself. He remembered the man’s face, the eyes just a little too close together, the slightly dim expression of wonder. He did odd jobs around the place and cut the grass on the football pitch. Simple Simon, that’s what the kids used to call him. The man was looking at him with a blank stare, and he knew he was searching his memory trying to find the face of the boy he had been. Beside him his sisters were a mass of trembling shoulders and heavy wailing sobs, even Siobhan, which he thought frankly was a bit much.
"Christ, them things are awful harsh," said Siobhán between a fit of coughing.
The bottle was almost empty now, and they had both smoked a chimney’s worth of his cigarettes, the cheap local brand he’d brought back with him. Siobhán had opened the window to let out the smoke, and they could hear the plonking of rain as it splashed out of the gutter into the garden. Papers and magazines and envelopes were strewn around the table. In a giddy, half-scuttered fit, the two of them had gone up to the attic and brought down boxes. He rummaged through one, pulling out swatches of fabric, musty paperbacks, a cracked mirror and an old transistor radio that he remembered and which he knew hadn’t worked in thirty years.
"Whatever happened to Da’s pipe? The big knobbly one he had. After he died, I went looking for it."
"God knows. I think she binned it. Sorry. I know how fond you were of his stuff. She threw a lot of it out."
"So she hoarded clippings from the paper and old sewing kits and our report cards from school, but she didn’t see fit to keep any memories of the old man. Jesus, is there even a picture of him in the house?"
Siobhán poured herself another drink. She pushed away the papers in front of her and gave him a long look.
"Things were different after Da died and after you left. It was just us girls and Mammy. Something changed in her. I don’t know. Maybe it was the lack of men in the house. She got funny. I mean, she made jokes and laughed at silly stuff and was always blaring music. We became a little team, the four of us, the Kavanagh Women. A force to be reckoned with. You should’ve seen her talking to the teachers when we had bad marks."
"No men in the house? You know that’s what she said about the place when the old man was still alive and I was still here, right? And she actually wondered why I left?"
"She did miss you, you know."
"No, I don’t know. And I don’t believe that."
The memory of his mother’s last words came to him. It was monsoon season. Rain was pelting the phone-box and racing in rivulets down the glass. He watched as people ran across the street, trying to avoid puddles and holding newspapers above their heads uselessly. He still marvelled at the weather there. The heat would build all day and break late in the afternoon with a sudden clattering of the clouds and a massive rush of warm rain driven into you by the wind off the ocean. He fed coins into the box and wiped the greasy receiver on his t-shirt. The connection was bad. There was an eerie delay after her voice and the line hissed at him.
"You’re more comfortable there, I suppose."
He stared at his feet, soaked from the downpour. A gecko scuttled over his toes, stopped, stared up at him with gimlet eyes. Her voice on the phone was damp and reedy, a parcel of coldness carted into the tropics from thousands of miles away.
"You might as well stay."
"I wasn’t planning on returning."
"Good. Probably for the best anyway. There’s nothing here for you now."
Drizzle spots and the bruised light of dawn fell on the window as he sat in his bedroom. He was starting to sober up and his head and body were swirling into a hangover. He held one of the trophies. A fake gilt figurine in shorts and jersey, slightly crouched, ready for action. He looked at the year engraved on the plaque. He couldn’t remember the match. Had he scored?Who had they beaten? There was a time when he dearly held the joy of that success, but he was no longer able to summon the memory of the boy who once gleefully thumped around a frozen pitch in the pissing rain.
Siobhán threw a filthy look at a magpie cawing in the bushes and pulled the blind to keep the afternoon sun out of the kitchen. She made a face when he pulled out his cigarettes. They were back at the rickety table, both looking drained and holding their heads. They went through two pots of tea before either of them spoke.
"So she changed?"
"Yeah. Totally. You wouldn’t have recognised her during the big vote."
"She actually campaigned," said Siobhán. "Went door to door carting leaflets and sticking up posters all over the place."
She absently circled an old water spot on the table.
"She told people about you, you know? About how you left."
"I bet she did."
"Stop it. It wasn’t like that at all. I told you, she changed. Missed you. Felt sorry for it. For never letting you, you know, be yourself or whatever."
"Okay, he chuckled, I’ll forgive the old bat. After all, she wanted me to ‘be myself’ after all."
They looked at each other for a long moment, then both burst out laughing.
That afternoon he stood amid rusted tools and broken flower pots in the falling-down shed at the back of the garden. It was raining again and the air in here was clammy. A fly was struggling in a web spun across the window. The spider sensed her prey and scuttled over. He watched her as she deftly turned the fly this way and that, wrapping it in her silky shroud.
There had been a spider’s web here years before. Was it the same spider, he wondered. How long do they live anyway?
Funny how after all these years he still used the word caught when he thought about how his mother had found Sean and him together, and the grim look of triumph that crossed her face as she stood framed in the shed’s doorway.
He pulled the last of his cigarettes from its crumpled package and lit it. He blew smoke at the web. The spider flinched and halted her cocooning. He stood up and held the cigarette against one of the strands; it fell apart. The spider crawled back to the web’s centre and impatiently tapped her feelers. He held the cigarette to the web near where the fly was still quivering. Smoke rose in the air and suddenly the fly was free. It flew around the shed a few times before bumbling outside.
He held the burning ash close to the spider. She hunched into a ball but did not move. He held the cigarette above her for another moment, then let it drop to the floor and scuffed it out.
About The Author: Niall McArdle’s work has appeared in the Irish Times, Banshee, Spontaneity, Honest Ulsterman,Bangor Literary Journal and Phoenix Irish Short Stories, and has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio. He has been shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Awards, the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition and the Cúirt New Writing Prize. In 2018 he was the recipient of a Literature Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. He lives in Dublin and is reportedly finishing a novel.