We're delighted to present the shortlisted stories from this year's RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus.
First up, we present the first prize winner, Ashes by Claire Zwaartmann - you can read Claire's story below, or listen to it, read by Andrew Bennett, above.
I had finally taken possession of the ashes. The undertaker had been ringing me for over two months to collect them, but I kept putting it off. His voice in the last message was starting to sound tetchy; Mike, would you be so good as to please collect your late father’s remains. They have been here for some time now and it is our policy to have family members remove them from the premises as soon as possible. To avoid any possible mix-up. Thank you. Pause. This is Arthur Cronin. I wondered what doubts about my intelligence compelled him to identify himself?
When I arrived, unannounced, at Cronin’s Funeral Home he was manhandling a coffin from his van with the help of his teenage son. He wasn’t dressed in the immaculate black suit with leather-gloved hands clasped in solemnity like the last time I saw him. Now he was sweating under his Munster rugby jersey and looking annoyed to see me – as though I had caught him in the act of doing something unsavoury. I averted my eyes to look at the van. It was new and had tinted windows, presumably for discretion. He wished to remain incognito when ferrying the bodies to and fro. There was no logo emblazoned on the sides, what would it say anyway? It had never occurred to me that the hearse is only for the final showy phase of the funeral.
"You should have called to arrange a proper meeting, Mike." He was breathing heavily as he spoke, grappling with the load in his outstretched arms. His son stared at me as he pushed the coffin forward with his knees while his father
groped for the step behind him with the heel of his foot. "But you’re here now anyway. Give me one second and I’ll get that for you," he panted.
It occurred to me to offer them some help but then thought better of it. There might be some sort of protocol about strangers touching it. The pair of them disappeared with their cargo through an open door as I stood waiting in the car park.
Arthur remerged with the container of ashes; it was about the size of a shoe box. As he passed it to me I was astonished by its weight, my shoulders were pulled forward with the unexpected load. He must have noticed my surprise and said with some satisfaction, "People don’t realize how heavy they are, they think it’s going to be like a few ashes from cleaning out the fire." I was amazed he didn’t finish by reminding me that they were in fact burnt bones.
When I got home I opened the box, inside was what looked like gravel. I raked my fingertips across the surface and rubbed the excess off. The dog was asleep on the couch beside me and I extended the box towards her muzzle. Would she, with her supposed extraordinary canine powers of scent, be able to detect a trace of Dad? Would she leap up and begin wagging her tail? She opened her eyes and lifted her head to sniff the contents half-heartedly, before collapsing back into inertia.
I rang Emer who was up in college. I told her I had Dad’s ashes and that she’d better come back home for the weekend so we could do something with them. I had put the box into the airing cupboard because I didn’t know where else to put it. Amongst the towels and mismatched pillow-cases seemed, if not dignified, then at least cushioned. Better than the kitchen table or cereal cupboard. And I didn’t want them in my bedroom.
"Someone told me it’s illegal to scatter ashes in a public place," she said.
"Do you want to give me a few hundred quid for an urn, so? You can put them on your mantle-piece up in the city. Make a nice talking point in the sitting room." She said she’d be down on the bus Friday evening.
Teddy Ryan, the boatman, shook a teaspoon of sugar into his hot whiskey as he spoke conspiratorially out the side of his mouth. We were having a ceremonial drink in Harrington’s before setting out into the bay with the ashes. I had them stashed in an old backpack I found in the depths of my wardrobe. It was either that or a Lidl bag, although, given our father’s stinginess, the Lidl bag would arguably have been a more fitting receptacle.
"Don’t be telling people now what we’re doing, I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry asking me. This is a special favour to ye." He cracked a slow wink. "Well, your father really, God rest him. I don’t care what anyone says, he was a sound man." He was looking around the bar as he spoke, as though scoping out snipers positioned to thwart our mission.
"Of course not Teddy, sure it’s only ourselves, we’ll say nothing," I said. "Fair play to you, you were always a good friend to Dad. We appreciate it. Here, let me get you another – on him." I thought it best to flatter him. I could see he was enjoying the gravitas of the situation, yet at the same time he couldn’t resist the opportunity to make an occasion of it. I was happy to play along. He threw his shoulders back in recognition of his status.
"Go on, so," he said, nodding in faux reluctance at the bar counter. Teddy was a lean, small man well into his sixties. He was barred – or rather claimed he’d barred himself – from the other two pubs in the village for fighting. He’d been a drinking buddy of my father’s although I thought it only a matter of time before they fell out
over something. Dad had, slowly but surely, cut ties with most people in his life but crashing his car into a ditch had eliminated the eventuality that Teddy would be next. Which was lucky for us.
The idea of scattering the ashes in the bay had come to me when I was lying in the bath. I had been looking down at my legs and wondering which bones were the thickest, which would take the longest to burn down.
Emer, sipping demurely on a colossal bowl of gin and tonic, was dressed as though she was going on a polar expedition. She had emerged from the bedroom earlier like a Mafia widow, in a glamorous black dress complete with dark sunglasses.
"What are you wearing? We’re going out on a stinking fishing boat Emer, not getting a limo to Corleone! You’ll be frozen. I’d put on something warmer if I were you." She returned to her room and, as a girl who prefers to exist in the realm of high drama, reappeared as an Arctic explorer.
Having finished our drinks, we exited the bar and headed towards the pier. The three of us made an unlikely troupe: Teddy leading the way, a greasy peaked cap on his head, eyes looking surreptitiously from side to side; myself, with a ragged Jansport bag clasped to my chest; and Emer who, having swallowed her bath of G&T, had positioned her snood back over her mouth.
The Fishy Business was tied to the harbour wall and groaned as we climbed aboard. There was a mystifying jumble of nets and ropes strewn about, and I could see more than one empty whiskey bottle in the cabin. Teddy handed me an old mayonnaise bucket and told me to start bailing while he got the engine going. He was cursing and swearing through a fog of diesel fumes for a good while, until finally
a promising even chugging sounded. We cast the tie-ropes off and Teddy took his position at the wheel as we puttered away from the pier.
"Can I put this in the cabin?" I was worried that the backpack would get wet in my new duties as crewmate. Emer was sitting on a fertilizer bag.
"Shouldn’t we wear life-vests, Teddy?" she asked.
"To hell with the life-vests!" he roared over the engine. "We don’t need ‘em! We’re only staying around the harbour." I looked at Emer and shrugged.
"Wouldn’t it be ironic if we all drowned trying to scatter Dad’s ashes?" she said. I could see there was a certain appeal in the idea for her. Kind of serendipitous except in a bad way.
"Yeah, it’s be brilliant. Except who’s going to scatter our ashes next?"
Teddy steered the boat towards the curved headland that acted as a natural barrier sheltering the harbour from the larger bay beyond. I looked back at the village and tried to identify the various buildings within the multi-coloured blur.
"Can you see our house?" Emer asked. "There it is!" She was pointing at a low white dot amongst some tall dark trees. It seemed so insignificant, from this distance it was hard to believe it was the scene of all that drama over the years.
"Tell me where you want me to stop," Teddy yelled. I looked around us. There was no significance to any particular section of the water. What did it matter? We were far enough from shore to be able to say in truth that we had thrown him into the bay. That was one of his catch-phrases to illustrate his preference when it came to an disagreeable proposition. I’d rather be thrown into the bay. Well, here it was now, finally. My opportunity to do something right.
"This’ll do, Teddy," I said and went to retrieve the bag from the cabin. Teddy cut the engine and dropped the anchor. There was immediate silence until once
again sounds were heard: the sloshing of water against the boat, the creaky boards rubbing against each other and Teddy hacking and spitting overboard.
The three of us stood on the deck. I took the box out of the bag and removed the lid.
"Shouldn’t we say a prayer?" Teddy asked. As I was considering his suggestion I noticed Emer taking a piece of paper from her pocket.
"I brought something to read," she said. We hadn’t discussed this moment and what we would do to mark it, so I was surprised and grateful that Emer had had the foresight to think of something. The extent of my planning was arranging the boat to take us out – for me, practicalities outweighed the spiritual component of the day. Emer began to read.
"Dear Dad, I’m sorry for the way things ended. I know I wasn’t always the best daughter and Mike caused you a lot of trouble –" I looked sideways at her as I shook out the box. Me causing trouble?" -- but Dad, although we loved you, you were an awful father. So, to be honest, I’m glad you’re dead. It’s what you wanted anyway so I hope you’re finally at peace. God bless you. Amen." I glanced at Teddy who stood gaping at Emer who was now wiping her eyes. I imagined him recounting the story down in Harrington’s later. Disgraceful lack of respect it was. They were always a quare family.
The box was emptied, the last shake of dust percolated from the surface of the water. I reached back into the bag and brought Dad’s false teeth, watch and glasses. I didn’t care what Teddy thought, or Emer for that matter. I couldn’t bear to know they were in the house. It felt right to let them fall overboard to settle on the sea floor. Perhaps the teeth would be dredged up by a fishing trawler, a pair of
fleshy-pink parentheses among the scallop shells. Maybe they would give someone a laugh; Dad’s tombstone teeth grinning back at a laughing fisherman.
No one spoke for a minute until I broke the silence saying,
Listen to the shortlisted stories from this year's RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus at 11.20pm from Monday to Friday on RTÉ Radio 1, during Late Date with Cathal Murray, or listen to the podcasts here.