We're delighted to present the shortlisted stories from this year's RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus.
Here, we present the third place winner, ‘Have you seen her legs?’ and other stories from Fat Land by Claire Mulligan - you can read Claire's story below, or listen to it, read by Janet Moran, above.
You are twenty. It is summer and it is hot. You are wearing a long, full denim skirt and a heavy brown knit-top. You are home from university for summer holidays. You have packed your couple of bags and closed the door on whatever house-share you were in and you are back living with your parents. You have just walked down the stairs. The stairs are carpeted – soft grey wool with a lighter blue fleck running through them. The carpet flows down the stairs and out across the hallway that leads to the kitchen. It covers the old, uneven red and black Victorian tiles that run from the front door all the way through to the kitchen at the back. You would not have chosen carpet. You would have had wooden stairs and the old patterned tiles that would be cool underfoot, especially in this heat. But your father and, by extension, your mother prefer carpet. So carpet it is. The whole house has been carpeted. At vast expense your mother says. It is not a house that would have ever had carpets. Rugs, yes. Carpets, no. The dark-stained wooden floors in the sitting room and drawing room are evidence of that. Only the edges of the floorboards had been painted, the interior was plain. The ghost shape of the rug was all that was left. But now there is carpet. Thick, expensive wool carpet in every room. You are on the stairs. You are a large person and for the most part you are unwieldy and graceless. Yet sometimes you move with a light step. You are on the stairs and you hear voices from the kitchen. It is your mother and sister. They have not heard you, but you have heard them. You move from the stairs down the hall. It is quiet, expensive, smooth carpet all the way. You open the kitchen door just at the moment your sister is saying to your mother, "Have you seen her legs?"
You are there in the kitchen as the words take flight from her mouth and hang in the air. You are there for the silence of the unanswered question and the scrape of your mother’s knife on the chopping board.
You are there as they both jump and look away as though they were not speaking to one another, just there, just now. You are there but you are not there. The words have stopped hanging in the air. They are now inside you. They are inside you
making an uncomfortable nest, burrowing deep in to your fleshy interior. They are spiky, those words. And yet spoken individually they are not sharp or unlovely. In fact they are five small words. Have. You. Seen. Her. Legs. But spoken together as a question, they become something else. They become barbs that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot pull out.
You are ten. No, perhaps older, more like twelve or thirteen. You are on a family holiday. Somewhere down the country. A self-catering cottage which means your mother has packed sheets, towels and the like, enough for a family of six for a week. You, your sisters, your mother and father. It is a tight fit in the back of the car, all four of you together. There is the damp feel of skin as your legs in shorts sit hotly beside your sister’s legs, also in shorts. Your father is driving. There is a bridge. A small iron bridge with a sign. Suddenly your father stops the car and calls for you to get out. At the sound of his voice you move straight away. You do not ask why, or question him in any way. You clamber awkwardly over your sisters, standing on their sandalled feet and open the door and climb out. The car moves slowly off and you walk over the bridge, right beside the car. Your mother says through the open window, "Get in," and laughing your father says, "That was wasted on you."
You do not understand any of this until your sister tells you that the sign at the bridge said load not to exceed three tonnes and this was a joke. You were supposed to cross the bridge after the car. You were the load that would make the car exceed the safe limit.
You are thirty four. You are married with two young children and a baby. You are out with your husband. You are in the city. It is a warm spring evening. The blossom from the trees is catching on the breeze and is falling on to the footpaths. You and your husband are rarely alone. You rarely get out together for an evening. Your children are at home with the babysitter. You are killing time before you go to dinner with some work colleagues of his. You are in a large department store known for its luxury goods. Your husband is looking at the silk ties. You are looking at the perfume and the makeup. You don’t wear makeup but you like looking at it. You like the neat
glossy packaging that can be held in the palm of your hand. You like the tiny squares or circles of eye shadow. You like the gold tubes that when twisted push up the slender block of perfect lipstick. The girls behind the counters are the opposite of you. Their hair is shiny and pulled back off their faces in neat coils and loops. Their lips are red, or pink, or a shimmering neutral that they call blush. Their eyes are all the peacock colours of the world and their nails match their lips. You are looking and moving from one counter to the next. You turn to go and a woman lurches into view. She is drunk. Or drugged. She looks at you with unfocussed eyes. "You...are...so...fat." The words roll from her mouth slowly like syrup pouring from a jar. The word fat falls out and sits wetly on the makeup counter. The strong lights shine on it. It glistens. The girl at the counter turns slightly and the woman, this drunk woman, kicks you.
She kicks you on your leg. She kicks you in the luxury goods department store. She kicks you in front of everyone and no-one makes a move. When you look at the makeup counter the word fat has gone. There is nothing there. The girl has moved away.
You are fourteen. It is a winter afternoon. You are home from school and finished your homework. It is that hour between homework and dinner. You are in the sitting room watching television. You are sitting on the chair closest to the fire. It is your mother’s chair, but in this instance, as she is not in the room with you, it is your chair. You are sitting in the chair, watching television. You are holding a cushion from the sofa over your stomach. It is a blue cushion. The blue of the cushion matches the colour of the curtains and the curtains match the carpet. For some reason you think the cushion hides your stomach. Of course it does not. You are watching a well known TV show, a comedy. It has a fat actress in it. The actress is fat but she has a beautiful face and she is funny. The fat actress is also the star of the show. You are laughing. You and your cushion are sitting there, laughing at the fat actress on the TV. Your mother comes in to the room. She stands in front of the fire for a moment. You have to crane your neck to see the TV as your mother is blocking your view. She moves towards her chair. You and your cushion stand up and move to the sofa.
Your mother sits down and watches the fat funny actress for a moment and then says, "Your father can’t stand seeing fat people on television."
You are nineteen. You have just had an ear infection. The doctor on the university campus, Doctor Lappin, gave you a prescription of antibiotics to get rid of the infection. You finish the tablets but now you have thrush. You do not know the connection between antibiotics and thrush. You have never had thrush before and cannot bear it.
You go back to the doctor. It is a different doctor from the one who prescribed the antibiotics. You describe your symptoms, you tell her about the ear infection and the antibiotics. This doctor says, "I better examine you. Take off your jeans and pants and lie up on the couch." She turns from you to give you a moment to do what you’ve been told. You would rather not take off your jeans and pants. You would rather die. But she is a doctor. You take off your jeans and pants and lie up on the couch. You are lying on a paper towel that stretches across the cold plastic of the couch. You look up to the flaking paint on the ceiling while the doctor examines you. She says casually as her head is between your open legs, "Dr Lappin and I hate seeing fat patients come in. You should make an effort to lose some weight."
You are twenty two. You are finished your degree and in the summer before you go back to university to begin your Masters you are working in a tourist hostel in the city. You work on the reception desk, booking people in, handling cash, answering their queries. You like your job. You are good at your job. A man comes in. It is late in the day, in fact it is early evening and he’s looking for three beds for the night but by this stage the hostel is already fully booked. You say sorry, that you can’t help him and you give him a name of another place, just up the road.
He leaves the reception desk and walks towards the exit but just before he gets to the door he turns and walks back. He walks up to you and says, "You should stop eating all the breakfasts." You look at him and before you can say anything he has turned and has gone. You close your eyes. You close your eyes for just one minute and hold on tightly to the desk.
Hear 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.