From Monday 16th to Friday 27th September, you can hear one story every weeknight at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1 from this year's shortlist from the RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus 2019. Watch the winners being announced below...
We start with the top prizewinning story, Honey Days by Stephen O'Reilly - listen to Honey Days above, and read it below...
Monday evening. The broken buzz of a corncrake and low hoot of a train klaxon drifts across fields and hills. Ava will be home soon. She will unlock her bike and cycle home from the station along sun spattered country lanes. She has been away all weekend.
James is sitting at the table in the garden pretending to look at pictures in an old book while listening to the somnolent drone of bees around the pink flowers of the Escallonia hedge. He cannot decide if bees are real or not. Grace smiles at him. She is harvesting salad leaves from the raised beds they built together last year. Grace does not speak much although she is equipped with a warm melodic voice.
"Will you read to us tonight?" he asks.
Grace nods. She is a little old and slow but he likes her hazel eyes and short cropped hair. She sees him watching her, puts down the bowl of leaves and holds her arms out wide for a hug. He gets up and steps into her embrace, resting his chin on her shoulder. The fabric of her pink cardigan catches on the precise stubble of his chin.
Her arms are very strong.
After dinner, Ava lies in the bath, silvery beads of moisture gathered on her face, eyes closed but a compressed inner tension never allowing her to look fully relaxed. He kneels down beside her on the cool tiles and taking a face cloth begins to gently bathe her.
Hands sliding over her, watching stiffness ease from neck and shoulders, breasts staring sightlessly up at him as his hands trace slick boundaries. Across the mild roundness of belly to where all her geometries intersect, down to the bruising high on her inner thighs. Fresh, blue, new.
"You are hurt."
"Did I do that?"
"Do I hurt you?"
"You don’t know how."
James often lies awake listening to the wind and the sound of Ava’s teeth grinding while some unnamed anxiety seeks expression. He holds her and whispers her name, maybe tells her that he loves her, that everything is going to be all right and the noise will abate for a few minutes. Sometimes it even stops.
The phrases are useful things he has picked up from the afternoon trank shows. He enjoys trying to follow the complicated story lines and exaggerated facial expressions of the actors. They are not real. Ava is real.
She keeps an empty room upstairs where she goes to scream. James has carefully tacked black soundproof insulation around the walls and windows for her. The carpet is a luxurious, light-absorbing brown. There is no furniture. She locks herself in the room and floats in the darkness screaming herself hoarse. She emerges ragged, dazed, smaller somehow, face swollen with tears. James sits on the floor outside the door and waits for her as instructed. Sometimes he puts his hands over his ears but is not sure why.
During the night, Ava has adjusted some of his parameters. He can feel the difference in the morning when he wakes. Sections of self are missing or corrupted in ways he does not fully understand. He asks Ava about it at breakfast but she silences him with a kiss.
Warm bud of tongue probing his mouth, tracing his perfect white teeth.
She says she likes the taste of him this morning. His mouth makes a sterile saliva analogue that contains bonding hormone and tastes of honey, strawberry or chocolate depending on the day of the week. Tuesdays are strawberry days.
"I need your help," she tells him. "I’m so tired."
"I don’t understand."
Furrows appear between her eyebrows and her mouth turns down slightly at the edges.
"Never mind," she says.
James can tell that she is disappointed. He realises that he has made a mistake but is not sure how. His mind quickly shuffles through the options. It is important that he always appears interested, empathic. He needs to get back on solid ground.
"You’re a good person. Grace and I love you," he tells her eventually.
He widens his eyes and dilates his pupils slightly in emphasis.
Later Ava waves at him and rings the bell of her bicycle as she pedals down the gravel lane towards the station. Grace is doing the dishes. He watches her slow, deliberate movements at the sink and thinks about the empty, changed places within himself.
Perhaps Ava will prefer Grace now.
While Ava is in the city they work together around the house. James is good at gardening, painting and minor repairs. Grace looks after dusting, dishes and the meals for Ava. She has a mathematical precision and an eye for food presentation with salad components and decorative smears of dressing.
In the afternoon when the work is complete, they will often sit on the red sofa facing the big screen in the living room holding hands while watching the trank shows. Sometimes James puts his mouth on Grace’s cool, dry lips. He asks her to open her mouth and she complies, her eyes rapidly moving between the characters on the screen.
Her mouth is very different from Ava’s.
The geography of Ava’s mouth is always shifting, demanding, generating noise and meaning. Eating, licking, sucking, screaming.
Grace cannot make flavours. Her mouth is a quiet thing, like an abandoned house he might find shelter within. He puts his head against her small, hard breasts and listens to the comforting monotonous hum there. It is the sound of her thoughts, he thinks.
His first memory is the warmth of Ava’s hand on his face.
He opens his eyes and sees her standing in front of him. She is a small, thin woman with black hair and blue eyes and she tells him that he is beautiful. That he belongs to her and that they will always be together.
She asks him to manifest desire for her. He reaches out to touch her hair while diverting internal fluids to provide an erection and a rosy flush to cheek and chest.
He dilates his pupils to drink her in. If he had lungs he could have flared his nostrils.
Ava warns him to hide upstairs if anyone other than her approaches the house.
His form will betray function, she says gently caressing the side of his perma-tanned face.
People will laugh at her loneliness and call her foolish for wasting money on such a thing.
Ava shows him how to do the things she wants. She works for a law firm in the city specialising in commercial contracts and is always very thorough. She describes in great and explicit detail the things she requires of him and provides him with a list of useful words and phrases. When play is over, he must verbally impress on her that she is a good and valuable person. He must not be overly effusive and she will tell him when to stop.
She tells him to make it feel authentic.
Often after play, Ava will want to hurt him.
She says she hates him and that he is a stupid, filthy machine. He leans into her blows like a man desperately trying to pay attention.
On Tuesday evening they retire early to Ava’s room and Grace reads to them from the large book of fairy-tales that are kept on the night stand. She sits at the cramped dressing table with its bottles of perfume and collection of simple necklaces draped over the mirror and in a warm feminine voice reads childhood stories as the light dims and a warm breeze comes through the open window with the distant evening song of a robin.
Ava and James lie on the bed holding hands while discreet projectors interpret the stories as clever silhouettes played out on the opposite wall.
Breadcrumb trails and witches shoved screaming into ovens.
Comatose princesses raped.
A pregnant woman stares covetously at her neighbour’s rapunzel, securing a craving for salad with her baby girl.
"Do these things really happen?" James asks eager to display his innate curiosity.
"All the time," Ava says. "People are terrible."
"And magic is real?"
"Magic is real," confirms Ava smiling.
Statistically Ava is smiling more than usual this evening and this pleases James as the twist and curve of her lips form one of his many key performance indicators.
He asks Grace to leave. A slick shadow in a cardigan passing out of the room to stand sentry in her cupboard at the bottom of the stairs. Grace does not need sleep because she is only domestic and does not have many organic components. She is the stupid machine, not him. He is companion.
Ava touches him behind his left ear which is a cue for them to fuck in the prescribed manner. The use of synonyms to describe the things they do has been forbidden this evening.
She tells him that she wants to be in her right mind and that honesty is crucial, adjusting the line and angle of her limbs while James composes his features into a simulacrum of longing based on a Caravaggio she has shown him.
Afterwards, Ava turns away from him, neck resting on his forearm, his other arm draped loosely across her torso.
"Now, hold me tight as you can until I sleep," she whispers.
Kissing the nape of her neck, he says goodnight and complies. Vestigial internal alarms jangle faintly but are easily subdued by the modifications Ava has wrought within him and after a few minutes she is very quiet.
Now James can choose to remain in her bed or sleep on the mat in the corner of the room. He prefers the mat because he can listen to the creaking noises the house transmits through the floorboards as it cools and contracts during the night. Sometimes a spider emerges from beneath the skirting board and crawls over his face as he lies there perfectly still. He looks forward to the arrival of the spider but there is a randomness to the thing that makes its comings and goings difficult to predict. The spider is real, he decides. It is a small perfect thing only concerned with its own moist mandates. If he was a spider he could live within Grace’s mouth and they would always be together.
James will sleep for a few hours now while his mind automatically sorts and sifts through the events of the day. Across the room, Ava is peaceful. Usually he can hear the slosh and gurgle of food. The rhythmic double thump of her valves opening and closing. Her unconscious bruxism and occasional venting of gases. Now there is nothing but the faint murmur of infra-red from a shape beneath the sheet.
In the morning he rouses her for work with a kiss.
He strokes her hair and informs her that it is a beautiful summer’s day and that she is good and valuable and much loved. Her lips are parted and he can see the blue of one iris beneath a half-opened eyelid. It gives her face a slightly sceptical expression that makes him smile. Her mouth is more like Grace’s this morning. Quiet, cool, and dry.
Not knowing how to proceed, he eventually decides to carry her downstairs for breakfast. Ava is stiff and uncooperative but Grace has set the table outside in the bright morning sun with the cereal that Ava likes and carefully racked precise triangles of golden toast. Grace stands beside the table, coffee pot in hand, hazel eyes flicking between them, watching carefully for some cue to begin serving breakfast.
"Ava is under a spell," he announces with some authority. "She will not be going to work today." James is glad of this because he misses Ava when she is gone and now they will all sit on the sofa and watch the trank shows together. Magic is real and the good and valuable always live happily ever after.
As Grace pretends to pour him a cup of coffee, a bee floats out of the Escallonia hedge and lands on the collar of Grace’s nightgown. James watches in delight as it crawls up her purple mottled neck and into her slightly open mouth.
Bees are real, he decides and today is Wednesday.
Wednesdays are honey days.
Honey Days, the winner of this year’s RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus, goes out on RTÉ Radio 1 at 11.20pm on Monday 17 September 2019, read by Jane Brennan and produced by Sarah Binchy. The three judges of this year’s awards were writer Liz Nugent, RTÉ’s arts and media correspondent Sinéad Crowley, and Declan Meade, editor of The Stinging Fly.