From Monday 16th to Friday 27th September, you can hear one story every weeknight at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1 from the shortlist of this year's Francis MacManus Short Story Competition.
The Boxer Rebellion, by Liz Houchin, took third prize - listen to The Boxer Rebellion, read by Janet Moran, above, and read Liz's short story below.
A woman doesn't recognise the boxer shorts her husband is wearing and becomes convinced her marriage is over...
"How’s my marriage? Fine, how’s yours?"
"How’s my marriage? Depends who you ask."
"How’s my marriage? Is that a proposal?"
By the time she was back to her car and had airlifted the baby seat out of its criminally expensive wheels and strapped it into the car without hitting her head off the car frame, Stella had thought of lots of clever comebacks. Scraping her hair back into a driving ponytail she now held a royal flush of one-liners, but at the time she had flustered and mumbled and folded.
The day had started with her not recognising her husband’s underwear. She had walked into the bathroom as Mark stood washing his teeth in boxer shorts and a white t-shirt. They were a dusty blue colour and covered in a tiny print of grey airplanes and cars. She took a cotton bud to her ear and perched on the edge of the bath to get a closer look. They didn’t look particularly new. The cotton stood out slightly from his legs—retaining a certain crispness—but she could tell they had been through the laundry more than once. Had she washed them? Had she bought them? She couldn’t be sure anymore.
Maybe he had picked them up on one of his business trips. They were so frequent now that she had stopped looking for a gift home, and surprises were no longer produced. Stella held no desire to be a kept woman but there were days when she would have been grateful for a tiny reminder that there was more to life than nappies and bottles. A hotel room biro probably would have done the trick. Occasionally she would email him to pick up a gift for someone for whom novelty or exclusivity was required. But it had become tiring and pointless to keep up to speed on his life abroad. Stella could no longer explain his job to a friend who asked. A few short years ago she would have known the names of all his colleagues and the big deals they were working on. She would have picked up on industry news and talked about it over dinner. He would have asked her opinion on a pending press release or a presentation he was finalising. But over time she knew she had to let the tide of motherhood wash her out to sea. She was unwilling, however, to replace business chat with house and baby chat, because that risked their evening descending into a 'who had the busier day’ contest. It was a tricky one. If you had make-up on and there weren’t any cereal bowls in the sink, well then you looked like you had time on your hands. If, on the other hand, you were clearly still wearing your pyjama top under your fleece and the nappy bin hadn’t been emptied, you looked like you weren’t coping. Did she want sympathy from Mark? Hell, no. She had imagined that they would have this feeling of being in this together, but maybe it was okay to admit that you were no longer terribly interested in how your life partner spent their day.
But standing in the bathroom that morning she decided she wasn’t going to care about the recent history of her husband’s transport themed underwear. And he sure as hell didn’t care about what she was wearing; just as well given that she was wearing some random grey yoga cast offs with with a brooch of pureed pear on her left breast. She didn’t kiss him when he left for the Eurostar. It was only a day trip to Paris and those trains never crashed.
She stood in the shower weighing up the different ways she could leave him. She was too tired to make a scene, but if she slipped away quietly there was a good chance her absence would go by unremarked. How did people leave people? She knew someone at work who had left her boyfriend based on the results of an online quiz; she was perfectly happy until a lunchtime algorithm told her otherwise. Mind you, she did seem even happier after the event and was married to someone else within the year. But what would be her fantasy leaving scenario? A devastating letter written with a fountain pen? Or a clothes-flung-out-the-window art installation? Perhaps the more prosaic change the locks approach? What was it about the shower that freed people to imagine the unimaginable? So many people must be the subject of the murderous musings of a colleague or the vengeful ruminations of a close friend, planning their demise with a level of detail that would have startled Carlo Gambino. Maybe it was the self belief that by the time you were dried and dressed you would no longer be in the mood for destruction; after all, lots of people wanted to maim and murder, but none of them was mad enough to do it naked. Stella finished showering and decided not to bother shaving her legs. That would send a message.
She realised that she was washing her hair in sandalwood shower gel and that the bottle of conditioner was empty. It had been empty for three days but for some reason she only ever remembered when she was back in the shower with ratty knotty hair. Maybe she could use body lotion. Damn. Why couldn’t she be one of those vegan beauties with nothing in the bathroom cabinet but a bamboo toothbrush and a tub of coconut oil? There’s no need for make-up or body scrubs when your face is flawless and your butt cheek doubles as a Georgia peach. Gliding through the house in unbleached floaty linen there would no chance of a significant other flaunting unidentified flying underwear. Oh no. What the hell was she thinking? What level of sleep-deprived brain fog had taken hold? He was on his way to Paris in crisp boxers and she was planning a hairy protest. Who was leaving whom?
Within the hour she was standing in the lingerie department of Selfridges. Even in her dilapidated state she knew that Marks and Spencer wasn’t going to cut it. She steered the pram gingerly down avenues of lacy and floral delights, avoiding anything designed by a supermodel and apologising to any garments displaced by her vehicle. Clearly those bearing prams or saddlebags were not the intended clients of the seduction aisle. She veered on to the main thoroughfare at the far end of which she arrived at foundation garments, or as they were now known, Shape Wear. She remembered sniggering at these examples of peach scaffolding when she shopped for her honeymoon. But now she could see how they would hold in her numb, C-sectioned belly and give the illusion of a pert behind. Still, they wouldn’t bring her husband back from Paris. She reversed and took a right turn down sporty chic aisle, selecting two sets with a Breton stripe and little gold anchors between the cups. Passing the sale rail on the way to the checkout she grabbed a navy satin camisole that she could throw on under a cashmere sweater that she didn’t yet own.
By the time she got to the carpark ticket machine, the pram was beginning to whimper. She rummaged through her handbag and the nappy bag, slid her hand under her daughter to feel around for it and checked her own back pockets. Once she had spent far too long in a shopping centre carpark searching for a parking ticket that she was holding between her lips.
That was the same day she pushed this same pram, but her first child, into the lift and then could not remember what floor she was on or what floor she was going to; so she just stayed in the lift, riding it up and down as other people who didn’t have new babies and therefore still retained all their mental faculties pressed buttons decisively.
But here in the Selfridges carpark she knew what she had to do, so she pressed the help button and begged for forgiveness. A man in a yellow vest slowly made his way towards her.
Stella lined up a string of apologies. "Sorry, I’m really sorry, but I have only been here an hour and I have to get home before her next feed."
The carpark attendant gave her the once over. "I can always tell if they’re lying by the number of bags they’re carrying. Half the time it’s their second trip to the car lining up bags in the valeted boot of their Jaguar SUV. They’ve probably left their ticket in the restaurant after a quick coffee that lasted two hours. But I’m looking at you, love, and I reckon that the smallest size bag we do."
"Yes, no, I didn’t have coffee, I was just buying some underwear."
"Were you now! A new baby and out buying underwear. How’s your marriage?" He handed her a fresh ticket and walked away laughing.
Bloody hell. Who tells a carpark attendant that they were just buying underwear? Someone who has lost their carpark ticket or their entire mind. And how depressing that he didn’t for one minute suspect her of driving a Jaguar filled with shopping bags. It was probably her hair. She had artfully arranged her almost dry hair in a bun hoping to pass for someone who just had a shower after an hour of Soul Cycle in Mayfair. Clearly she hadn’t pulled it off, and now her scalp hurt. She really did need to remember to buy conditioner.
Stella argued with herself most of the way home, pausing occasionally to sing the Fireman Sam theme tune to her gurgling daughter, who seemed to have taken the entire diabolical morning in her stride. Stella pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine and sat still, wondering what the rest of the day would bring. You could probably tell how well someone’s life was going according to how long they stayed in their car with the engine turned off. It was such a glorious in-between space, still warm from the engine, music at the flick of a switch, the possibility of a random snack in the glove compartment. But mostly it offered a sense of time standing still. The clock, and life itself, patiently waiting for you to restack your thoughts, make a few plans and choose what version of yourself would enter the house. A few times when she had opened the front door to see what was taking Mark so long to come in he had smiled and pointed to his earphone, the universal hand signal for ‘still on an important call’. Maybe he was. Or maybe he was listening to a helpful podcast on how to leave your wife. Or maybe he was just having a moment too.
She glanced out the smudged side window at the garden, another life project that was paying the price of neglect. When they had bought the house she knew exactly how she was going to transform it into a sanctuary of wildlife, scent and style, but it never got beyond a promising start. There was a big white blob in the far corner of the garden, maybe a plastic bag was stuck in a bush. She rubbed the window with her sleeve and squinted. It was a rose. She stepped out of the car and crept towards it, avoiding any sudden movements that may cause its petals to fall. She stood and looked. A billowing meringue perched on a dead straight stem that seemed to have emerged overnight from a runt of a plant thrown into her trolley six months earlier and then left outside the back door. Mark must have planted it. A plump white beacon of hope and surrender.
The Boxer Rebellion, which took third prize in this year’s RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus, will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 at 11.20pm on Wednesday 18 September 2019, read by Janet Moran 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, publisher of The Stinging Fly.