From the shortlist of ten for this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, read Hands; A Downpour by Aengus Murray...
Hands; A Downpour
The rain cascades from the rumbling sky in wild, kamikaze drops which splatter and splash off the sopping pavement where Francis Mulcahy stands hazily, as if he himself is not a part of this scene, as if covered by a protective layer, a soft, blurred, almost translucent presence, arms hanging limply by his side, hood down, staring at the cracked and peeling paint on the door of number seventeen, Lennox Street, staring so hard that you'd swear he was trying to hypnotise the latch into giving, the handle into turning and opening, and all the while people pass, hunched under umbrellas or dashing from awning to awning, hoods, jumpers and jackets pulled up over their heads, and those that notice him comment that that man there, that greying, balding creature, semi-hunched in his tattered old coat, standing stoically outside that door, making no attempt to squeeze in under the little bit of porch that overhangs the doorway, that man must be pretty down on his luck (if they’re the compassionate sort) or, god, that man there is the very dregs of society and let’s just cross the street to be safe (if they’re less compassionate), but he pays them no mind because he is sifting through his own mental annals, remembering or not remembering (because perhaps it was in fact a dream) that someone important lived in that building once and/or something significant happened beyond that door, but also something incomplete, and if he can just get to the other side of it and up the rickety, unlit wooden staircase with the wobbly banister missing half its uprights, which he can picture now so vividly, and into that grubby little flat on the first floor, its entrance guarded by a faded calendar -- frozen on some antediluvian January -- hanging from a rusted nail driven through the peephole and held in place god knows how, if he can just make it as far as that pokey, smoke-softened living room with the beanbags instead of chairs and the pair of old three-legged footstools in one corner, a place where he was -- he seems to recall --- improbably referred to as 'Fran the man’, a place he was known to enter triumphant, each hand clutching a plastic bag replete with bottles and cans which he would raise aloft to the frenzied cheering of those in the room, though he may be calling to mind a single occasion which his mind has succeeded in multiplying over time and it’s conceivable that he was only sparingly referred to as ‘Fran the man’, if at all, in that room where what passed for a dining table seemed to be forever piled high with empty, half-crushed cans and pizza boxes spattered with dried blotches of ketchup, the room where a tattered old suitcase served as a coffee table onto which you could never place an actual cup of coffee because its soft leather upholstery would give just a little too much and the cup would wobble like a stumbling drunk in a darkened alley before toppling, but which supported three blackened ashtrays which, by some accidental twist of physics, managed to balance one another out, each replete with weeks of stale cigarette/rollie/joint butts all half-buried in a desert of ash, which ash also lent a dirty-grey hue to the top of the suitcase-table from the hundreds of times people had missed the ashtray or sneezed or coughed or knocked against it, and Francis knows all this because -- yes, it’s coming back now -- he many a time plonked himself down into one of the beanbag chairs next to the always-drawn curtains, beside the speakers playing -- at a low, humming volume -- something that invariably sounded like White Light/White Heat, squinting at the television screen beyond the dim light emanating from a standard lamp tucked away in the far corner of the room, the TV forever on mute and a bizarre series of old black-and-white cartoons seemingly on an infinite loop, while joints and beer cans were passed around in a perpetual haze and weird, dazed laughter erupted from different corners of the room, punctuating disparate conversations and the people in the other beanbags were forever changing, although they were all essentially the same person or the same type of person at least, so that you’d never really have to distinguish or separate them in your mind, all except one small, mousy girl who was there a lot, who might have lived there, who did live there, yes, a girl who wore hoodies with the hood up even on rare days of sun and heat, who was vocal about things which seemed at the time to matter, her unexpectedly powerful, strangely authoritative voice rising up from where she slumped and cutting through whatever conversation was being had, making a point with such clarity and sure-footedness that little further debate was needed or even possible, declaring once on a day of heavy rain, he recalls, that the down in the word downpour was superfluous as the action of pouring could only ever refer to a gravitational cascade and thus it should be referred to simply as a pour, and such declarations would precipitate a brief pause in proceedings before some new discussion could materialise from the embers of the previous one, yes, a girl who would then recline further in her beanbag until she was virtually horizontal, though sagging a bit in the middle, mimicking the posture of the suitcase-table, a girl who would notice or not notice the way Francis Mulcahy looked at her, which contained some combination of fondness, trepidation and longing which Francis could never fully bring himself to articulate, not there in that grimy little flat with its comers and goers and all their endless pairs of peering ears, and perhaps that is why he is standing here now, he thinks, but he isn’t at all sure, knowing simply that he is here because a short time after he awoke and began to beat his usual dazed path through the day, some sort of imperative had arrived from beyond and implanted itself in his brain, directing him to this old Georgian house inside which he has been hundreds of times or possibly never (still not discounting the notion that this could all be some sort of grand false recollection, provoked by one or possibly many vivid dreams, life back then being not too dissimilar to a dream anyway -- vague and unintelligible, yet somehow of great, unknowable importance and mostly forgotten now) and he is paying little attention to the passersby, who continue to scuttle along in the downpour, which is now just beginning to ease, and a softening in the clouds at the edge of the sky allows a gentle pillow of light to enter, breaking the dreariness of the afternoon and suggesting an end in sight, and his burning need to stand right here at this very door begins to fade just slightly, before a memory more vivid still comes to him, a memory of a hand -- his hand -- reaching over for a can being passed and accidentally (?) grasping the hand that is passing it and holding on for just a second too long so that the fingers overlap and almost interlock, and his believing for a brief, flickering moment in magic, in the transmission of energy through human contact, in the concept of a collective consciousness, then raising his eyes to meet eyes that -- in that same instant -- turn away, mirroring the movement of her hand, which is squirming like a trapped mouse and he relinquishes his grip causing the can to fall to the ground, where a stream of beer pours out and down into the cracks in the stained floorboards, which seemed to symbolise something monumental at the time, and that memory is reflected now in the little streams of water that Francis notices running down alongside the curb of the footpath and scurrying into the drain, and he looks around at the shopfronts and the umbrella-ed people passing and affirms that yes, this place was important, no, this place is important, there was or is something pivotal here on this street, in this house, something that explains him, that tells his story, ties up every loose end of him, but even as he asserts this he is becoming less sure of it, saying it almost as a way of forcing his mind not to become distracted, not to lose that mystical feeling that has cloaked him and driven him up until now, but he can’t help it with the gradual brightening of the day, the lightening of the rain, and -- casting his eyes about a bit more -- Francis Mulcahy starts to feel himself a part of the street again, a three-dimensional presence and not the ghostly, enchanted figure that until a moment before had been chained invisibly to the peeling door of seventeen Lennox Street, and everything is solidifying around him, while the pool of memories he was drowning in drains and dries and he is returning unhappily to existence as it usually is -- the steady stream of cars, the leafless winter trees, the people in their ones and twos and threes, the grumbling buses rumbling by -- the incontrovertible, unerringly dull reality that has always surrounded him, and in this new old world, Francis starts to feel again the drops of rain as they plash and patter against his bare head, before his eye is caught by the sudden illumination of the light in the hallway of the adjacent house, of number nineteen Lennox Street, visible through the glass panel above the door, which now creaks open revealing a girl, or more accurately a woman, diminutive, in a hoodie with the hood pulled up and her head inclined towards the path, denying him a clear glimpse of her features though he imagines them to be mouselike, and this woman floats ghostly right past Francis Mulcahy, who watches her and finds himself entirely frozen and momentarily numb, understanding nothing, experiencing no stirring of the heart, before his eye is caught by a couple some twenty yards further down the street, wielding a bright yellow umbrella that they seem to hold with just the one shared hand, a single inseparable being, and he looks back at the hooded woman who has progressed about ten yards in the opposite direction, striding away from him and he takes a single step towards her, then stops, turns, looks at number seventeen again, then at number nineteen and shrugs -- at the door, at himself, at the woman, at the world -- pulls his hood up and begins to trudge off, past the umbrella-huddled couple, neither of whose hands are squirming to break free, as the last drops of rain fall meekly from the ever-brightening sky.
Aengus Murray is a writer currently living in Valencia, Spain, teaching English. He is a graduate of the MA in creative writing in UCD and was the winner of the 2016 Fish Short Story Competition at the West Cork Literary Festival.
This is one of 10 shortlisted stories from the 2020 RTÉ Short Story Competition. Read the rest of the stories here, tune into an Arena special at 7 pm on Monday 28 September when the judges will announce their overall winners, and listen to a story from the shortlist on air every night from Monday 28 September to Friday 9 October at 11.20 pm on RTÉ Radio 1.
Hands; A Downpour will be read on air by Liam Carney.