From the shortlist of ten for this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, read Beneath the Trees, Where Nobody Sees by Julie Cruickshank...

A playdate with daughters and nephew, and a revelation...

Beneath The Trees, Where Nobody Sees

Laura is late, of course. Trish and the girls are ready in the driveway at 3.15, as agreed. Laura had called just after breakfast; she had a deadline, Sam was hyper, driving her nuts, would there be any way Trish could bring him to the park with the girls? 'He's been on about the tree all week,’ Laura had said.

Trish leans on the car; the girls circle the garden, tearing leaves off her favourite rhododendron. ‘I wouldn’t mind, but I’m the one doing her a favour, taking Sam.’

Mike edges past her into the garage. ‘I suppose.’ There’s that flat, neutral voice he always puts on when she gives out about Laura. He winces as he reaches for a tin of paint. His fingertip is a mess of black and purple; just that morning he had whacked it with a hammer. She cradles his hand, her fingers hovering over the injured nail. ‘It’ll probably fall off.’ Her voice is sharper than she intends. When he bends down to leave the tin on the floor his t-shirt lifts to reveal the curved ridge of his spine.

Laura is a fluster of untidy hair and apologies. The child seat on her bike is broken, and Sam has left his jacket at school again. Trish watches her younger sister lift the boy from the back of the bike, rub his hands, kiss the top of his head. He will need a coat. There’s an old jacket of Eleanor’s in the hall, neon pink with a silver fur lining; it will do for today.

When she comes back outside Sam and the girls have taken a stick to the bank of shrubbery along the wall and Laura is showing Mike the broken seat. If Laura wasn’t there she might have chanced a joke about Mike’s growing bald patch. A length of blue twine unravels in his fingers.

‘Jesus, it’s barely hanging on.’

‘Well, that’s me told. ’ Laura winks at her.

As Trish reverses out of the drive the two of them are bent over the bike, heads almost touching. The low winter sun catches the side of Laura’s head, glints off her ragged plait.

By the time they arrive at the car park, Sam is inconsolable. Lily has teased him about the pink jacket since they left the house.

Trish pulls him onto her knee, wipes the tears and snot from his face. With the silver fur hood and the streaks of long blond hair he reminds her of an elf. ‘Don’t mind those two. Little witches.’ She hears the girls whispering and  giggling from the back, feels sticky hands around her throat and then all three of them are on her lap, squealing, like piglets at a sow. Her arms wrap around the squirming bodies and she buries her face into their heat, rubs her cheek against hair and bone. That smell, she never tires of it. For a moment, she lets herself be limp, invaded.

‘Who’ll be first at the tree?’

The children burst scattershot across the grass, three daubs of pink, their bobbing heads the colour of the palest yellow leaves. She wipes a slug trail of snot from her sleeve. Her phone says 4.05. Not too bad, they’ll get a decent hour before dark.

That hair, fine and straight; almost colourless. Laura and Sam have it. The girls are fair too, but their hair is thick and wavy, like her own. A nightmare to manage. She can still feel her grandmother’s knee against the small of her back, the dragging sensation of the brush on her scalp. Her grandmother liked to list the potential catastrophes that lay in wait for herself and Laura, out there: road accidents, horrible diseases, being taken for a fool.

Family first, that’s what she used to say, as she tugged the knots out, ignoring the yelps.

The tree -- our tree, Lily always corrects her – is more of a copse. She is pretty sure it’s a yew. Her grandmother told her that beams of yew can sprout long after they have been built into houses. Trish has never figured out whether it stems from one kernel, or if it’s actually a huge cluster of roots and branches that have meshed together, but it appears as a single growth. The heaviest trunks loop down, graze the earth before they surge upwards. Like they’ve forgotten which way to grow, Eleanor said once.

She and the children have waited out hailstorms inside the dense cloak of leaves and emerged untouched. Inside the tree, the air is still and damp.

Sam is complaining. Something about Lily stealing his sticks.

Last time she had shown them how to make nests; how the birds start with the odd shaped, knobbly sticks, weave them together to make a base. She had knelt down beside them on the hard earth, and her jeans had been ruined, but it didn’t bother her. The children had left piles of crumbly bread for the birds. It was a good day, she only had to yell a couple of times. She had even sung along with them on the way home. Beneath the trees where nobody sees, they’ll hide and seek as long as they please.

‘Share, Lily,’ she warns. ‘You have to learn.’ It’s always the same with those two, the pushing and shoving, and one of them – usually Sam – ending up in tears.

He needs the toilet.

‘But I asked you if you wanted to go before we left! Didn’t Mummy remind you?’ She hears Mike’s voice: Trish, you can’t argue them out of wanting the loo!

It’s two minutes fast walk, across the open green to the café toilet. He pulls on her hand just as they reach the door, his face red. ‘Just squeeze it in, Sam. Nearly there.’

The café is getting ready to close; chairs scrape across the stone floor. The smell hits her when she follows him into the cubicle. ‘Christ. Has it come already?’ It was always worse, the stink of other people’s children.

His tracksuit and the shoes come off without any mess - she was always efficient with this kind of stuff but the underpants are full, oozing, and despite her best efforts the poo gets on his hands and on her sleeve.

She wraps the underpants in tissue and dumps them in the bin, pulls his tracksuit bottoms back up.

The tap runs hotter than comfortable, but she keeps his hands steady, rubs soap in between his fingers, tries to get in under his nails. The shrieking hurts her ears. ‘Stop whinging, Sam, the water needs to be hot!’ It’s the kick in the shins that finally releases her grip – ‘Sam, that is not funny. Mummy will be very cross!’ -- and he bolts, the door banging behind him. She forces her hands to the bottom of the sink, splays her fingers against the white porcelain.

The irritation rises with every step. Could he really not have held it in? What on earth was Laura feeding him anyway? She was so bloody precious, organic this, natural that. So determined. She had cleared the mass of brambles at the back of Trish’s garden one weekend, single-handed, leaving her hands in shreds.

And still, everything had been too much for Laura when Sam was born: the breastfeeding, the nappies, the exhaustion. I am so lucky to have you, she had said, her eyes wet. Her fingers left an imprint on Trish’s arm.

This time her eyes take a little longer adjust to the dim light. ‘Where is he?’

The girls follow her out onto the open grass. She sees their breath, at once cloudy, then gone. As if by instruction, their voices high and thin, they begin to shout his name.

‘I know Mummy! He’s probably gone back to the car,’ Eleanor likes to be helpful. They have circled the green twice, ran through the small wooded area, banged on the door of the closed café. The girls stay close, reluctant to let go of her hand; lilac sequinned runners tumble over tufts of upturned earth and withered roots.

It’s just her own car left now. ‘Get in, the two of you.’ As always, Lily resists the seatbelt. The span of Trish’s hand is almost the same as the width of the child’s torso. How small they are, how breakable. She aims her keys at the lock, hears the slice of metal across the muffled cries.

He could not have gone very far. He’s only four. He can barely hold a bunch of twigs together, for fuck’s sake. She is running now, jelly legs, back towards the open green. She trips over a branch, nearly falls. Get a grip. Focus. Mike will know what to do. It takes her three attempts to key in his name. Her hand has fragmented itself from the rest of her, become a jittery, useless thing. The words will not come, the sound fades halfway back her throat, and she hangs up.

The light inside the tree has slipped another notch. Lily’s hat is thrown in a hollow at the foot of the huge trunk. Trish gets down on all fours, crams what she can of herself inside the trunk, gropes about in the blackness. Her hand grabs at nothing and she pushes further, moaning with effort. When she directs the light from her phone inside the opening, she sees mulched leaves, small bones, an unrecognisable festering thing.

A creak, a rustle of leaves above her – the tree settles - and then there is nothing but her own breath and the crawling at the pit of her stomach.

A black space encased by silver fur. That’s what she sees when she stands up and turns around.

Her knees jolt against the compacted earth. She yanks the hood down, runs her fingers through his hair, pressing his skull, pulls the jacket open: his chest, stomach, thighs are all warm, intact. Her face presses into his neck as she pulls him to her, the fur lining brushing her cheek, her lips catching on the metal zip.

‘I took Lily’s best sticks. Don’t tell.’ The elf, again. He opens his fist and loose twigs and leaves fall onto her lap.

‘You mustn’t tell,’ Sam tugs at her sleeve. ‘Promise.’

She sits back, lets herself sink into the damp earth, pulls him onto her lap. The girls will be worried. Eleanor was always so anxious. It was the water that had made him run away; she had forced his hands under the scalding water, even though she could hardly bear it herself. That awful need in her to fix everyone and everything. Mike had used the word relentless once. Why can’t you ever let things go? And Laura too, the day she told her she was pregnant with Sam. They had been in the front garden, pulling old roots from flower beds. Laura had some story about a one night stand. It didn’t make sense. Drop it, Trish! Laura had yelled at her. That night Trish woke at 4am, full of dread. She had pressed her body against Mike, entangled her limbs in his.

The light has all but disappeared; the far reaches of the tree are now completely in shadow; visible, flickering darkness. She takes Sam’s hands in her own. The nail. That particular shape; flat and wide, so familiar, it had hit her like a punch, and she had scrubbed even harder, turned the water up. She presses the fleshy pads between each joint, probes the mesh of muscle and bone beneath as if there was something there that could be found, some mystery revealed that would settle the gnawing ache at the pit of her stomach, that unasked, unanswerable question; but they are just the hands of a child; pudgy, small, formless. She pulls him closer, holds him tight.

Originally from Galway, Julie Cruickshank lives and works in Dublin.  Her stories have been shortlisted for the Doolin Short Story Competition and the Cambridge Short Story Prize.

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. 

Beneath The Trees, Where Nobody Sees will be read on air by Cathy Belton.