We're delighted to present Friends, a story from We Seldom Talk About the Past, the new collection from author John McKenna, published by New Island.
We Seldom Talk About the Past is the first selection of short stories from one of Ireland's masters of the form. Brought together from a writing career spanning over three decades, MacKenna’s stories focus on the everyday truths of our lives; the immense significance of small moments, sexual desire and its intimate entanglement with the domestic, as well as acutely felt absences and overbearing social mores.
At the heart of MacKenna’s work, is the deepest sense of place, of the land, and of the innate tuning of our lives to the times and regions we inhabit.
I was a fat kid. Does that change the way you think about me? I'm not asking if it makes you more sympathetic; sympathy doesn’t come into it, sympathy isn’t at issue here, as you’ll be the first to tell me. It doesn’t raise its head inside these four walls. But while you’re sitting there with your bellies hanging over your belts, do you secretly have just the tiniest inkling of regard for me? Do you admire me the way you admire winter swimmers, from a distance, as people who’ve done something you’d like to have done but never could? Do you secretly envy the way I got myself together, slimmed down through my adolescent years, kept my weight under control by eating sensibly? You assume it’s easier for me to control the middle-age spread, don’t you, just because I have twenty-five years of careful eating behind me? Secretly you do. It’s all about secrets in here, isn’t it? My little secrets and your little secrets, except, of course, that I may not have the secret you want me to have, the one that would make your job that much easier.
I’ll bet you were surprised when you discovered I sell ice cream for a living. Surprised that I could walk that line between selling and eating without ever – and I mean ever – crossing over. That’s not something that comes easily to you, is it? Walking the line between the things you wish for and the temptations that make you surrender.
Sorry, maybe I’m doing you a disservice. Perhaps, deep down, you’re not making too many assumptions because you don’t know me, don’t really want to know me and couldn’t care less about what makes me tick. Perhaps all this is surface stuff. I mean, why should you care? I sell ice cream to the people on the streets, all kinds of streets, your street, your culs-de-sac.
There’s a thing! Have you noticed how the phrase 'cul-de-sac’ was once used to describe a place like the dive I grew up in. A dirty phrase that meant the bottom of an empty coal sack on a wet Saturday. Now it’s pronounced with all the Frenchness people can muster. Now it’s okay; it’s chic, it’s cool.
But I digress. You want me to talk about her.
She’s not chic, she doesn’t dress to please or tease. She dresses for herself, to feel good, to be comfortable. That’s how she dresses. It’d be easy to get sucked into lumping her with the rest, just because she lives on the kind of street they live on. That’s the danger, isn’t it, lumping people together, making assumptions? At a guess, I’d say you’ve made assumptions about me. Now, I don’t want to tell you your job, but I don’t think that’s a healthy approach. We need to keep our minds open.
I didn’t make any assumptions about her. That’s not something I do. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I pride myself on my openness to people. It’s my belief that we can only live in the hope that people forgive us our trespasses as we for- give those who trespass against us.
That line always appealed to me. Give us this day our daily bread, I could take or leave, never rang any bells, maybe because of the food connotation. And lead us not into temptation, well that’s crazy, we need temptation to keep our lives vaguely interesting; temptation is where life is happening; temptation is what keeps you in a job. But the forgiveness and trespass bit, that bit I like.
If, on top of being a fat kid, I tell you I was a troubled soul in my younger days, how do you feel about that? It’s my experience that people, ordinary people, split, more or less, sixty/forty against the fat kids, but when it comes to troubled youngsters, it’s always trouble was means trouble is.
But if I throw in the fact that I come from a decent, upright, hardworking family, good-living brothers and a sister, does that help redress the balance? I’m talking siblings here, not parents. Parents are random. Think about it. Take two people who, for some obscure reason, believe they suit one another, throw them together in a steamy car or, if you want, in a marriage bed and you never know what you’re going to get. And nor do they. But that’s only the start of it. Throw in their ability, their need, even, to interfere in their kids’ lives and you have a lethal cocktail. They’ll give you all the usual excuses – it’s for his own good, you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, if I’d had someone to advise me when I was his age. What they really mean is – if I screwed up my own life for you, you can carry some of the load yourself. They’ll never say it out straight, but you get to know it and, later on, you have to laugh about it, don’t you?
But brothers and a sister are another matter, they’re the leaven in the mixture. If the recipe comes out more or less okay across the family cake, then the chances are that the slightly wild one will come round. That’s my belief. I know I did. I wasn’t the fat and lonely only kid. I wasn’t the spoilt, overfed brat. I was just a kid. That’s all.
If I could tell you I had a happy marriage and a doting wife, you’d probably be a little more impressed. You might look again at your assumptions, at the evidence of your bias, at me. But I can’t. Unfortunately, I can’t. Can’t produce a wife. I lived with a woman once, for three years, but we got tired of arguing; neither one of us had the stomach for it.
I can offer you the evidence of a nice house, no porn magazines stashed anywhere, no dubious stuff on my computer, reasonable living in the ice cream business, self-education, hard work as proof, if it’s proof you want, that I’m an ordinary, decent, upright, law-abiding citizen. But that’s not what you want, is it? And then there’s the little matter of what you call my obsession with her. I prefer to call it a fascination. The word ‘obsession’ has all kinds of connotations. It gets us all off on the wrong foot, doesn’t it? So, I’d like to call it my fascination.
It started quite unintentionally, but I realised, very quickly, that it had a consequence in my life. It was an important mat- ter. Even you must understand that; there must have been a time when someone captivated you. Maybe you’re still a captive, maybe you still find times and places for your fascinations. You have the ideal job for it, don’t you – power, two-way mirrors, long hours, unpredictable situations – to help you pull the wool over your wives’ eyes? I see your rings and I see your opportunities.
Isn’t it interesting the way fat fingers grow over rings, swallow them the way fat mouths swallow big dollops of food? I’ve always found that fascinating.
Anyway, you don’t want to hear about yourselves, do you? You know all about yourselves. You know yourselves better than most. You don’t want an ice cream seller rooting around inside your minds. That wouldn’t be fair. That’s your business. You want to know about me and her and the matter in hand.
The problem is, it wasn’t just me and her. It’s never a question of just two people in any relationship. Look at us, four of us sitting here around a table. Coffee cups. Shooting the breeze. But that’s just surface stuff, there’s so much more going on. And it was the same with us. If it had been just the pair of us, things would’ve been different. Or even the three of us, her and me and the little girl; that would’ve been okay, too. I’d happily have settled for that. But children have fathers and men tend not to want someone else in their patch even when they’ve deserted the patch. What we want and what others think we should have is seldom the same thing.
Actually, the kid was with her the first day I saw her and I didn’t mind. That didn’t throw me, not one iota. It was one of those days, late spring, when I knew I wasn’t going to make any money. It was pissing rain. I remember drinking a cup of coffee at the window, looking out across the garden, watching the trees dripping. The front ring had burned out on the cooker that morning. I’d put the kettle on and gone off to have a shower and come back to find the kettle still cold. Strange the way details blister themselves into your memory, like you have a sense for the things you believe you’ll want or need to remember. A sense of occasion, I suppose, even before the occasion happens.
I thought about staying at home, but I’d already been working three weeks at that stage and one of the tricks of the ice cream van trade is that, once the season starts, you never miss a day, hail or rain. People get to know the routine and that’s how you build your business. Miss a day and you confuse them. Exact opposite to the way you guys work. Anyway, I did all the usual stuff, mixed the mix, filled the machines, checked the cordial bottles, ran the jingles. I do all that in the garage, don’t want to disturb the neighbours with yet another blast of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’. It was just an ordinary, miserable April day, the kind of day you survive in the hope of better times. Your job must be like that a lot of the time. You must survive the bad days in the hope that one day, some day, people will hit the straight and narrow and not feel the inclination to veer into the undergrowth.
But that’s all in the future or the past, you don’t want to hear all that. Or maybe you do, maybe you make it all add up.
Anyway, I did my route that morning, drove as slow as I always drive. No one buying, hardly anyone on the streets, a bit of sun, and then the rain coming down like nails, and then another twenty minutes of an excuse for sunshine. It was sunny when I saw her. She was pushing the buggy across the open ground at the end of her road and then the skies opened and she was drenched before she could get under a tree. I drove beside her and she smiled at me and turned her eyes to heaven. I opened the window. Will I play a song to cheer you up? I said. Do that, she said, and then she started running along the path, pushing the buggy in front of her and the rain was bucketing down and she was soaked. I stuck the ‘Raindrops keep falling’ jingle in the tape deck. She turned in at her gate and I saw her fumbling in her purse for a key and then she was opening the door. I stopped at the gate.
Would you like an ice cream? I said. She started laughing. No, she said, but thanks for the song, it’s very appropriate.
And then she was lifting the kid out of the buggy, into the hall, and her shirt was stretched wet across her back and I could see her skin through it.
That was the start of it. If you want me to put a finger on a time and a place, that was it, the minute I saw her lifting the child into the hall, the colour of her skin through the wet shirt, the arch of her back, the curve of her shoulders, her hair plastered against her face.
I fell in love with her, there and then. Something about the way she moved. The way she said appropriate. There was something warm about it, something refined and yet friendly, inviting. The problem is, it’s a waste of my time telling you all this because you just want the sordid bits. The things you’d like to believe happened. You imagine there’s a who, what, where and when that I can give you. Reasons don’t really interest you. And do you know why that is? It’s because you lack imagination. You have a limited view and a limited understanding.
That’s why you miss the things you might otherwise see. That’s why you can only react, because you have an underdeveloped imaginative capability. You have it down there, for plodding, but you don’t have it up here. Your biggest mistake is in assuming that people are stupid when the opposite is so often the case.
It’s all this us and them stuff with you and that’s real enough. But you’re the ones who’ve made it that way. Your presumption has put us on the other side of the fence and we’ll always be there, out of reach, beyond your comprehension. You think, by bringing me in here, that you’re reaching some kind of conclusion.
Not so, my friends.
You’re the ones who said that, about being my friends, that you want to help me, that you’re here to listen. Trying to make a virtue of your weakness. If you’re good listeners it’s only because you have nothing to say, no perception of what you’re dealing with or if you’re dealing with anything at all. That’s the sad and pitiable part of all this.
Do you remember that Joni Mitchell song, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’? Unlikely. Probably not your kind of music. Not that it matters. I mention it only to bring the summer weather to mind. Nor do we ever truly get that kind of thing here. The odd hose attached to one of those water-driven revolving sprays, but nothing like you get in the States. Have you been to the States? Actually, don’t answer that because I don’t really need to know and this is all about need to know, isn’t it? I’m not boring you, am I? I certainly hope not.
You did ask me to tell you everything, but that’s a tall order. What I believe to be important may not seem so to you. And the things you imagine to be important may be of little or no consequence to me. It’s a question of perspective and that is not something we share, believe you me. I recognised that fact the moment we sat down together.
And do you know why? Because you want to clear things up, nail things down, tidy your desks, close the file. All those action words. But then that’s what you are, isn’t it? Action men. And yet, you think there’s nothing you can do without me, isn’t that right? No action you can take, no response, no operation? Nothing. You’re stuck here drinking crap coffee, tapping your feet under the table, wishing you could beat out of me whatever it is you mistakenly believe I know.
A scenario. Your scenario, mind, not mine. Mad bastard becomes besotted with young, single mother. She rejects him. He becomes crazy with lust and anger. He kidnaps her and her child. He leaves the child in a field by a river and drives away. He kills the woman and dumps her body somewhere just out of your reach. You know he did it but you can’t pin it on him without a body. If he’ll just give you that much, you’ll do the rest yourself. Semen stains, skin samples from under the woman’s nails. Home and dry. The child’s too young to tell you anything, too young to know her mother is gone. You need a body or, at least, co-operation.
Another scenario. This one is mine. Man drives an ice cream van for a living. Wet day, sees this woman. Watches her as she’s caught in the rain. He remembers the way her skin shone through her wet shirt. But we’re not talking wet T-shirt nonsense here. We’re talking about a moment of beauty, a moment that lives in the memory. We’re talking about a woman at ease with herself and her body. She’s not embarrassed by how she looks or what he sees. She smiles at him and, yes, he offers her an ice cream cone and another to her kid and he chats to her and he looks forward to seeing her and, he believes, she looks forward to seeing him and, yes, he sees her again. Just because our ice cream man fantasies about taking off her wet shirt and kissing her shoulder doesn’t mean he’s driven by a need to hurt her. What would be the point? Not everything is as crude as you believe it to be and not every- one is as destructive as you imagine.
I appreciate physical beauty and I appreciate sex but I appreciate other things, too. Things like, say, a summer night when the air is absolutely still. You take a night like that and you go and stand in your eight-by-ten garden and you squint up at the stars through the light from the street lamps and you think you’re communing with nature.
Me, I’d prepare for an occasion like that. I’d finish work early and leave home before dark. I like driving into the tail end of a summer evening, into the mist and the shimmer. That gives me pleasure. I drive and drive until I find somewhere quiet and deserted, somewhere that doesn’t have crying children or radios blaring or foul-mouthed teenagers kicking footballs or drinking. Say, a forest that’s miles from anywhere. And, sometimes, I go there alone and sometimes I bring a friend.
Correction, not a friend. You tell me you’re my friends, but I wouldn’t bring you. I bring an intimate, someone who’ll respect the silence and the beauty of the place. And we walk a little distance into the forest, just to be away from car lights and traffic and interruption. And we lie on the mossy floor of the wood or sit against a tree and listen to the sound of the night falling.
Did you know night has a sound that it makes when it falls? I can’t describe it. Nobody can. But if you wait long enough and listen closely enough and have patience enough, you’ll recognise it. The fall of night. It makes you one with nature, it sucks you into the soil and swallows you among the leaves and you do, actually, become one with the cosmos. I suspect Wordsworth experienced it. And Blake. If they were living now you’d probably have them outside, waiting to follow me in here.
But even the warmest night grows cold and, if you’re prepared to allow yourself, you begin to detect the way the woodland shivers as the night goes on. It’s a bit like that thing doctors say about the body reaching its low point around three or four in the morning. The earth is the same; it has a low point, a time when it comes close to death. A time when the moonlight is like dead skin. Inanimate. It just seems to lie there, like a corpse, still beautiful but lifeless. Extraordinary, really.
So you see, sometimes we get sucked in by the beauty of the moment and we need to reflect on the things we’ve seen and the places we’ve been and the people who’ve received those moments with us.
You’re privileged. I hope you appreciate that fact. This is not something I’ve shared with many of my friends – ever. And I’m not sure why I’m sharing it with you. It’s not something you can understand or even begin to appreciate without undergoing it. And sitting all night in a forest doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll appreciate it either. The grace of experience is what it’s about and even best friends cannot share their experiences through words. You know that.
You could tell me now about the most dangerous times you've lived through. You could talk to me about the greatest risks you’ve taken. You could give me every detail of your greatest triumphs, the times when things fell into place for you, when circumstance and evidence and that sixth sense you told me about all tumbled together into that something that’s compensation and gratification in one. But I wouldn’t understand it because I haven’t experienced it.
And you can’t understand the beauty of the moment I’m describing because you weren’t there. You didn’t hear the wind whisper, you didn’t feel the forest shudder, you didn’t see the light of death come down from the moon, you didn’t smell the smell of coldness and you didn’t taste that particular taste that’s like a mortal kiss on the mouth, like an inert tongue on your tongue.
You see, sometimes friendship is not enough, and some things are too personal for sharing, even with friends.
We Seldom Talk About the Past by John McKenna (published by New Island) is out now.