We present another story from the RTÉ Short Story Competition shortlist 2022 − listen to Big Why, Little Why by Brendan Killeen above, and read Brendan's story below.

Brendan Killeen is an Irish journalist, writer and editor who has been living in Copenhagen for 20 years. He works in communications at the European Environment Agency, and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Brendan says: "I was inspired to write Big Why, Little Why while on a week's holiday in Madrid with my son Noah in October 2021. We visited the Reina Sofia art museum and overheard a couple arguing in front of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica..."


Big Why, Little Why

The father and son have been in Madrid for four days without visiting a single museum. On this, their second to last day in the city, the father will insist that they visit the Reina Sofía museum later that morning. No discussion. This museum has been recommended by a Madrilenian friend, an artist, who insists that is the only art museum in the city to bring a teenager to. The father trusts this woman. He also feels obliged to bring his son to the museum because his friend will ask about it later.

The father stands in the small apartment staring as his son sleeps on a small fold-out bed. His sleeping child, lying on his back, arms by his side like a corpse. The father is terrified to even touch him, to disturb this cold, complete-looking peace. A sort of death in its own right. The waking a resurrection, a stealing. The son moves his head and the father sees that he is awake.

'We're visiting the museum,’ the father says.

There is no answer. The father sees that his son has tiny earphones in.

The father pokes his son on the arm with a pointed finger.

The son jumps, flushed. ‘We are going to that museum today.’

‘OK,’ the son says biting his chapped lip.

Now, in the mid-morning sunlight, father and son walk from the rented apartment on Siete de Julio along Calle Mayor towards the museum. They stop for a coffee. A morning coffee in a proper café has already become a routine. The father watches his son reflected in a mirror on the far wall. Drinking his coffee with sucked in cheeks, serious cheekbones from his mother, tilted head and narrow eyes, flicking his green nail-varnished fingers across his shattered phone. The father stares at his son reflected and wonders how he will die. Then, to chase the thought away, he shakes his head like a dog drinking sea-water and shucks the dregs of coffee into his mouth. In the corner of the café, the TV is on. Sky news with the sound off. Headlines scrolling mutely across the bottom: an explosion somewhere – 27 dead including ‘women and children’. The father sorts through the coins in his lined palm, pays for the coffee and, looking at the TV again, wonders when boys stop counting – amongst the dead.

The father receives some change and slides it, red-faced, into his jacket pocket. As he does so, he feels the empty postcard intended for his parents. He takes the postcard from his pocket. It shows the cloister inside the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo. The father hopes weakly that his hand-written words will tell his father and mother that he understands that time is both abstract and precious and that only a few things are important in this life.

The father puts the card back and they leave the café. Ten minutes later they are standing in the museum at an exhibition of abstract art from the last century. The father spots the outline of a large black, white and grey painting and he realises that it is Guernica, a painting that has fascinated him since he was at school. He actually thought the painting was hanging at the United Nations building in New York.

‘Jesus,’ he says because if they had missed this, the entire trip would have lost something. Instead, the trip now assumes some profound extra meaning according to the mysterious calculus of these things.

They join a small group of people staring at the huge painting. Two museum employees stand guard, one on each side.

Just as the great painting relaxes into the father’s stare – the shapes taking form, breaking up, taking deeper form – the moment is lost as a tall, gauche husband starts speaking loudly to his pale wife in a language both the father and son understand.

The conversation translates roughly as follows:

- Why, darling, I don’t understand it, the husband says.

- Yes, well it’s abstract darling, the wife replies.

- Why is the face so weird?

- Darling!

- Why is it so confusing? Why doesn’t it make any sense?

Oh, for god’s sake. I knew this was a bad idea.

The father’s heart sinks and he becomes annoyed. The son looks at him through smiling eyes.

Just then there is a splashing commotion behind them and people turn to see a great puddle forming at the bottom of the now largely empty frame in the adjoining room, where Miró’s Man with Pipe was framed.

The pale grey-blue puddle reforms itself as an amoebic blob and starts to make its way with great effort to the area in front of Guernica where it eventually stops.

The wife stifles a scream and grabs her startled husband’s arm.

Man with Pipe says something in muffled Spanish into the ground. Nobody understands. The blob repeats itself louder.

‘Help me,’ the blob finally says in heavily accented English and the father and son kneel either side and gently assist it to an uncertain standing position. The line of the pipe sticks out, not unexpectedly, in an abstract fashion. There is a faint smell of poster paint and turpentine.

'Gracias,' Man with Pipe says out of the corner of his mouth, which is the only way he can speak.

'De nada,' the son says and the father feels a pang of pride.

The blob looks uncertainly at the son’s nail polish. It starts to say something but has second thoughts and everyone is relieved that a great piece of abstract expressionism does not expose itself as a prude or worse. The blob refocuses and looks at the husband.

‘I don’t understand much of your language but I believe you were asking ‘Why?’’

‘Yes,’ the husband says sheepishly.

‘There is no shame in that,’ Man with Pipe says, looking unsteadily around at the group. ‘This is what the great master wanted to happen: that almost 100 years later, people would look at this masterpiece and simply ask ‘WHY’. This is a beautiful moment.’

‘Yes,’ the wife replies, ‘but my husband wasn’t asking the big ‘WHY’. He was asking a lot of little ‘why's.'

‘Madam?’ Man with Pipe enquires politely.

Andrew Bennett
Andrew Bennett will read 'Big Why, Little Why'RT on air

‘I’m saying, he hasn’t got the sense to ask ‘why’ about the painting the way Picasso wanted. He just doesn’t get it.’

‘Is this true?’ Man with Pipe asks the husband. ‘Did you come here and stand at the altar of this piece of artistic genius, this rarest piece of beauty hewn from blood and slaughter and devastation and ask the small ‘whys’ instead of the big ‘WHY?’'

‘Yes,’ the husband says honestly.

¡DIOS SANTO! You are engineer, no?’

‘Yes,’ the man replies, standing to attention.

¡HOSTIA! The engineers and the scientists will be our salvation, if they don’t suicide us all first,’ the blob says inclining its head ever so slightly at one of the museum guards. The guard sneaks up behind the husband, taking out a white handkerchief with one hand and a small bottle with the other. She tips the bottle into the handkerchief and swiftly brings it up to the husband’s lower face from behind. She has to stand on tippy toes but she is fast. The husband crumples backwards and the museum woman eases him to the ground. His wife lets go his arm and stares at him in shock.

‘Don’t worry madam,’ Man with Pipe says, ‘your husband will wake up on a shaded bench in the museum garden facing an abstract but still pleasing sculpture that has an element of engineering about it. It is also by Miró and it will appeal, I think.

‘I suggest you take your time and enjoy the exhibition. There will also be time for a spot of lunch. I recommend the tapas bar on the square. They make an excellent cocktail with their own homemade vermouth, to which they add gin, Campari and a piece of orange skin on a toothpick. The orange skin is for infusion purposes and is not to be eaten.’

‘I will do that,’ the woman says.

‘After such an infusion it is common to want to make love vigorously,’ Man with Pipe says.

The pale wife blushes.

Vale,’ one of the museum workers says, ‘it is time for Man with Pipe to have his siesta.’

Man with Pipe is helped back towards his frame.

The wife turns and walks deeper into the collection, flicking her hair out like she had done when she was single.

Two museum workers drag the unconscious husband like a dead soldier through a side-door. The father and son walk towards the exit. They have seen enough for one day.

‘What is vermouth?’ the son asks.

‘I’m not sure. Let’s grab lunch outside. We can make enquiries about vermouth.’

The father and son find an authentic café nearby and take a table. The father orders two light beers. As they peruse the menu there is a tremendous bang as the ashtray in front of them explodes. The husband and wife proprietors rush over. The father and his son are untouched by the crystal shards that surround them. The café couple are deeply shocked.

‘Why did this happen?’ they ask.

‘Why did it not hit them?’

‘Why, why, why.’

‘These are all little ‘whys’. We need to only ask the big ‘WHY',’ the son says aloud and the people look at him as if he has spoken a great truth.

The father smiles unsure but proud. Unsure that a spontaneously exploding ashtray that has not touched, never mind hurt them, is not a question of the big ‘WHY’. He knows he and his son are on divergent paths and he is unsure of how to say goodbye even if it is a little goodbye and he is sure they will be reunited again. But he does not want to hold his son back with mawkishness – a very underestimated vice.

The father remains silent, sips his beer and looks around the café, where he sees a photograph of a church set in an old, listing graveyard. The headstones remind him of the empty postcard in his pocket.

The father orders a baked potato for himself and an omelette for his son. He also asks for two glasses of vermouth and a pen. Bells begin to ring at a nearby church.

The arrival of the food saves the father from the growing silence in front of him. More bells now ring across the city in procession. ‘I sometimes wonder if I am not eating the same potato over and over again,’ the father says.

‘I wonder where the vermouth is,’ the son says.

‘And the pen,’ the father says.

The church bells, which started out of rhythm, are now ringing in an almost synchronised riot across the city.

The bells sadden the father who thinks of the turmoil brewing at the beginning of this century. He wishes Picasso and Frida, at the very least, were here to fend it off or capture it, at least, in their abstract souls.

‘All we have is bleeding Netflix,’ he laughs. He is relieved when no one reacts and he enjoys the deliciousness of a private joke unjudged. He looks down at his plate. He has definitely seen this potato before.

The son begins to eat with relish and the father takes another moment to observe him, taking in his child’s full face now framed in the rich afternoon sun. Seeing his boy turning into a man, the father wonders how he has made something so beautiful and fragile, elementary, like a white stone washed on a white beach.

Suddenly, all the church bells are completely still, as if they know something.

The father bows his head and begins to eat.

To hear Brendan discuss his story with Sean Rocks on Arena, click here

Big Why, Little Why by Brendan Killeen was read by Andrew Bennett.

The series continues on Late Date at 11.20pm each night from 10 to 20 October (except Saturday 15th).

This will culminate in an Arena/RTÉ Short Story special which will go out live on air at 7pm on Friday 21 October 2022 from Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, with all 10 shortlisted writers in attendance. Judges Lisa McInerney, Ferdia MacAnna and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne will discuss the art of the short story and the stories from this year's shortlist with host Seán Rocks, there'll be live music and performances from leading actors, and we'll find out who's won the top prizes. Why not join us in person? Audience tickets are now on sale at paviliontheatre.ie

And for more about the RTÉ Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus, go here.