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BILLY O'CALLAGHAN

 

 

 

Billy O'Callaghan

Billy O'Callaghan is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008) and In Too Deep (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), published by New Island Press, the title story of which won the Short Story of the Year Award at the 2013 Irish Book Awards. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines around the world, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, Bliza, Confrontation, the Fiddlehead, Hayden's Ferry Review, the Kyoto Journal, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, the Southeast Review, and Versal. He also reviews books for the Irish Examiner.

 

 

 

 

Last Christmas

 

 

 

On the Carrigaline Road, coming onto Carr's Hill, traffic had slowed to a crawl. It was Christmas Eve, already after six, and full darkness had taken hold. Having made a promise to get home early, today of all days, I'd spent the afternoon trying to close off a particularly convoluted account, but because the phone kept ringing I was still the last one out of the office.

            The rain of earlier had stopped, giving the roads a sheen inside the headlights, and the air was raw with the promise of worse to come, the outbreaks of sleet forecast for later in the night, possibly turning to snow on higher ground. In the car, with the heat turned up, I moved through the radio's channels, but nothing held my interest and I settled finally on a live choral performance of traditional carols, fixed the volume to an unobtrusive level and tried to relax.

            Beside me, on the passenger seat, lay a small palm-sized parcel, wrapped in heavy gold paper and neatly ribboned. My wife's Christmas gift. A month or so ago, when I'd broached the subject of shopping, Angie had suggested that we forego presents this year, because we were saving for a deposit on a house and really couldn't afford the extravagance. Our plan was to rent for another year at least, and give the market a chance to settle. I shrugged and agreed, even though I was already, since early October, tied into a casual weekly instalment plan on a beautiful quarter-carat diamond and crushed sapphire pendant necklace that I'd seen in the window of the jeweller's on Castle Street. What she'd said made sense, but I didn't want the first Christmas of our marriage to pass without some kind of gesture. And I knew how it would go. We'd argue but she'd be secretly happy. We'd argue, but then she'd lift her hair for me and ask that I fasten the clasp, and she'd admire the way it looked in the mirror, with me at her shoulder, and we'd kiss and make up. Because these are the kind of games played by people in love.

            After a few minutes, I cleared the brow of the hill and saw the reason for the delay. Some fifty yards ahead, just at the turn-off to Hilltown, a two-car collision had taken place. One of the cars had run up onto the roadside verge and, from my distance, and in the darkness, looked relatively undamaged, but the other had turned over onto its roof. A fire truck was parked at a diagonal behind the wreckage, obviously a necessary manoeuvre but one that reduced the two-way traffic flow to a single available lane. Inside my car, the only sounds came from the radio, the choir segueing from 'In the Bleak Midwinter' into something unmistakably Latin, the name of which escaped me though I knew the melody well enough to have hummed along with, if I'd so chosen.

            The heat built, and after a few minutes I was forced to crack a window. The initial flood of cold outer air felt good but then, in a lull between carols and through the rumble of car engines, I caught the angry sound of a machine, some sort of an electric saw, and through it, screams. A thin, wet voice, pitched at an angle that couldn't be adult. Ahead of me, the cars again began to move, and I eased forward, into that sound, gaining perhaps twenty yards of road before once more coming to a stop. I could have shut the window, or turned up the music. There are times when denial is the only protection available to us. But I did neither. The choir began to sing one of my favourite carols, 'I Saw Three Ships', the voices in a deft arrangement folding together in a way that seemed to put an echo or a shadow around the words. I closed my eyes and drew three or four deep breaths. The machine groaned behind the music, a blade made for shredding metal, and the screaming came in spurts, filling every available pore of night. I focused on the music, not attaching anything much to the words but letting their sense evoke something older, the recollection of some bright night spent in front of the television as a child, sipping cocoa and watching George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge stride the sullen, snow-clad streets of London. Music has a way of attaching itself to particular and apparently random moments in time, sealing them into a permanent state. When the song ended I drew another deep, cold breath and switched off the radio.

            Again, the car ahead began to move. I watched it veer right by instruction, but held back a moment, counting heartbeats, then crawled another twenty yards until a pale young woman in a dark cap, heavy clothes and a luminous yellow traffic vest stepped in front of me, raising a hand for me to stop. I met her eyes, and nodded. Because of the temporary lighting that had been set up, I could see that she was chewing one side of her lower lip, and that her cheeks were wet with tears. The accident lay just beyond, with the wrecked car and the assembled rescue units blocking off the entire left lane. Beads of glass littered the road, gleaming with the burn of the rigged halogens. Two firemen crouched beside the upturned car, seemingly braced for a release or a sudden collapse, while a third lay on his back and worked a small hand grinder against some snagged knot of metal. Yellow sparks spun in gouts away from the cut, and within seconds the air took on the gun-heavy stench of oxidised steel. A few more uniformed types, police and medics, stood some paces back, watching, wanting to help but not knowing how, wanting more than anything, probably, to run. And to one side, away from everyone, a body lay on the road, covered head to shins in a white sheet. Beneath the low hem, the right foot was bare but the left still wore its shoe, something sleek and low-heeled, with an open toe, the single detail that from my distance helped define gender. And still the screams kept on, fragile, fuelled by terror and probably pain, but maybe also by some understanding.

            I considered the car's exposed underbelly, something I'd never seen before, veined and channelled with a criss-crossing of cables and pipes, wheels black and wet hunched into their cradles. Coming from just the wrong angle, though, the window holes gave me back only darkness, even with the halogens spilling hard over everything in between. For three or four minutes then, I watched the traffic being directed, the young woman with a practised beckon speaking semaphore to the line of cars in the opposite lane. Even shaken to tears, the work had to be done. She had her back to me, and I wondered if she had somebody waiting, if she would come home this Christmas Eve to a happy situation, let her hair down and allow herself to be kissed and held, and loved. I hoped so because, even turned away from me, I could picture the way her cheeks shone wet with tears.

            Something happened then. The grinding sound cut out and the car seemed to slump, or give, and all the men who were standing hurried forward to assist. The cluster of bodies made it difficult to see the details, but it seemed that one of the firemen had been able to wrench open the mangled door. With the others supporting the vehicle's weight, the man who'd been on his back crawled part of the way inside. Ahead of me, the young woman had abandoned her traffic duty to watch the scene unfold, and was leaning on the front left corner of my car, the glow of the tamped headlight spilling up across her midriff. The screams that we'd been hearing reduced, gradually, to a softer crying, and I leaned forward and stared, praying, I think, though not in any conscious way, until a child was lifted from the wreckage, a girl of about six, barefoot in a white bell-shaped dress with narrow shoulder straps that offered nowhere near enough warmth for this weather. I only caught glimpses of her face, not enough really to set her definitively in my mind, but she had long dark hair almost to her waist and a delicate, spidery body. In the fireman's arms, she appeared unhurt but held her shoulders hunched, the rounded bones visible through the spill of hair, as if still braced against an impact. As I watched, I saw her turn her head and stare past the men to where the body lay covered, but then the young woman in charge of directing the traffic stepped across my view and gestured at me to move. I nodded, put the car in gear and let her guide me around the accident site and away.

            For a while, the silence felt right but when it became suddenly too much I again switched on the radio. I'd expected something to have changed, but nothing had. The choir was still carolling, 'In Excelsis Deo', 'Adeste Fideles'. The traffic into Carrigaline was heavy but moving, and I listened to the music and watched the footpaths on either side thick with pedestrians, mothers holding children by the hand, idling teens, young women in packs, laughing and full of freedom, with their coats worn open and dressed to catch the eye, probably on their way to the last or merely the latest of the Christmas parties. Ropes of lighting stretched above the road, slightly bellying, the bulbs a staggered order of reds, yellows, blues and greens adding something splendid to the night, painting an atmosphere that felt warm and slightly melancholic. Most of the shop and pub windows boasted some shade of the season, too; a bauble and tinsel-clad tree, a slow-moving half-sized Santa, a Happy Christmas message stencilled to the glass in gleaming, artificial snow. I moved through the town and turned right halfway up the hill, to follow a darker road home.

 

 

            Framed by the living room window, Angie stood lighting mantelpiece candles. I parked on the road, but kept the engine running because I didn't yet want to lose the music, or interrupt the scene with silence. The coloured lights of our Christmas tree shifted to a set rhythm, giving the otherwise dim room its own kind of movement. We'd decorated that tree together, a fortnight or so earlier, the night after my birthday, and I remember threads of tinsel clinging to her hair and a fleck of glitter that I kissed away from one corner of her mouth when, still warm from our exertions, we settled down together on the settee. It is the morsels of detail that fill memories, etching a permanence in our minds and hearts, even if the moments themselves pass so quickly. That night, we sat holding hands, content in the dancing colours of the fairy lights, sipping mulled wine, tired and overjoyed at being together, knowing that whatever we had was only just beginning. Tomorrow, though, would be a new day, and next year a new year, and we both understood that things could change, whether we wanted them to or not.

            On the radio now, a soloist was taking on 'O Holy Night', and I could feel the rest of the choir readying themselves to fall in. But for these seconds there was only one voice, a soft, pure soprano swelling unhurriedly toward an immense climax and then holding that impossible top note for longer than I could ever hold my breath. When I closed my eyes I found only colours, and then, through them, I saw again the twisted metal, the glass like hail across the surface of the road, and the shape beneath the sheet. And somewhere among the highest notes of the music, I heard the screams. That was enough. I killed the engine, locked the car and went inside.

            Angie, in a white shortsleeved chiffon blouse with its string-drawn throat a good four inches undone and a teal-coloured wool skirt that came to just below the knee, blew out the match she was holding and came and put her arms around me. Her hair, gathered up in a loose, tousled ponytail, deliberately careless, seemed unusually dark, muddy. We kissed, and I caught cider and cinnamon from the shampoo she'd earlier used, as well as a hint of wine on the tip of her tongue, but the stench of the match, slightly sulphurous, lay against everything.

            “You're late,” she said, finally slipping free. “You didn't forget that Brian and Liz are calling, did you?”

            “I didn't,” I said, releasing her. “Sorry. I couldn't get away. It's just been that kind of day. And then the traffic was so heavy.”

            She turned to the window, and the long red-stemmed candle set into a chunk of holly-clad beech or elm, and struck another match. The candle's wick took the flame, guttered and steadied, and a warm yellow sheen spread across the windowpane, sealing us off from the world beyond. Her feet were bare and she'd painted her nails a red that in the darkness, and set against the pale taupe carpet, made me think of newly drawn blood. I tried not to stare but, even after eight months of marriage, her details continued to astound me.

            I dropped down onto the settee, and held a hand out to her. She looked at me, but remained out of reach.

            “I need to get something into the oven. Liz always puts on such a spread.”

            “Just for a minute,” I said. The fairy lights made her seem restless, though she was standing still. “They'll be late. I told you. The traffic is heavy tonight.”

            With reluctance, she came and sat beside me, perching on the edge of the settee. I put my hand to the small of her back, but she either ignored it or had already grown so used to my touch that she did not react. I could feel the bones of her spine through the chiffon, and it was in my mind to talk about the accident but something about the serenity of the room and the perfection of the moment made me hold my words. And happy, I suppose, or at least content, we sat there together for a minute or more, watching the tree, the lights, the soft burn of the candles. Then the telephone began to ring, and she stood and left the room.

 

 

©2014 Billy O'Callaghan

 

 

Author Links

 

'Throwing in the Towel': Billy O'Callaghan story in Bellevue Literary Journal

'Syzygy': O'Callaghan story in Cezanne's Carrot

'A ruin on the Beara Peninsula': article by Billy O'Callaghan in the Irish Examiner

 

 

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