What was I Still Miss Someone…

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Once I had a wonderful agent, and the agent sent out my earlier novel The Dangerous Edge of Things, or, as it was known then, I Still Miss Someone. Here’s the email she sent out with the book, and some of the responses:

Dear Y (various publishers),

As promised, I am delighted to send you  I Still Miss Someone, James Ferron Anderson’s powerful first novel.
I Still Miss Someone is about Turlough Barr, a young Protestant man growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, who escapes to England where he finds that the fear and violence of his past pursue him still.
I Still Miss Someone is a novel that has a great deal to say about the effects of growing up in a world filled with terrorism in all its forms – hatred, bigotry, ignorance, fear and violence – but it is also a story about the need and search for love, and the enduring effects of having experienced it at least for a little while, as Turlough Barr does with his loving but ineffectual Uncle Billy.
I am enormously impressed by James’s writing, and I think his first novel is full of a generous understanding of our flawed humanity. I hope you will want to be his UK publisher. Rights on offer are UK and Commonwealth (excluding Canada). This is a multiple submission and I look forward to hearing from you no later than Wednesday the 11th of July.

The agent got back:

Dear X (my agent),

Thank you for this. This is beautifully written as you say – and I loved the idiomatic dialogue — but I’m afraid I didn’t fall for the book as a whole. I’m sorry.

Clara Farmer, Editorial Director,

Chatto & Windus, The Random House Group Ltd

20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London  SW1V 2SA

 

And again: Dear X,

Many thanks for this. I thought it a highly thoughtful and powerful novel and was impressed by it as a debut, but I also had a number of reservations about it – about the actual writing, sometimes the dialogue and the way in which the book tends so much to be told from outside Turlough/John Lee’s head – and on balance, after some indecision, I have, I’m afraid, decided to pass.
I am sorry not to feel able to respond more positively.
All best.
Ravi Mirchandani, Grove Atlantic

And again: Dear X,

I wanted to get back to you about your great young Irish hope, James Anderson.

I found his writing was incredibly memorable and intense. The dialogue was an especial treat and reminded me at times of Maria Hyland’s Eire-set Carry Me Down. What I liked less about it was the confusion as to where the narrative present was. The disjointedness is perhaps one if its charms but I must admit that I wasn’t completely swept away by the story, and on that basis I think it is not one for us to try and acquire.

As ever, such a matter of personal taste. Ain’t it always!

I was so pleased to see this come in and I love reading this sort of brave new voice. Thanks for sending and good luck finding the right editor.

All best,

Francis Bickmore, Senior Editor, Fiction, Canongate Books

I can’t remember whose feedback was: “Unrelentingly depressing.” But there was plenty in that vein.

It’s been more than renamed. It’s been rewritten. And, I’d guess, I hope, still unrelentingly depressing. You can buy it on Amazon. Go break a leg.

James Ferron Anderson

 

 

Does Donald trump?

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So I’m back home in Northern Ireland, up on the Antrim Coast near White Rocks. That’s a big beach, little rocky islands called the Skerries out in the cold sea on one side, tall sandhills on the other. Beyond the tall sandhills is the golf course where Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open Champion, plays.
I’m strolling along there under the hard blue sky in the cutting breeze on this bright clear morning, not a soul in sight, when I’m a bit surprised to see three men in heavy dark overcoats come struggling over the sandhills and slipping and sliding down onto the beach in front of me. There’s something vaguely familiar about the bulky yellow-haired one in the middle. As they come closer, him doing all the talking, I realize it’s Donald Trump.
I pause and wait for them. They can see I’ve got something to say and, maybe from a desire to curry favour with the natives, they stop. ‘Good morning,’ says Donald.

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‘Donald Trump,’ I say. ‘Stylish hair-wearer, television personality whose handling of erratic nut job Gary Busey in Season Eleven of US Celebrity Apprentice was widely commended, entrepreneur and multimillionaire asswipe, no doubt you are considering buying the golf course on the other side of those sandhills now you have been made unwelcome in Scotland despite your trillions. Now you know from personal experience how it feels to go to someone else’s country and be made unwelcome. Not a good feeling, is it? And yet you subject countless refugees and immigrants from Syria to Mexico to insult and refusal, people travelling out of necessity more than from the desire for a round of golf, and most of whom don’t have two pennies, or in your parlance, millions, to rub together?’
He gazes out to sea, where he’s looking directly at Scotland except it’s too far away, thinking. As well he might.
‘How does it feel to be an undesirable, Donald,’ I go on, ‘standing there, hair askew in the Irish breezes, a heavy either side, knowing everyone you meet wishes you would go home and roll around in some dollars and forget about them? But please keep up the run at the Republican Party candidacy for that will let Hillary Clinton into the presidency, or at a pinch even the preferable Bernie Sanders.’
He shakes his head. The hair doesn’t move. Just the head. ‘Come on,’ he says to his aides/bodyguards/assistants/adopted children. ‘Nothing for us here.’
And you know something – Donald Trump never did buy the Royal Portrush Golf Club, the sandhills and White Rocks beach. Nor the Skerries. Nor the sea.
‘And remember,’ I call after them, ‘the old question remains: does Donald trump? And the answer is yes, every time he opens his mouth.’ And none of them turn around.

The power of Eurovision

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My finger hovers over the V. I have never typed this name before. Nor written it, nor said it. I press the V. But this name has flitted through my mind for years. A small i. It was around somewhere as I grew into adolescence. Small c. Had my first jobs, packed eggs and loaded lorries. Small k. When my father died, when my mother died. I press the y. The name went with me when I moved from Northern Ireland to England.

 L. Partners coming and going. A child born. Another child. The e. I don’t know where it came from. Or where the partners, the children went to. I don’t know why I haven’t looked it up long ago, and I don’t know why I’m doing this now. A lot of fuss over a foreign-sounding name. And I’m very sober this dry, dry evening. The a. Not sure of the spelling, and thinking. The n, then d, r, o, s, quickly.

 It’s typed. I look at the screen.

 Vicky Leandros.

 I click ‘search’.

 There are many videos of her. One is of the Eurovision Song Contest, March 25th, 1972, Edinburgh, and a song called Après Toi. I have never watched the Eurovision Song Contest, but I’m less surprised at seeing this than I think I should be. 1972. So many years. God. It is in black and white. I click, and click again, and it fills the screen.

 For a couple of seconds there is a shot of an audience. Men with side burns. Comb-over hair. Bouffant-haired women. A man’s voice says her name: Vicky Leandros. He continues to speak in a foreign language. I’m watching more than listening and I don’t recognise the language. The framed face of a young woman, pretty enough, with long dark hair, is projected on a screen on stage. Her name is below. I accept it is her, but it could be any pretty young Mediterranean woman. It doesn’t explain anything. The man with the European language talks rapidly on and on. The only words I recognise are ‘Vienna’ and her name again, repeated, as if two pronunciations are possible: Leandros and Leandro.

 I am being shown part of the audience and part of the orchestra pit. Between the two is a hanging, twinkling curtain. The voice talks on. The words spill out over the shadowy people, the silly curtain. It all looks small scale, amateurish. The hanging twinkling curtain parts and a man with large glasses and long thick fair hair walks out between orchestra and audience. He steps up onto a little podium and bows to the audience. The rail of the podium shakes as he bows.

 The projection of the pretty girl on stage has been replaced with the words ‘Après Toi’. I wouldn’t have known what they meant in 1972. A man begins to dart across in front of the words, and then goes back. It all adds to the air of amateurishness.

 The camera pulls away and I can see the stage for the first time, and it is only just in time, for a slim young woman in a long dark dress is already walking out in front of the cameras and the audience. She walks quickly, confidently. Her right arm swings once, up and ahead of her. She stops. The spotlight has thrown an oval on the floor behind her, and her shadow, like her, slim and dark, stretches out across the oval.

 Vicky Leandros. Knowing her name and nothing else about her for forty years has alone given her mystique and gravitas.

 The commentator in his European language seems to say ‘rosy fingers’, but I doubt this, and then he stops talking. Immediately the orchestra pumps out music. Poomp poomp poom.

 I must have seen this before. This exact performance, minus the foreign commentary. Sitting, on what was surely a Saturday night, in front of a television with my parents in their house in Milltown Street, Dunmaddy, Northern Ireland.

 I’m shivering a little. All the why questions are running in my head. It’s like I have found an old diary, I’m reading about something that was once important to me, and I can’t understand why it was ever important, and why it was then forgotten.

 She seems a little hunched, but it is the raised shoulders of the dress. I am hearing her voice before I realise she is singing. She sings softly. Tu t’en vas. You are leaving. The camera is coming in closer. It could not come in close enough. She is beautiful. A serious, beautiful, face.

 The camera comes closer still. The voice is not strong, but the image and the sound fill me. I see her hand holding the microphone, the small pale fingers, a ring, like an engagement ring, on her middle finger. The long waving dark hair cascades, yes, about her face. Her eyes close, her mouth makes a bow shape, opens, and now her singing erupts: Qu’après toi…

 And I look at her, and my heart moves in me, as it surely must have done on that night in Dunmaddy, in my twelve year old self. Very little moves me, and this is moving me. It’s not comfortable. I watch the dark hair, the face, the little curve of the nose, the bow mouth that spills out wonder and tenderness and sadness: … je ne pourrai plus vivre, non plus vivre qu’en souvenir de toi. After you I cannot live, not live only in memory of you. Her right hand, the back to the audience, rises level with her face, and descends and the fingers ripple as the hand comes down. The fingers have twinkled, and there is nothing cheap about it. She continues to sing and I am not translating any more. The sound is, as it must have been then, sense enough. As her voice falls at the end of this verse her face breaks into a smile. She is making a beautiful thing and knows it and should smile.

 Was it at this moment on the sofa in Dunmaddy that her name, the only words I could understand, became so firmly hung on that peg in my head? My thoughts shoot away from the video and to Northern Ireland in 1972. What was happening then? But I have spent many years making sure those things haven’t stayed on any pegs.

 She is facing me now. Her right hand begins to ascend once more, slowly, to level with her face, the back of the hand to me. It hovers, then descends swiftly. I am fascinated.

 I would have known then, as I read on-line on the morning after this evening, that, up until this Saturday night ninety people had been murdered in Northern Ireland in 1972, thirty one of them in those first twenty five days of March alone.

 I would have known then that five days before this night a 200 pound car bomb had been detonated in Donegall Street in Belfast city centre, murdering seven people and injuring one hundred and fifty more. Two of the dead were policemen trying to evacuate the area. Three were binmen, blown off their bin lorry. Two were old age pensioners.

 I hear the words ‘après toi’ again and again. There is a large brooch of leaves and berries on the high-necked dark dress. The dark hair falls and curls against her cheeks, the smooth skin pale against the dark of the hair and the dress.

 I would have known then, as I watched this before, that a little later on that same day as the car bomb a sniper fired a single shot and murdered a soldier.

 Now her head and the hand holding the microphone fill the screen. I can see her sad, serious, heavy-lidded eyes. The camera is pulling back. I try to think about this singer and song, what it has meant and what it means to me now, but the desire to watch and listen overwhelms the desire to understand.

  I would have known then that two days before that night the army shot and murdered a thirteen year old schoolboy in Belfast. A petrol bomb was found nearby but no evidence he had ever touched it.

 And the voice rises once more, and once more the right hand rises with it, the fingers ripple, the hand descends. Yes. And again, as surely I was on that Saturday night forty years before in Dunmaddy, I am full of both sadness and joy. It is hard and shocking. I inhale and forget to breath out, and then jolt back into sense.

 The murders on the day she sang were even more ridiculous and avoidable and banal. I imagine Vicky Leandros waking about seven a.m. to rehearse, to prepare herself, a long day ahead, in Edinburgh on the far side of the short strip of water that is the Irish Sea. About seven a.m. in Springhill Avenue in Belfast a man was accidentally shot by his friends, and trailed into a house. The woman who lived there came downstairs and found his body in her living room. He had been somehow accidentally shot by twenty-four bullets of three different calibres.

 Après toi je ne serai que l’ombre… the camera is pulling back… de ton ombre… The song is nearing its end. Even I, unmusical, know that. Her right hand is rising in a wide sweep, moving out, around… Après toi. The hand descends suddenly and her song is over. There is applause, much applause, and she is looking up. It is over for her, and beginning. Her head moves just a little to her left, then forward, and she bows. Then the audience, over-dressed, over-permed, stiff in their seats on what looks like a balcony, but applauding, a couple looking at each other, the stiff applauding going on and on.

 The other murder on that March 25th was in another part of Belfast, around the time Vicky Leandros sang. A man had gone to the Shankill Road UDA club and complained about the beating of a friend. Were the drinkers watching this on television too? The man who had done the beating shot him in the head.

 Not a thing of these incidents when Vicky Leandros sang in Edinburgh, or anything about the other four hundred and ninety six people murdered in Northern Ireland that year, has stayed with me. That might have been the year the IRA shot me in the arm. It was some year around then. I can’t remember. I have succeeded in not remembering, in making the petty, deadly, things nothing to me. But I have remembered this singer’s name.

 Sitting there after the song finishes I do remember some of the stratagems for survival in Northern Ireland in 1972. Draw the curtains before putting the house lights on. Keep the car interior light permanently off. Never stop walking if someone pulls up in a car to ask directions. Don’t open anything you might find. Never answer any knock at the door without first checking. I would have known many more then, yet never enough. That was life, as we walked and talked and went to school and work, and watched the petty, deadly things come up to our own door and then turn away, maybe this time, maybe not the next. And while we waited for that knock we watched light nonsense on television, and I saw Vicky Leandros make a little, important, bit of wonder in a hall in Edinburgh.

 I’ve timed the video. From the music starts until she stops singing is 2 minutes 48 seconds.

 Over the next hours of this evening I play Après Toi in English, where it is supposed to mean Come What May. The English words are happy and so wrong. I hear it sung in German, in Greek, in Spanish. I watch and hear a Vicky Leandros, recognisable, stranger, harder somehow, a performer, sing it in 1992 and 1995. I watch and hear her, over the years, always attractive, never magical, sing many other songs in a range of languages. I watch her with bobbed hair five years before that night in Edinburgh singing another entry in another Eurovision Song Contest, a song called Love is Blue. She looks full-cheeked and what she is, a very young woman with heavy makeup.

 There is nothing to drink in the flat. I could go out for a bottle of something. But it’s late and I don’t want to walk the streets. Among these foreigners, I think. The English. Or go to bed and lie awake. Instead I go back and watch the black and white video again. As I watch I see things I missed first time around. I watch again as her face breaks into the smile after the first crescendo. I freeze the frame, and look at that face as the lips begin to close. Yes. She knows she has done this well. Does she know how well? I watch the gesture of the hands, the fingers rippling, the brow furrowing, the lips changing shape. Seeing the effects work over and over does nothing to lessen them. I expect them, I think I understand them and, on this created, crafted, constructed thing, they work again and again.

 Later, way into the night, I think: what happened to the long dark dress? Does she still keep it, in a wardrobe, the dress she wore when she broke through and became… whatever she became? Was there a man, a boyfriend, who asked for and got the dress and then maybe in a year, full of anger as she moved on, threw it away? And the brooch of leaves and berries?

 I think: in the morning shall I look up what was happening in Northern Ireland around March 25th 1972? Of course I do. It is the cold experience I anticipated. It is what I have told you.

 I think: if I was naive to find this song and this singer so beautiful all those years ago then, held up against the stupidity and bigotry and hatred and violence all around me, it was a small naivety, a small stupidity.

 I tell myself that on that Saturday night in 1972 I forgot to be fearful for all of 2 minutes 48 seconds, that for that time I was free, and that it was long enough, important enough, for me to carry the name, the one thing I understood, in my head for forty years.

 That is what I have told myself anyway. It may even be true.

 So I play the video again. I play it again, I play it again, and this I do know: each time as it ends the sadness of something lovely having been lost sweeps over me.

 

 

 

 

Extra Added Value?

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On February 5th in a blog called Added Value? I wrote about putting extra into the text, things that even as I write them I know will not be noticed, or will be noticed by very few. My examples at that time were the descriptions of Harry Garrard that follow his mention of the Wendigo in Chapter Two, page 17.
In that blog I wrote:
In The River and The Sea Harry Garrard, the supposed expert on the North, outlines his ludicrous plans for providing food, then turns away and says: ‘Have I told you the tales I heard at Fort Laird about the Wendigo?’ He’s doing no more than announcing the subject closed. There is no other mention of the Wendigo in the book. But, and who knows this but myself, and who ever will, except you, dear reader, that every description of the weakening and dying Harry from then on is taken from descriptions of the Wendigo, and specifically those in Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), a collection of Oxford lectures?
I want to add a further example to take the point a little further. This perhaps, from Chapter Ten, page 165 of The River and The Sea:
She began to hum something as she walked. Her voice rose and fell and her chin rose with the higher notes. She looked round at me and saw me watching her and smiled and kept on humming. Suddenly she took my arm and started to run, but I didn’t go with her. She let go and ran a few steps and looked back at me with her eyes wide, and stopped humming and laughed. She was panting, not from exertion, but alive and happy.
I held up a finger. ‘Old Dog Trey?’
‘Puccini.’ She punched my arm. ‘It was Pu…’ punch ‘cci…’ punch ‘ni,’ punch.
‘You look very pretty when you’re punching me.’
‘Are you a man or what, to let me?’
By now the reader will know Jack well enough to at least suspect that while he may be heartbroken over Sarah he will be capable of acting in social situations as he thinks suits him best. In other words he’s making a joke. As he says in Chapter Eleven, page 177, walking into Sarah’s house for the first time since the return of her husband and his rejection, and husband, wife and their visitor waiting for him:
I would speak first. I could always speak, and smile, and act, the useless, passable things.
‘Good evening. Thank you so much for having me.’
Old Dog Trey… or sometimes Tray, is a song by Stephen Foster, written in 1853. But, and here is my little, concealed until now, dear reader, extra:
Puccini’s opera, The Girl of the Golden West, premiered in 1910, contains a song sung by the travelling minstrel Jake Wallace, Che faranno i vecchi miei. Many people have thought that the tune is lifted directly from Stephen Foster’s earlier song. So it’s reasonable to think that what she is humming might be Old Dog Trey, while she considers it to be something from Puccini. It is, in fact, both.
My idea to use this for ridicule is not totally original.
In the film Tombstone, Billy Clanton (played by Thomas Hayden Church) tries to bait Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer), who is playing a Chopin nocturne on the piano, by saying “Is that ‘Old Dog Tray?’ That sounds like ‘Old Dog Tray’ to me.” When the goad fails, Clanton asks whether Doc knows any other songs, like “‘Camptown Races?’ ‘Oh Susanna?’ “You know, Stephen stinkin’ Foster?!?”
Yip, there is little new under the sun.

Something To Do

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The complete short story is now available in one section under Part One.

Part Six:
That is the way Harry remembers it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t like that but that is the way he remembers it. He has not been back once in the twenty years that have passed since that holiday. He and his daughter pace up and down the beach, chilled through under all their heavy clothes. His daughter looks for shells for a while, gives up. This place is so pure, wild and fresh, scoured by storms.
The men in wetsuits, carrying surf boards, looking determined, troop over the rise and down the beach and past them. They plough on into the sea, stroking their way out through the Atlantic waves, under the hard clear bright sky. Harry and his daughter watch them. The men stroke on, as if heading for the Skerries. They bob, appear, disappear. Harry is very quiet. His daughter puts her arm around him. He puts his arm around her.
He looks at the base of the White Rocks. No rug, no scattered Harp cans, no discarded Smirnoff bottle. No glasses with hunting scenes. No Benson and Hedges cigarettes. No parents. His parents are both long dead. No children dragging inner tubes one-handed to the sea, plastic beakers held aloft in the other. Where are his brothers and sisters now?
Maybe they are still out there. Maybe the men in wetsuits will find them. Angela, Thomas and Heather still bobbing in the inflated inner tubes, keeping cigarettes dry, sheltering beakers of eccentric cocktails from passing waves, while he himself perches up on a hill watching golfers on the links course, stealing sand rakes, stealing golf balls, sipping Harp from the can, all of them waiting for time to pass, all of them waiting for things to get better.
Harry and Laura turn away before the men in wetsuits can climb to their feet and surf back to shore. Father and daughter, their backs to the wind, backs to the Atlantic, they walk hand in hand, wade on up the sand like it’s deep snow. They descend the other side, into shelter. They go through tough grass, climb down over mounds of sand, step across the sagging strand of fence wire.
They unlock the hired car, get in, loosen clothing, open the shopping from Portrush. There are sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiche, pastries, ham, cheese, cheese triangles, oranges, apples, dates, grapes, bananas.
They eat. It is something to do.
The End

Something To Do

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Skerries, County Antrim

Part Five:
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June raise Angela from the surf and call the others ashore. They are as lean as rakes, their skin bronzed and peeling, hair bleached and tangled, what clothes they have filthy. Benson and Hedges dangle from their lips. Thomas and Heather hold carefully upright the plastic beakers of cocktails of choice which they have been enjoying whilst at sea. Angela says damn and fuck and shite and then finds a beer after all and pops it open. As Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June stand there wondering what to do, Harry comes back down from the sandhills where he has been watching golfers on the links beyond. He has an open can of Harp in one hand, his pockets bulge with golf balls, he trails three sand rakes behind him.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June wake up Cecil and Helen and make them take the children back to the caravan. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June have no children of their own, but they are loud and talkative and full of authority. They say there will be no more children drifting about in rubber rings. Somebody starts to laugh. They say there will be no more children smoking. All the children are laughing. There will certainly be no more children drinking. Cecil and Helen are laughing as well. Heather laughs the most. She lights up a Benson and Hedge, sucks on her plastic beaker. That is the second and last time there is family laughter during the holiday.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June tell them they have to vacate the caravan. Their trust has been abused. They tell the tale of their arrival and the state of the caravan. They tell it several times. The laughter has long since died. Cecil walks away from them while they are still speaking, lies down on an unmade bed. In moments he is snoring. That is when Uncle Ronnie discovers the toilet door is off its hinges, the bedclothes full of cigarette burns.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June sit outside in the fading sunlight in a huff for twenty minutes and when nobody apologises (the children have forgotten about them by then and are experimentally mixing Babycham and Ribena in a milk jug) they go home.
During the family’s time in the caravan no-one proposes anything. No-one objects to anything. No-one annoys anyone. No-one falls out. There is nothing to be annoyed or fall out about. There is enough drink for all. At the end of the second week they put what is left of their things back in the Austin Maxi and drive away.

Something To Do

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Part Four:
They cross over the sand dunes on the warm day and settle with their backs to the chalk cliffs, the rug spread out. Children sit around on the sand in the inner tubes. Benson and Hedges are lit. Soon everybody is drinking gin and Coke from the caravan glasses, sucking on Harp cans. No-one does anything else. At the end of the day Cecil drives them all erratically into Portrush. He buys six bags of chips and six battered sausages and they sit in a row on a low wall facing Barry’s Amusements, glassy-eyed, with no appetite, in a mess of greasy sheets of white paper and polystyrene trays.
The next day is the same. By the end of the week child drinkers have manoeuvred the inner tubes down to the sea, and bob about in them, but that is the one innovation of the holiday.
The week drifts by, then the weekend. It seems to be understood that they are staying on.
On the Sunday Uncle Ronnie and his wife Aunt June come up from Cookstown. They have come to inspect their empty caravan, and do any minor tidying up. They find the caravan unlocked and no-one home. The beige cushions have been thrown out onto the grass. There are pee and vomit stains on the beige seating. Somebody has turned one of the vomit stains into a face by drawing eyes and a big nose around it with a red felt tip. Tayto crisps and drink spills and seaweed have been trodden into the cream carpet. The cream curtains have been used as hand towels. Indignant, Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June set out to find their lodgers and relatives.
They spot the Austin Maxi at the White Rocks. The plastic roses from the jug on the table have been tied to the radiator grill. They climb the mounds of sand and go through the rough grass. Cecil and Helen are asleep under the chalk cliffs. Bottles and cans dot the beach around them. Drinking glasses with hunting scenes have been smashed or lie in the sand. Angela, dressed in blouse and jeans, is asleep half in and half out of the sea, and the tide is coming in. Heather and Thomas bob about in the rubber inner tubes in the Atlantic, half way to the Skerries.

Something To Do

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Sea cave, Antrim coast, Northern Ireland
Part Three:
The family bring the drinks inside. The soft drinks and some of the beer is put in the tiny fridge. It is packed to the door. There are glasses with hunting scenes on the shelf of the kitchen cupboard and on the dish drainer. They help themselves to the glasses and settle down.
Outside people come and go in the fading evening. Children cry on their way to bed. Boys yell. Girls yell. Someone screams, then laughs. Inside the caravan cigarettes flare up, die, drinks are mixed, poured, sipped. About ten o’clock Angela, fourteen, puts the lights on. The caravan lights are more adequate than bright, in the way of caravan lights. She decides they are too bright, puts them off again. Outside someone starts to sing, is jeered at, sings louder, stops. Silence falls. A dog yaps for a while, stops again. All the time the family sit in darkness, red tips of cigarettes move in semi circles, drinks are finished, bottles and glasses clink. No-one talks. No-one has anything to say. Instead they supportively mix cocktails for each other, pass each other lights. Eventually Cecil, Heather, Thomas, wander off one by one to beds and bunks, and sleep anywhere, in any arrangement, sprawled across the top of the quilts. The mother and Angela sleep side by side on the beige seating where they have been all evening, just leaning a little more against each other. Harry, a big boy of sixteen, goes outside to where he finds the car waiting with two of the doors wide open, and sleeps across the back seat.
In the morning Cecil and Helen take long drinks of water from the tap, and about noon drive back into Portrush. They leave Harry lying on the grass, still asleep. Two hours later the parents return. Heather has vomited in the sink. The other children are just getting up. Cecil and Helen have brought supplies. They have cider, wine, gin and vodka. There are Jacobs Cream Crackers and Tayto crisps and one loaf of bread and a bag of oranges. The bag of oranges will sit on the table until the family are about to leave, and then Thomas will chop off a slice and put it in his gin and soda.
It is also Thomas who finds, while Cecil and Helen are unloading the shopping, three inflated inner tubes under the caravan. When Cecil and Helen have had vodka and Cokes, and breakfast sandwiches of bread and crisps have been eaten, the three inner tubes are tied to the roof of the Maxi. The picnic rug, the bottle of gin, some of the cider, the rest of the Harps, a bottle of Coke and the glasses with hunting scenes are put in the boot, and they drive down the winding track from the coast road to the White Rocks.

Something To Do

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Coast near White Rocks, Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Part Two:
Cecil, his father, drives them up to the Antrim coast from Dunmaddy in the warm and humid mid-July in the Austin Maxi. Some of the spaces around the family are filled with beach mats, a picnic rug, towels, spare clothing. The rest of the spaces are filled with drink. There is a bottle of vodka, a bottle of gin, a bottle of Teachers whisky, Heineken cans, and a tray of twenty-four Harp cans in the boot. There are bottles of Coke, and C&C lemonade for mixers, and screw-top plastic beakers to drink from. There are many packs of Benson and Hedges cigarettes and a pack of Silk Cut cigarettes that run out before they get there. They are all drinking and smoking as they travel. Even his little sister, Heather, aged eleven, puffs on one of the Silk Cuts and drinks a beer. There is no food.
They are a family on holiday. An obnoxious, miserable, grieving family. They are here for something to do.
They drive through Portrush and out to the caravan site near White Rocks. They have been lent a caravan for a week by Cecil’s brother Ronnie, and his wife, Aunt June. It is to help them get over their grief. It is a thoughtful gesture. They bump over the paths, look out at the Atlantic Ocean below the cliffs, sip from Heineken cans, pull on Benson and Hedges, uncap and re-cap beakers of spirits and lemonade, look for caravan number fifty-six. Cecil stops the car, they get out.
The parents have been, until recently, a sniping, dependant, formerly-loving and now drifting-apart couple. They ignored each other, then went out of their way to make each other snacks. The children have been, until recently, a whinging, griping, happy-enough troubled-enough, companionable lot of brothers and sisters. They would hold grudges, do each other favours, deny each other pointless things, give each other food and magazines, then withhold clothes.
This has all changed by the time they come to the caravan on the cliffs on the way to White Rocks. Now they are all bound together by mourning and alcohol.
The parents enter the caravan and the children follow one after the other. They look around. The caravan is bright and clean and impersonal. The carpets are cream. The curtains are cream and tied back, the seating beige, with arranged beige cushions. There is a jug of plastic roses on the table. There is a handwritten notice inside the caravan door of the things Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June expect of their guests. Cleaning duties, changing bed linen, no smoking. Thomas, thirteen, the other surviving brother, reads the notice and starts to laugh. Then he stops laughing. It is one of only two occasions on this holiday that anyone will remember a member of the family laughing.

Something To Do

The_White_Rocks_near_Portrush_(1)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_785899[1] whiterocks[1]

 

A short story, to be published here in six parts, each Thursday at 17.00, beginning today, 31/01/2013

SOMETHING TO DO
By
James Ferron Anderson
Part One:
Harry drives the hired car down the winding track from the coast road to the White Rocks. His twelve-year-old daughter is beside him. The hired car turns and turns, and bumps over a ramp and into the car park. Around the entrance to the car park a group of men in wetsuits stand about or sprawl on the tarmac, eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, surf boards scattered around them, cars with roof racks parked side by side. Harry drives the hired car to the far end of the car park and turns off the engine.
It is a Sunday in January, and very cold, but also very dry and bright. From inside a caravan, the windows clear of mist, this would look like a summer day. Harry has had the car window open coming down the track, and is under no such illusion.
He closes the window, they get out of the car. Their shopping from Portrush lies in bags on the back seat. He and his twelve-year-old daughter, Laura, fiddle with clothes, wrap scarves around their necks, close up coats, pull woolly hats down over their ears. Some of the men in wetsuits watch them and eat sandwiches and look away again and talk to each other. Harry locks the car. The sea is hidden beyond the sandhills. It is sheltered here.
They step across a sagging strand of fence wire, climb up over mounds of pale sand, and through tough grass. As they reach the top the wind bites into them. In front is a long clean wonderful beach, stretching for miles to the left, all the way back to Portrush, and a little way to the right, where the White Rocks begin. His daughter has never seen any of this before. Their breath is literally taken away.
Ahead is the Atlantic Ocean. Harry and his daughter stand there, looking at the Skerries far out, watching the big waves, listening to the seagulls screaming. Then they wade on into the sand like it’s deep snow, making their way to the edge of the ocean, and stroll along together. The wind comes in sharp blasts, the dry sand snakes towards them, bites their eyes, ears, mouths. They watch for sudden waves, step aside quickly.
Twenty years before, and three weeks after his brother Martin’s body was put into the ground, Harry came for a holiday to this beach at the White Rocks. So did his father, mother, two sisters and his other, living, brother. Harry stands there and remembers them coming.

 

White-Rocks[1]

Coast near White Rocks, Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Part Two:

Cecil, his father, drives them up to the Antrim coast from Dunmaddy in the warm and humid mid-July in the Austin Maxi. Some of the spaces around the family are filled with beach mats, a picnic rug, towels, spare clothing. The rest of the spaces are filled with drink. There is a bottle of vodka, a bottle of gin, a bottle of Teachers whisky, Heineken cans, and a tray of twenty-four Harp cans in the boot. There are bottles of Coke, and C&C lemonade for mixers, and screw-top plastic beakers to drink from. There are many packs of Benson and Hedges cigarettes and a pack of Silk Cut cigarettes that run out before they get there. They are all drinking and smoking as they travel. Even his little sister, Heather, aged eleven, puffs on one of the Silk Cuts and drinks a beer. There is no food. They are a family on holiday. An obnoxious, miserable, grieving family. They are here for something to do. They drive through Portrush and out to the caravan site near White Rocks. They have been lent a caravan for a week by Cecil’s brother Ronnie, and his wife, Aunt June. It is to help them get over their grief. It is a thoughtful gesture. They bump over the paths, look out at the Atlantic Ocean below the cliffs, sip from Heineken cans, pull on Benson and Hedges, uncap and re-cap beakers of spirits and lemonade, look for caravan number fifty-six. Cecil stops the car, they get out. The parents have been, until recently, a sniping, dependant, formerly-loving and now drifting-apart couple. They ignored each other, then went out of their way to make each other snacks. The children have been, until recently, a whinging, griping, happy-enough troubled-enough, companionable lot of brothers and sisters. They would hold grudges, do each other favours, deny each other pointless things, give each other food and magazines, then withhold clothes. This has all changed by the time they come to the caravan on the cliffs on the way to White Rocks. Now they are all bound together by mourning and alcohol. The parents enter the caravan and the children follow one after the other. They look around. The caravan is bright and clean and impersonal. The carpets are cream. The curtains are cream and tied back, the seating beige, with arranged beige cushions. There is a jug of plastic roses on the table. There is a handwritten notice inside the caravan door of the things Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June expect of their guests. Cleaning duties, changing bed linen, no smoking. Thomas, thirteen, the other surviving brother, reads the notice and starts to laugh. Then he stops laughing. It is one of only two occasions on this holiday that anyone will remember a member of the family laughing.

 

ir324[1]
Sea cave, Antrim coast, Northern Ireland
Part Three:
The family bring the drinks inside. The soft drinks and some of the beer is put in the tiny fridge. It is packed to the door. There are glasses with hunting scenes on the shelf of the kitchen cupboard and on the dish drainer. They help themselves to the glasses and settle down.
Outside people come and go in the fading evening. Children cry on their way to bed. Boys yell. Girls yell. Someone screams, then laughs. Inside the caravan cigarettes flare up, die, drinks are mixed, poured, sipped. About ten o’clock Angela, fourteen, puts the lights on. The caravan lights are more adequate than bright, in the way of caravan lights. She decides they are too bright, puts them off again. Outside someone starts to sing, is jeered at, sings louder, stops. Silence falls. A dog yaps for a while, stops again. All the time the family sit in darkness, red tips of cigarettes move in semi circles, drinks are finished, bottles and glasses clink. No-one talks. No-one has anything to say. Instead they supportively mix cocktails for each other, pass each other lights. Eventually Cecil, Heather, Thomas, wander off one by one to beds and bunks, and sleep anywhere, in any arrangement, sprawled across the top of the quilts. The mother and Angela sleep side by side on the beige seating where they have been all evening, just leaning a little more against each other. Harry, a big boy of sixteen, goes outside to where he finds the car waiting with two of the doors wide open, and sleeps across the back seat.
In the morning Cecil and Helen take long drinks of water from the tap, and about noon drive back into Portrush. They leave Harry lying on the grass, still asleep. Two hours later the parents return. Heather has vomited in the sink. The other children are just getting up. Cecil and Helen have brought supplies. They have cider, wine, gin and vodka. There are Jacobs Cream Crackers and Tayto crisps and one loaf of bread and a bag of oranges. The bag of oranges will sit on the table until the family are about to leave, and then Thomas will chop off a slice and put it in his gin and soda.
It is also Thomas who finds, while Cecil and Helen are unloading the shopping, three inflated inner tubes under the caravan. When Cecil and Helen have had vodka and Cokes, and breakfast sandwiches of bread and crisps have been eaten, the three inner tubes are tied to the roof of the Maxi. The picnic rug, the bottle of gin, some of the cider, the rest of the Harps, a bottle of Coke and the glasses with hunting scenes are put in the boot, and they drive down the winding track from the coast road to the White Rocks.

 

white-rocks-1

Part Four: They cross over the sand dunes on the warm day and settle with their backs to the chalk cliffs, the rug spread out. Children sit around on the sand in the inner tubes. Benson and Hedges are lit. Soon everybody is drinking gin and Coke from the caravan glasses, sucking on Harp cans. No-one does anything else. At the end of the day Cecil drives them all erratically into Portrush. He buys six bags of chips and six battered sausages and they sit in a row on a low wall facing Barry’s Amusements, glassy-eyed, with no appetite, in a mess of greasy sheets of white paper and polystyrene trays. The next day is the same. By the end of the week child drinkers have manoeuvred the inner tubes down to the sea, and bob about in them, but that is the one innovation of the holiday.

The week drifts by, then the weekend. It seems to be understood that they are staying on. On the Sunday Uncle Ronnie and his wife Aunt June come up from Cookstown. They have come to inspect their empty caravan, and do any minor tidying up. They find the caravan unlocked and no-one home. The beige cushions have been thrown out onto the grass. There are pee and vomit stains on the beige seating. Somebody has turned one of the vomit stains into a face by drawing eyes and a big nose around it with a red felt tip. Tayto crisps and drink spills and seaweed have been trodden into the cream carpet. The cream curtains have been used as hand towels. Indignant, Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June set out to find their lodgers and relatives. They spot the Austin Maxi at the White Rocks. The plastic roses from the jug on the table have been tied to the radiator grill. They climb the mounds of sand and go through the rough grass. Cecil and Helen are asleep under the chalk cliffs. Bottles and cans dot the beach around them. Drinking glasses with hunting scenes have been smashed or lie in the sand. Angela, dressed in blouse and jeans, is asleep half in and half out of the sea, and the tide is coming in. Heather and Thomas bob about in the rubber inner tubes in the Atlantic, half way to the Skerries.

 

2499634698_abb82ac696_z[1] Skerries, County Antrim

Part Five: Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June raise Angela from the surf and call the others ashore. They are as lean as rakes, their skin bronzed and peeling, hair bleached and tangled, what clothes they have filthy. Benson and Hedges dangle from their lips. Thomas and Heather hold carefully upright the plastic beakers of cocktails of choice which they have been enjoying whilst at sea. Angela says damn and fuck and shite and then finds a beer after all and pops it open. As Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June stand there wondering what to do, Harry comes back down from the sandhills where he has been watching golfers on the links beyond. He has an open can of Harp in one hand, his pockets bulge with golf balls, he trails three sand rakes behind him. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June wake up Cecil and Helen and make them take the children back to the caravan. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June have no children of their own, but they are loud and talkative and full of authority. They say there will be no more children drifting about in rubber rings. Somebody starts to laugh. They say there will be no more children smoking. All the children are laughing. There will certainly be no more children drinking. Cecil and Helen are laughing as well. Heather laughs the most. She lights up a Benson and Hedge, sucks on her plastic beaker. That is the second and last time there is family laughter during the holiday. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June tell them they have to vacate the caravan. Their trust has been abused. They tell the tale of their arrival and the state of the caravan. They tell it several times. The laughter has long since died. Cecil walks away from them while they are still speaking, lies down on an unmade bed. In moments he is snoring. That is when Uncle Ronnie discovers the toilet door is off its hinges, the bedclothes full of cigarette burns. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June sit outside in the fading sunlight in a huff for twenty minutes and when nobody apologises (the children have forgotten about them by then and are experimentally mixing Babycham and Ribena in a milk jug) they go home. During the family’s time in the caravan no-one proposes anything. No-one objects to anything. No-one annoys anyone. No-one falls out. There is nothing to be annoyed or fall out about. There is enough drink for all. At the end of the second week they put what is left of their things back in the Austin Maxi and drive away.

 

dsc_8834_16[1]Part Six: That is the way Harry remembers it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t like that but that is the way he remembers it. He has not been back once in the twenty years that have passed since that holiday. He and his daughter pace up and down the beach, chilled through under all their heavy clothes. His daughter looks for shells for a while, gives up. This place is so pure, wild and fresh, scoured by storms. The men in wetsuits, carrying surf boards, looking determined, troop over the rise and down the beach and past them. They plough on into the sea, stroking their way out through the Atlantic waves, under the hard clear bright sky. Harry and his daughter watch them. The men stroke on, as if heading for the Skerries. They bob, appear, disappear. Harry is very quiet. His daughter puts her arm around him. He puts his arm around her. He looks at the base of the White Rocks. No rug, no scattered Harp cans, no discarded Smirnoff bottle. No glasses with hunting scenes. No Benson and Hedges cigarettes. No parents. His parents are both long dead. No children dragging inner tubes one-handed to the sea, plastic beakers held aloft in the other. Where are his brothers and sisters now? Maybe they are still out there. Maybe the men in wetsuits will find them. Angela, Thomas and Heather still bobbing in the inflated inner tubes, keeping cigarettes dry, sheltering beakers of eccentric cocktails from passing waves, while he himself perches up on a hill watching golfers on the links course, stealing sand rakes, stealing golf balls, sipping Harp from the can, all of them waiting for time to pass, all of them waiting for things to get better. Harry and Laura turn away before the men in wetsuits can climb to their feet and surf back to shore. Father and daughter, their backs to the wind, backs to the Atlantic, they walk hand in hand, wade on up the sand like it’s deep snow. They descend the other side, into shelter. They go through tough grass, climb down over mounds of sand, step across the sagging strand of fence wire. They unlock the hired car, get in, loosen clothing, open the shopping from Portrush. There are sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiche, pastries, ham, cheese, cheese triangles, oranges, apples, dates, grapes, bananas. They eat. It is something to do. The End