Freda Donoghue worked as an academic for twenty years with many publications in both journals and books. Her PhD dissertation is held in the British Library. In more recent years, she has concentrated on drama and fiction. Her debut play, The First Punk in Oldcastle, and her second play, Wish You Were Here, were performed on the amateur drama circuit, both of them winning awards in 2015 and 2016, respectively. She wrote and directed two plays for a site-based festival in Virginia (Co. Cavan) in February 2018, and in August 2018 for the Cootehill Arts Festival. She has been published in The Incubator and North West Words and was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2017/2018.
‘Ow!’ James clutched his right hand and swore. Three hawthorn spines protruded from his palm. He hopped about trying to gouge them out with his left thumbnail, squeezing the flesh hard to lessen the pain.
Shit! She was probably monitoring him from the kitchen window and would appear in a moment to give out to him again. He grabbed the spade once more, swiped in temper at the tangled briars, withered nettles and scutch grass beneath the old hawthorn, his hand throbbing. He could hear his father’s voice in his head, telling him he had to man up.
He glanced at the sky, navy eating up the orange of the dying sun. He’d been digging since early afternoon but the hole didn’t seem to get much bigger. He wasn’t even one spade deep. The sycamore beside the hawthorn stretched its branches to the darkening overhead, leaves clinging on here and there, taunting the approaching winter. He blinked at the grey ground, braced his heel against the spade, felt burning between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He peered at his palm in the dim light, an arc of white blisters.
Sarah’s voice made him jump. He spat on his hands, grasped the handle of the spade.
‘All good,’ he lied.
She tossed her long dark hair away from her face, walked around the patch he’d dug, toed the edge here and there with her wellington boots.
‘I need this finished by this evening,’ she said, her breath fogging in puffs. ‘It’s a surprise for my husband.’
‘Well, if the builders hadn’t dumped their rubble then covered it up with fake lawn—’ He rested one elbow on his spade, rubbed his right palm with his left thumb, as if he was one of the council’s road workers.
‘Don’t let me disturb you.’ She swivelled on her heel, hugged the large jacket around herself, the hem of her sprigged dress frilling out underneath.
He glanced over his shoulder as she walked back towards the house, sighed, slammed the spade into the ground in using his two hands. He balanced his two feet on its shoulder, manoeuvred the blade against what looked like the corner of a cement block. He wedged it underneath and wiggled the shaft back and forth until the blade was deep enough to jack the block up and out. Sweat blinded his eye. He couldn’t understand her. To want a pond in winter under trees at the end of the garden where she wouldn’t be able to see it. His father had suggested giving his younger ex-colleague a dig-out. She had recently moved back to the town, he said, had had a spot of bother a few years previously. He’d warned James not to mention the Party, nor his father’s name, that he was to say he’d seen her ad in Brady’s shop. She was a terror for holding a grudge, his father had pursed his lips, and he didn’t want her shouting and roaring down the phone at him again.
Crows clouded the sky over the ghost estate, the hushed clapping of their wings high above him. A crack like gunshot, the crows scattering in squawks, made him spin towards the house. It stood unlit, a grey square against the evening sky. The empty holes of the windowless house to its right looked like big eyes.
He turned back to his work. She had originally asked him to come on Saturday but had changed the arrangement the evening before. He would have had more light for the job if she had stuck to her previous plan. The crows settled down in the tall trees lining the field beyond. A creature rustled in the ditch nearby. He shivered.
After another half an hour or so, when his nose was running from the cold, and blinking repeatedly still couldn’t make him see any clearer in the gloom, he threw down the spade. He rooted in his rucksack but he had forgotten to bring water. He stumbled towards the dark house, shielding the glare from his phone in case she was watching. He squinted in the kitchen window. Sarah was sitting at the table, peering by the light of a candle at what looked like a scrapbook of photographs. Her face was hidden by her hair and James started back when she tore a page out of the scrapbook, scrunched it up and roared at the ceiling. He ducked down, his heart hammering, waited. Maybe he should just finish the job now and get out.
He scrambled back down the garden, picked up the spade. He shone his phone on the hole. It wasn’t too bad; he might be finished by eight o’clock. He shifted several more spadefuls, then took out his phone again but he had no new messages. He stared at Mark’s photograph; such a hunk with his blond hair and tan. He couldn’t understand why Mark hadn’t replied since James had texted to say he was able to meet him.
‘Sorry I– ’
‘That’s not deep enough!’ She shone her torch on the hole, her face older and more ghostly in its light.
‘But it’s like the pond on the Square in the town,’ he said.
‘My husband has got very particular tastes,’ she said. ‘You’d better keep digging.’
He gritted his teeth, grabbed the shovel. She waited while he wrestled with the corner of another concrete block, eventually prising it out.
‘You sure you’re seventeen?’
‘Yep,’ he lied, hoisted another spadeful, twisted and dumped it behind himself.
She walked away without saying more, the light from her torch bobbing along the grass up to the house.
He scowled down at the hole, wishing he hadn’t been so eager to jump at his father’s suggestion, but he needed the money to go to Dublin to meet Mark. Sarah had narrowed her eyes at James when she’d answered the front door, motioned him to enter, his voice echoing as they’d walked through the empty hall and into the bare kitchen. A single mug had lain on the draining board, no cooking or living smells, just the coldness of bare plaster and fresh paint. He looked back towards the house, a single square of dim light in an upstairs window now. She moved in and out of sight through the patch of yellow, as if shouting at somebody, her fist punching the air.
He ran his tongue over his dry lips, laid the spade on the ground and crept towards the house. He opened the back door quietly, slithered inside, cocked his head. He could hear her sharp tones overhead. Nobody replied. She was probably on the phone to that poor bastard of a husband. Her and her pond! He shone his mobile phone around the kitchen. The scrapbook was still open on the table. Old-fashioned photographs with a white rim, like the ones in his parents’ wedding album. Two flagons of bleach squatted on the draining board, surrounded by rolls of plastic bin bags. A pair of heavy duty black gardening gloves lay palms up on the kitchen counter. A plastic bucket stood in the sink, another on the floor. He glanced at the ceiling once more, took a step across the tiled floor, stopped. His boots were too mucky; she’d scream at him if he muddied the place.
He bent down to unlace them, saw the crumpled page of photographs a few feet away. He crawled towards it, smoothed it out. A group of men stood behind a teenage girl, wearing a school uniform and holding a trophy. He peered, his nose close to the photograph. Sarah looked about fifteen, the brass of the trophy’s shield glinting in the flash of the camera. James’s father, in the suit he’d worn at James’s christening, stood to attention behind her. He was grinning, his face red and shiny. Two large hands wrapped Sarah’s shoulders. James squinted closer. It was Mark. He was leering down at Sarah and looked exactly like his internet profile picture, blond, tanned, muscular.
James slumped back onto his heels. None of this made any sense. He reached for the scraps of torn photograph and scrabbled them together. Mark had the teenaged Sarah in a headlock. She was wearing a belly top and low-slung jeans. She stared stony faced at the camera, her arms hanging by her side.
‘What the fuck!’ A scream of a whisper.
He wheeled around in fright. She clattered him across the face, sent him sprawling.
‘I’m sorry,’ he shouted.
She walloped him again, hissing, ‘Shut up!’ She twisted his arm behind him and kicked his lower back. He fell forward cracking his nose off the tiled floor. She caught him in a headlock.
‘Not as strong as you think, huh?’
‘I only wanted a glass of water!’
‘It’s just… My dad—’
‘No,’ he remembered. ‘I mean, Mark—’
‘Mark!’ She tightened her grip. ‘How the fuck do you—?’
His neck felt as if it was about to snap, the floor underneath his knees hard. He started to cry. He could smell his own sweat, sharp and pungent. She made a strange sound in her throat, a strangled expostulation.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.
There was a loud crash overhead, like a weight falling over, muffled cries. She gave a start, her forearm squeezing his gullet. James mauled at her and kicked out. She relaxed a little. He gulped for air. Cold metal poked at his temple. She prodded him to standing and shuffled him towards the back door.
‘My phone!’ he whined.
She hauled open the door, the gun jabbing his neck, and kicked the back of his knee. He fell down the steps onto the concrete patio, his right arm snapping underneath him, pain scorching. She scrambled after him and walloped him on the skull with the gun.
‘Go on to fuck!’ she hissed into his ear. ‘You’ve no idea how lucky you are!’
James lurched around the side path, onto the driveway, started to run, holding onto his arm. It really hurt now. Blood stinging his eyes, he booted down the dark road, his breath rasping. He turned out of the ghost estate, towards the lights of the town. A dog bounded out from a gateway, barking. He darted onto the road. A lorry blasted its horn and tore by him. In terror, he looked back at the darkness from where he’d come, lurched on again. Several hundred yards later, he flung himself into the doorway of Brady’s shop and came to a stop, his arm throbbing, his chest bursting, his breath ragged. He stared across the street at the blue of the Garda lamp.
© 2018 Freda Donoghue