Category Archives: short stories

Saved by the Book

Sail Away

Sail Away

1

She turned over and winced when a sunbeam cut straight past the sleep in her eyes. A small guttural sound involuntarily escaped from her throat and she pulled a pillow over her head. The sunbeam had woken her and she knew that change had come. There was no going back and, for better or worse, she was moving on. No, no…the worse doesn’t come into it, that’s over. Fool me once, she thought, her breathing even and loud with her nose pressed against the mattress. Yeah, you’ve caused me too much pain to go back, she said, hearing the words reverberate in her head and was genuinely surprised at the thought.
But then all things change.
Standing in front of the mirror she brushed a few loose hairs from her face and exhaled, loudly. The first thing she noted were the eyes; the eyes that had seen her boyfriend with another woman yesterday. They were red and sore and she shivered when she realised how tired she looked. She hated what she saw but didn’t look away. Not even her droopy shoulders could do that as she wanted to remember this image and imprint it on her brain. She did that and then stepped under the shower for a long, cleansing of both body and soul.
Images of Roger, her Roger, kissing a woman outside a restaurant on Merrion Street kept coming to her mind as she dressed and made coffee. She tried to push them away and eventually surrendered to the intrusion while she packed some clothes in a bag. She had been to see her dentist on Merrion Square and was making her way to St Stephen’s Green where she spotted Roger. From across the street she recognised his familiar, confident steps as walked up and then embraced a woman with shoulder blonde hair. This was not a friendly, work-colleague kiss on the cheek greeting, but something much deeper. She remembered feeling her mouth falling open as Roger and the woman looked at each other before going into the swanky restaurant. The pain from her visit to the dentist was forgotten as she wondered what to do. I can’t handle this now, she decided, and hailed a taxi that took her home.
The doorbell sounded near eight o’clock and she took a deep breath, went to the door, and opened it.
Thinking back on what happened she saw it all from above, as if she was having an out-of-body experience. It helped not to be part of the story, to be removed from it, but she knew she wasn’t fooling her herself.
‘What’s wrong Shelly?’ Roger said when he saw her red eyes. He had to know that she had been crying but had he been rumbled? ‘Are you ok?’
He leaned close to kiss her but she stepped back. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said, his eyes clear and wary.
The moment that had been on her mind all day had arrived. ‘Who is she?’
Roger’s brow lifted. ‘Who…who are you talking about?’ He opened his hands out in a ‘I-don’t-know-what-you’re-about’ gesture and their eyes locked.
Shelly kept telling herself to ‘keep cool’. ‘The woman you went to lunch with today. The blonde you kissed like there was no tomorrow, that’s who.’
Roger’s nostrils flared and the sneer gave him a nasty look. He didn’t move and Shelly could almost see and hear his brain working as it considered and weighed her words.
Since she’d known him, about sixteen month now, he had always been sure of himself but not in an overt and pushy way. He was confident, she liked that, but now there was an arrogance that she had not seen before. And she didn’t like it.
‘Spying on me, are you?’ he said, his words mocking and dangerous. He stood tall, looking down on her, every movement and gesture now threatening.
‘I was coming from the dentist when I saw you with…her. It was an accident, that’s all. I mean, why do you think that I was spying on you?’ Even as she said the words she wondered if she had gone too far. It was done now and she knew that the next few moments would make or break them.
Roger drew a hand over his mouth, the sneer a tight line now. ‘She’s a friend if you must know, and she’s…’
‘Go on say it…it’s not like you to be stuck for words.’
Roger stepped forward an raised a hand.
Shelly, to her own great surprise, didn’t flinch. ‘That’s it…lash out. Is that the best you can do?’
Her words taunted him and for a long moment he was undecided. She could see the guilt in his eyes and knew he hated being found out. She had heard stories about men beating women but she never for a moment believed that it would happen to her. But now as she looked at Roger with his hand raised, she realised that she might soon have her own story to tell.
‘You’re not worth it…no way,’ he said clearly and lowered his hand. Then he opened the door, glanced back over his shoulder, and left.
Shelly stood in the hall staring at the lock on the door as she felt her pulse begin to slow. She didn’t want to break the moment and waited…and waited until she was ready, and walked over and turned the key in the lock.
It was over, they were over, and she went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. I need to clear that bad taste from my mouth, she thought, putting a spoonful of coffee into a cup. Later, as she sat at the table, she began to shake. It was a strange, knife-edge type feeling that she hadn’t expected; she didn’t know what to expect, but she had reached a new place where there was no room for Roger. He hadn’t even challenged her, confirming his guilt, and the blonde was welcome to him. He was a cheat, a two-timing liar and, painful as it was, she was better off finding it out, now.
Later she called her mother who invited her for dinner. That was all she needed right now, and then she went for a long walk on Sandymount Strand where the salty air and cawing seagulls helped her to think about other things.

 

After a big hug and a cup of tea Shelly told her mother the whole story.
‘You’re better off…and that was very brave. It could have turned nasty.’
It was a close run thing and thankfully nothing like that happened. Roger the Rat had run down a sewer and she hoped never to see him again.
‘So what are you going to do?’ her mother asked.
Shelly had thought about that when she was walking on the beach. It took a while but she had decided to call her friend Rachel who had a shop in Skibbereen, west Cork. She was always asking her down and now she was going to take her up on the offer for a month or so. School had just closed and her work as a junior school teacher meant she was free.
‘At least that’s some good news, so when are you heading off?’
‘Tomorrow morning. And don’t worry, my apartment is fine. Everything…will be ok.’
Shelly was up early the next morning and put a suitcase and a small bag of clothes, shoes, books and other bits and bobs in the boot of her car and drove away. The day was sunny and she hoped that it was sign of something good.
Her phone pinged. It was a text from Rachel. ‘Your room is ready. Take care.’
She replied. ‘Just leaving. I’ll bring wine. Thanks.’
She took one last look around, got into the car and headed south.

2

‘Where shall I put these?’ asked Mark, pushing a box of books into a corner of the shop.
Andrew turned. ‘You can leave them there for now as I want to move a few more things about first. Then we’ll have a better idea of where they should go.’
That made sense Mark thought. ‘And there are half-a-dozen posters as well,’ he said tapping the tall, white tube.
Andrew nodded. ‘That’s good, because the last time the printers forgot them and it was…well, let’s just say it wasn’t good.’
Mark grinned at the understatement. He had been working in the bookshop for three weeks now and liked the way Andrew spoke. He was articulate, had more to say about writers than his English teacher in school and didn’t talk down to him. They were equals, nearly, and he liked that.
Andrew looked around the shop. ‘Ok, I’m going to get a coffee, fancy one?’
‘Sure.’
‘Right then, you mind the shop for a few minutes,’ then the bell jangled as Andrew opened the door and crossed the street.
The smell hit him before he opened the door and stepped into T R Coffee, the most aptly named shop in town. Rachel, the owner, pushed the cash drawer closed. ‘Morning Andrew, and how are you today?’ she asked.
‘I’m good thanks, and can I have two cappuccinos and Danish pastries please.’
‘Mark with you today?’
‘Yes, and for a seventeen year old he’s doing fine. He’s a great help.’
Rachel looked over. ‘And I’ll also have an extra pair of hands later.’
‘That’s a good idea with the holidays kicking in.’
Rachel nodded. ‘Exactly, and it’s very much appreciated.’
Andrew let two customers pass. ‘I know, as I have a book launch in a few days and Mark’s been very good.’
Rachel handed over the coffees and cakes and Andrew paid her. ‘Do come along, I’m expecting a good crowd as the author is local,’ he added. ‘You must know Ian Reed?’
‘The photographer?’
‘That’s him, and his new book is, from what I’ve been told, a very entertaining read…with great photographs.’
Rachel smiled. ‘Thanks, and can I bring a friend?’
‘The more the merrier. Thanks,’ he said and stepped onto the sunlit pavement.
He and Mark moved tables and chairs about until they were satisfied with ‘the look’. The shop, Turn The Page, was narrow but stretched a long way back where old stock was stored in an adjoining room. Andrew also used the room as a studio where he painted, and Mark was impressed with the canvasses that lay against the wall. ‘Are you going to sell those? he asked.
‘Hopefully,’ said Andrew ‘and we’ll find good places for them later.’
And they did before Mark went home, and Andrew locked up.
The old shop was looking good and his aunt Lilly, who had left it to him, would be happy. The place was busier than ever, and although he was not going to make a fortune, having regular Readings by aspiring authors and showing off works by local artists all went to lift the shop’s profile. And the fact that Des, one of his sailing friends who he owned a boat with, ran the nearby radio station in Ballydehob that often mentioned the shop, all helped.
Running a bookshop nowadays demanded thinking outside the box, and it never stopped. It was so different to working for a hedge fund in London, but he’d done that and didn’t miss it. Apart from the money, of course, but he had made enough, and he was happy not to be in that rat race any longer. There was more to life than making money and being under constant pressure, and now he was enjoying himself. He wasn’t going back.
After making dinner he put on his painter’s garb and enjoyed the strong sunlight as he added to his latest work. It wasn’t quite finished, yet, but it was close. Later, he thought, closing the door and heading upstairs to bed.

3

Shelly worked hard in her first days and Rachel was delighted. ‘You should have come sooner,’ she quipped when Shelly wiped her brow.
‘Being on my feet all day is tiring,’ Shelly said ‘but good. I feel as though I’ve lost a few pounds, and that’s never a bad thing.’
‘It happens,’ said Rachel ‘and better than going to the gym.’
They both laughed at that.
It was on the second night that Shelly told Rachel her story. Rachel hadn’t asked, wasn’t going to, but Shelly wanted to talk. Needed to talk.
‘You’re better off, Shelly, he sounds like bad news.’
‘That’s one way of putting it…but he was a real charmer when he wanted to be. That’s what fooled me for so long. Bastard.’
Rachel leaned close. ‘You’re here now, so forget the past and enjoy the future. I mean, you never know, nobody does, what might happen.’ She shrugged and Shelly smiled ‘Thank you’.

The bookshop was packed as Andrew talked with Ian Reed and his publisher. A good crowd was always welcome and that sort of news spread long after the launch was over. Mark was operating the cash register while Des poured wine for the guests. He was busy and waved Andrew over. ‘Have we more wine?’
‘In the store, but we’ll start now and people can pay attention to the author instead,’ said Andrew.
‘The voice of experience, eh.’
Andrew winked. ‘You wouldn’t want the guests to forget about buying a book now, would you?’
Rachel and Shelly arrived in just before the speeches and grabbed glasses of wine. ‘Nice place,’ said Shelly looking about the crowded shop. ‘It’s quirky; I like it.’
Ian Reed spoke well, told a few funny stories, and signed plenty of books afterwards. The local newspaper had sent a photographer who was busy snapping guests who were enjoying the night. The launch was a success and Mark had never seen so much money in the till.
Andrew came over to get wine for the author. ‘Hi Rachel, it was good of you to come.’
‘Delighted, Andrew,’ she replied ‘and this is my friend Shelly.’
Andrew’s eyes flicked onto Shelly. ‘Hi there, I suppose Rachel has you working all hours.’
Rachel made a face and Andrew shrugged.
‘You bet,’ Shelly said, and Rachel slapped her on the shoulder.
‘No fighting, please, at least not inside,’ said Andrew taking wine over to the author.
Rachel pointed to paintings in the window. ‘Andrew paints these, and…’
‘And you have one in the lounge,’ offered Shelly ‘I recognise it.’
‘Very good, you’ve been paying attention.’
Later when Shelly was reading through a book Andrew stopped. ‘Ah, that’s a really positive book and well worth a read.’
It was what she wanted to hear. ‘That’ll do nicely,’ she said.
He pointed to a sign near the door. It was a square of white, with black letters that read You Can, You Must, You Will.
‘Very profound,’ Shelly said, liking the message.
‘Those words are from the book,’ Andrew said ‘and I think they’re great. I put them there for people to see, and they like them.’
Andrew topped up their glasses with the last of the wine. ‘I’ve been busy all day so – Cheers.’
They clinked glasses and chatted for a while before Andrew had to talk again with the author. ‘I hope you like the book,’ he said. ‘It’s been nice talking with you.’
Rachel had a signed copy of Ian Reed’s book under her arm. ‘You look happy,’ she said to Shelly. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Nothing really. I bought this book on Andrew’s recommendation and we chatted for a bit.’
Rachel turned and spotted Andrew. ‘I’ve known him for years. He’s a nice guy, and a very good sailor..’
‘..and artist,’ added Shelly.
‘Of course, and he’s made this shop a very ‘happening’ place. Look,’ she continued ‘the place is still packed and that cash register has been ringing all evening. The town needs a place like this.’
Shelly sipped her wine. ‘Have you never…you know..’
Rachel laughed. ‘No…I know him too well. It’s just one of those things.’
Rachel and Shelly waved to Andrew when they were leaving.
‘Enjoy the book,’ he replied nodding to Shelly.
‘Well, guess who’s made an impression?’ Rachel said outside as they walked back to the apartment.
Shelly chuckled. ‘I liked talking with him, that’s all. And thanks for the invitation, I really enjoyed myself.’
Rachel put an arm around Shelly’s shoulder. ‘You’re very welcome…and thanks for being here.’

4

Two days later Andrew helped Mark tidy up after the Book Club members had finished their monthly meeting. As it was the holiday season there were only a few participants but two of them bought new books. ‘I really enjoyed the other night,’ said one man ‘there was a great atmosphere in here. Well done, Andrew.’
‘Thanks, and keep spreading the word.’
Mark was cutting photos of the launch from the local newspaper and pinning them to the notice board on the wall opposite the cash register. ‘It went well, didn’t it,’ he said.
‘It sure did, and the publisher called me earlier to say thanks. He was impressed, and maybe, we’ll have more launches. It’s what I wanted to hear.’
Mark nodded.
‘Coffee?’ asked Andrew, repositioning the one remaining painting in the front window.
‘Thanks,’ Mark said, clipping the edge of another photo.
Andrew checked his watch and didn’t realise that it was nearly midday. No wonder I’m hungry, he thought, and headed across the road to Rachel’s shop. As he approached he could smell the coffee and checked that he had enough money.
As he opened the door Andrew was suddenly aware of the strange, quiet atmosphere. The place was usually a hub of chatter but now all he could hear was one voice, and he recognised it. It was Shelly’s and it was pleading.
‘Please go Roger, just go away,’ she said from behind the counter to a man Andrew didn’t recognise.
‘Don’t you dare tell me what to do,’ the man shouted and Shelly stepped back nervously. ‘Nobody tells me to go away…nobody.’ His voice was louder and Shelly was slowly curling into herself as she leaded against the wall.
The nine or ten customers in the shop were all struck dumb and silent.
Andrew took a step towards the counter. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.
The man turned and snarled ‘It’s none of your fucking business; now get lost.’
Andrew noticed Rachel behind Shelly, a look of total dread on her face. ‘That’s what you’re going to do,’ he said, watching the man carefully.
The man stared at Andrew, stepped over to him and swung a punch. Shelly and everyone in the shop screamed as Andrew ducked and swept the man’s legs from beneath him with a scything kick. The man hit the floor and Andrew stood over him, daring him to continue.
Seconds later the man scrambled to his feet and without a backwards glance left the shop. A loud cheer went up and Andrew grinned like he had just beaten Mile Tyson. ‘Thanks,’ said Shelly ‘I really appreciate that.’
‘Yeah, thanks Andrew, I’m impressed,’ Rachel said. ‘Where did you learn that?’
Andrew touched the side of his nose. ‘You don’t want to know…believe me.’
Andrew looked at the two women. ‘Well, is somebody going to tell me who that was?’
‘My ex-boyfriend,’ said Shelly ‘and he’s crazy. He hates not getting his own way…and that’s why I broke-up with him. He was impossible to be with.’
‘In that case I hope that he’s now got the message,’ said Andrew, looking over to Rachel.
‘Oh yeah, loud and clear,’ added Shelly before reaching up and kissing Andrew on the cheek. ‘Thanks again,’ she said and went behind the counter and into the kitchen.
Rachel was smiling. ‘That was some surprise Andrew, really.’
He shrugged.
‘And, to show my appreciation coffee and cakes on me today. Ok?’
Of course it was ok, and Mark was wide-eyed when he told him about the incident. ‘It sounds like something from cowboy movie,’ added Mark, shaking his head.
Andrew almost swallowed his cake. ‘Thanks, but I think you’ve been reading too much lately.’
Mark grinned and had an even stronger reason for liking the man who chased thugs out of town and painted lovely seascapes. Interesting, that was the word he was looking for, he thought, before taking another bite from his delicious, free pastry.

5

Andrew had just uploaded a post to the bookshop’s blog, when there was knock on the window. It was Shelly.
‘Hi there,’ he said opening the door ‘this is a nice surprise.’
Shelly had two cups of coffee and a bag with donuts. ‘I brought these to say thanks.’ She looked around the shop. ‘One of them is for your assistant. Is he here?’
Andrew shook his head. ‘No. I let Mark go early as he’s playing in a golf competition in the local club. So, I guess you’ll have to drink that.’
‘I guess so,’ she replied.
‘I’m posting photographs from the book launch to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, so give me a minute.’
‘You’re a jack-of-all-trades?’
He looked up. ‘Well, if I don’t promote the shop nobody else will, so…’
Shelly understood. ‘I didn’t hear any music the other night,’ she said trying to work out who was playing.
Andrew sipped his coffee. ‘I know. Before Mark left I was painting…and I like to listen to music when I do so.’ He turned his head. ‘Come on, I’ll show you.’
The storeroom was tidy with racks of books dominating one wall. Opposite, Shelly saw tins of paint, brushes and a number of finished works. The window, at the back, was large and looked onto a tiny garden that was now bathed in early, evening sunshine. There was an easel in the middle of the room and the painting that Andrew was working on.
‘It’s not quite finished,’ he said, sitting on a high chair ‘but it’s close.’
Shelly immediately liked the blues, some strong, some light, making it look very natural. It was a scene looking across a beach and out to an endless sea that rolled onwards to a horizon. She could almost feel a salty breeze blowing. ‘What are you missing?’ she asked, sitting on a wooden box by the door.
Andrew looked at Shelly and then at the painting. ‘I don’t know.’ He drank some coffee. ‘It happens like this sometimes.’
‘What does?’
‘It’s like you’re going down one road, seeing nothing else, when suddenly a completely different idea or perspective shows itself. It’s like coming to a fork that you hadn’t anticipated.’
‘That’s interesting.’
‘Yeah, and I’m not sure if that’s called inspiration or luck. Maybe they’re really the same thing!’
Maybe, thought Shelly, looking at Andrew as he studied the painting. Rachel reckoned that he was two or three years older than they were, probably thirty, and his clear blue-grey eyes, collar-length fair hair and easy composure were attractive. And she couldn’t forget what he’d done to Roger.
He looked over. ‘I take it that you were not expecting your visitor today?’
That was a nice of putting it, Shelly thought. ‘No, I was not. I can only say that he knows where Rachel lives and he put two and two together…’
‘And got five.’
Shelly laughed, spilling coffee on the floor.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said ‘it’ll add to the story of the shop.’
Shelly wasn’t expecting that. ‘Roger would have started screaming if that had happened.’
‘He’s a bully…and unhappy.’
It had taken Andrew only minutes to sum up what Shelly had been thinking for months. Maybe she was too close to the issue, that sometimes happened, but she was still impressed at his insight. ‘Yes, you’re right. He was great fun when things were going his way, but I noticed him change recently.’
‘Any particular reason why?’
‘I began saying no to him. No, I didn’t want to go to this place or that, and he began to lose interest in us. Then I saw him with another woman, and when I challenged him about it he stormed out. He hated not being in control.’
‘A bully, and hopefully he’s learnt something from his visit.’
Shelly nodded.
‘Otherwise it was such a wasted journey, don’t you think?’ he added casually.
This time Shelly smiled.
‘And what’s your plan? Are you staying here for a while?’
Shelly put her cup down. ‘I’m a school teacher on holidays, so I’m going to help Rachel for the next month or so. It’s getting busier by the day and I know she appreciates the help. And I’m…thankful that she invited me down.’
‘That’s what friends do.’
‘And thanks for what you did today. I mean, I was scared stiff when Roger started shouting at me. He was crazy, and God only knows what he might have done.’
Andrew brushed a stray hair from his brow. ‘I know, but he didn’t and that’s all that matters.’
There was a long silence between them with only the quiet playing of Myles Davis’s trumpet intruding. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and Shelly noted how relaxed she was when she found herself looking at her feet in a square of sunlight. It was a funny thought, and she liked it.
‘Do you fancy sailing sometime?’ Andrew asked.
Shelly was surprised. ‘Sailing?’
‘Yes, the thing people do when they put a boat into the sea.’
She laughed at that.
‘I’d love to but you better tell me what to wear, and what to do as I..’
‘What is it?’
‘I can’t really swim,’ Shelly replied nervously, hoping that Andrew was not going to cancel the outing.
He was unfazed. ‘Well, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve never lost a passenger yet. Ok?’
Shelly offered a relieved grin. ‘Fine; and when is the big day?’
‘I think that tomorrow evening would be good, say six o’clock.’
‘Fine, I’ll clear it with Rachel.’
After Shelly had left Andrew put on another CD and thought about the day. It was so unplanned, but then nobody ever knew what was going to happen. But it had, and as he contemplated the painting he reached for the brush and made a few strokes. Yeah, that was what it needed, he thought, remembering how the sound of Shelly’s laughter filled the room. He liked that, and maybe he would hear more tomorrow. He made a few more strokes, sat back, and was happy. On The Beach was finished.

6

Shelly had a lot to say when she returned to the apartment.
‘Going sailing, are you?’ said Rachel, unable to hide a grin.
‘Like I said, he invited me and I couldn’t very well refuse, could I?’
Rachel was laughing. ‘No you couldn’t, not after what he did to Roger the Rat.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
Rachel topped up their glasses. ‘And I know he’s a very good sailor because I’ve been out with him.’
‘And…?’
Rachel shook her head. ‘I told you before, nothing happened. I guess it’s chemistry…or the lack of it. There are somethings in this life that you just can’t force.’
Shelly nodded. ‘You’re so right, and maybe he’s just asked me out after the incident in the shop. Make me feel better.’
Rachel sipped her wine. ‘It’s possible…but then again.’
They laughed out loud, all memories of the nasty incident with Roger blown away in a heartbeat.

‘My friend Des was out in our boat and he should be back by now,’ Andrew said slowing the car as they came into Baltimore. The small village was busy with flags and colourful bunting flapping in the steady breeze.
‘What’s all this for?’ asked Shelly.
‘There’s a big regatta next week, and it’ll be manic here. It’s not to be missed.’
Shelly had borrowed Rachel’s sailing gear and she was excited when they walked to the sailing club and met Des. There was plenty of activity around, and after putting on her lifejacket Des helped them push away. Here goes, she thought.
Andrew looked over. ‘Done this before?’
‘Once, on a school holiday.’
‘Then you’re an expert; so, just try and relax. Ok?’
Shelly nodded as Andrew passed her a rope. ‘Hold that,’ he said, and as he moved the tiller the wind filled the mainsail. They were off, and in a few minutes the boat was heading away from the busy quay at a steady rate.
‘You ok?’ asked Andrew.
‘Yes, this is great,’ Shelly said, listening to the sail as it rippled in the breeze. ‘Where are we going?’
Andrew pointed. ‘Straight out, then left past the Beacon and we’ll go around to Kedge Island. And after all that fresh air we’ll be ready for a bite in Villa Carlotta.’
‘What’s that?’
‘It’s the best tapas bar in west Cork.’

As the boat rocked back and forth Shelly’s stomach got used to the movement and she was feeling fine. She had been worried about getting sick and making a fool of herself, but now she was enjoying the experience. ‘This is great, and thanks for the invite.’
‘You’re welcome, but it might get a little choppy soon, so hold on.’
‘Yes, Captain,’ she replied and Andrew winked.
He was right and before long Shelly wasn’t feeling quite so comfortable. The ferry to Sherkin Island passed by and Andrew waved over, but Shelly kept her head down. She was concentrating hard when they passed below the Beacon and barely noticed the people waving down at them.
‘It’s choppier than I’d thought it was going to be,’ Andrew said. ‘Are you ok?’
Shelly nodded and felt water splash her face. She looked up to see a wave hit the boat side-on tossing her to the other side where she banged her knee. ‘Ahh,’ she cried out and Andrew leaned down to help. In an instant the boon swung violently, smacking into his head and over he went into the sea.
‘No,’ Shelly screamed when she saw Andrew lying face down as the boat moved away. She was in a panic and started shouting HELP and waving her arms at the people on the cliff. She was getting further away from Andrew, and with heart pumping, she heard a voice in head shout GO.
She jumped.
The water was cold and she splashed and swam as waves lifted and dropped her. GO, GO, GO the voice kept shouting as she struggled, doggy-paddling like crazy. She thought her heart was going to explode when she stretched for Andrew’s lifejacket. On the third attempt she got a hold, and with a massive effort, her arms, legs and every part of her screaming in pain, turned him face-up. He was unconscious and there was blood coming from a cut above his left eye. ‘Oh Jesus,’ she cried as the boat continued to float away with each passing wave. She couldn’t believe what had happened, and put her hand under Andrew’s head to keep it above water. She kept crying out HELP and wondered if they were going to survive. As the blood trickled into the water she heard herself saying over and over ‘Please don’t let him die’.
They floated close to the cliffs and Shelly had to use her feet to stop Andrew from banging against the jagged rocks. She had no time for being scared and, with strength she never knew she had, they moved away from danger. The swell was getting worse and they waited, rising and falling, for about twenty minutes until she heard the sound of an engine getting close.
Two men helped pull Andrew and her aboard before another was left off to sail Andrew’s boat back to the club.
‘What happened?’ asked one of the men examining the injury to Andrew’s head.
Shelly told him as best she could, not taking her eyes off Andrew’s face.
There was a crowd of onlookers at the quay where an ambulance waited. ‘He’s hardly breathing,’ said the medic, ‘that’s not good.’
The ambulance raced along the narrow roads, its siren screaming and blue light flashing, as the medic worked on Andrew. There was real concern on his face and Shelly was in silent shock as she looked on. At the hospital Andrew was rushed into an emergency room and Shelly feared the worst. And started to cry.
Half-an-hour passed before a doctor, stethoscope around his neck, opened a door and came over to her. ‘He’s a lucky man,’ he said.
She was surprised, and relieved. ‘Lucky?’
Andrew had been knocked unconscious and the cut above his eye was deep and needed a dozen stitches. ‘Well, if you hadn’t flipped him he may well have drowned. He was knocked out and…’
He didn’t finish the sentence; he didn’t need to.
Rachel arrived and threw her arms around Shelly. ‘Des called and told me what happened. How is Andrew? And how are you?’
Shelly was wearing pyjamas and a nightgown and looked both tired and relieved. She told her story and Rachel shook her head a few times. ‘That’s crazy, Shelly, absolutely…I don’t know what to say.’
Shelly brushed her hair back. ‘I know, but that’s…’
Rachel’s eyes suddenly were open wide. ‘I…I didn’t think you could swim.’
Shelly twisted her head from side to side. ‘Barely, but I just had to try and save Andrew…so I jumped.’
‘Jesus, Shelly there’s never a dull moment with you, is there?’
The two women were smiling and wiping tears away when a nurse came over and spoke to Shelly. ‘Andrew would like to see you,’ she said and they walked down the corridor.
Andrew was sitting up in bed, a stack of pillows behind him. There was large white plaster on the cut above his eye that was now closed. He was looking at her with his one good eye and even that looked tired. ‘Thanks,’ he said, his voice quiet and thicker now. ‘You saved my life.’
Shelly waited for a few seconds before sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘I’m just so happy that we’re talking, that’s all I wanted.’
Andrew understood. ‘They told me that you dived in…that was a very brave thing to do, especially as you can barely swim.’
Shelly steepled her hands, fingertips touching her nose. ‘I had to…there was nobody else around.’
‘Mmmm.’
She shook her head slowly. ‘I told you that I could barely swim, but when I saw you in the water I had this powerful feeling that I had to do something. My leg was hurting like hell and from somewhere inside I heard this voice screaming.’ She took a deep breath. ‘It said GO, GO, GO and I knew what I had to do. And that’s when I jumped in.’
Andrew leaned his head into the pillow and was silent for a while. ‘That’s crazy.’
‘In the book that I bought in your shop one of the positive thoughts was ‘Let go, and go’. And that’s what I did.’
Andrew managed a crooked smile and Shelly saw a tear roll down his cheek. ‘Thanks. I’m sorry that this happened,’ he said ‘it was meant to be…’
‘There’s plenty of time for that,’ Shelly said, as she leaned close and kissed him.
Andrew exhaled loudly. ‘I was saved by the book, eh.’
Shelly smiled.
Andrew’s head began to hang to the side and his breathing slowed.
Shelly sat with him, holding his hand until he was asleep. Her one-eyed seafarer with the plaster across his damaged brow almost made her laugh. She would laugh later with Rachel, and now couldn’t wait to tell Andrew what she was thinking. She had saved his life and, maybe she had saved her own, too. It was a positive thought and one she knew the Captain would understand.

The Beacon

The Beacon

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Aroma Memory

‘I’m getting gooseberry,’ said the lecturer, sniffing deeply from the glass. He looked up, enjoying the moment, closed his eyes and was lost in contemplation of the swirling wine. The class was busy as we sniffed our glasses, following his lead, trying to understand the wonderful aromas filling our nostrils. Mumbles of agreement soon filled the room as we began to understand the beauty and power of the smells that we were experiencing. It was a moment to remember, but nothing like one that I had experienced some years before.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was on my way home with the last of my shopping, when I passed the front door of my old school. It had been many years since I had left the place and in all that time I had never darkened its doorway. ‘Why not?’ I thought, and skipped up the steps and knocked on the large, carved door. The sound echoed in the hallway behind, and seconds later I heard footsteps approaching.

I introduced myself to the Christian Brother who opened the door, and I could see that he was intrigued as much at my presence as I was at being ‘in school’.

For whom the school bell tolls...

For whom the school bell tolls…

‘Come in, come in,’ he said and we shook hands warmly. ‘This is a real surprise, and Happy Christmas,’ he added and I could only smile and agree.

We chatted as we walked down the hall and he told me about teachers who had passed on since I was a pupil. He pointed to lines of dusty, class photographs many of which were fading and showing the unmistakeable yellowish hue of old age. Times past indeed, I thought, when my guide asked if I would like to see the ‘old place’. Considering that ten minutes before I hadn’t even thought about this, I was now looking forward to a walk down memory lane.

The place had changed somewhat since my time, that was to be expected, with rooms altered and corridors painted in bright colours. The stairs were smoother than I remembered, and the view of the local church from the top of the building was unchanged, except that acid rain had added to its aging beauty.

Desks were tiny and the blackboards not nearly as massive as they once appeared, where algebra, Latin verbs, dates of famous battles and hand-drawn maps of foreign places had once held my attention.

I was really enjoying the unplanned visit and was unprepared for what happened next.

As I pushed open the door to my old classroom I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. The smell of the place hit me like a slap in the face and I was instantly transported back to those carefree days. There was no doubt about the images that filled my mind, and I could see all the desks and my former classmates. They hadn’t changed, and I slowly looked about the small room where coats and jackets hung from crowded hooks. And schoolbags lay on the floor.

The teacher was at the front of the class writing neatly on the blackboard, as tiny flecks of white chalk drifted away. I saw where I used sit and felt a nervous shiver run up my back.

It was a very, real sensation that was only broken when my guide walked past, the loud creaking of the old floorboards breaking my dreamy connection.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked, noting my bemused look.

‘Yes, thanks,’ I replied and took a last, deep breath before leaving the room. Up until that moment I had never thought much about the sense of smell, but since then I have come to view it differently, and especially its power to stimulate and rekindle memories that I thought were gone forever.

Desk life

Desk life

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Get me to the church…sometime!

King of the Road

King of the Road

‘Are we there yet?’ cried a voice for the umpteenth time, kicking off another out of laughter.

This was the fun memory of our journey from the hotel to the church in an old, London bus that, at times, seemed to be about to give up the ghost. It was a close run thing that made the swing through north Wicklow memorable, if not a little nervy.

‘All aboard,’ called the conductor when the last passenger climbed on and took a seat. The atmosphere was akin to that of going on a school outing and there was much joking about Back To The Future comments. Or was it Back To The Past?

All aboard!

All aboard!

We set off for St Patrick’s Church and after a short drive we arrived, only to find out that we were at the wrong St Patrick’s Church. This was one time when our patron saint’s fame wasn’t helping matters. Confusion reigned until our true destination was established and we headed off, again. And now that we were on ‘the right road’ the noise levels increased as we went down the motorway, where cars sounded their horns as they passed. Seeing a red London bus is a novelty at the best of times, but one with stuffed with weddinggoers on the road was a rare sight.

The old bus twisted and turned as it made its made along the winding road into Enniskerry where the fun was about to begin.

‘Are we there yet?’ shouted someone and a chorus of imitators followed.

We were already late and furious phone calls went back and forth relaying our position. Our expected time of arrival, however, wasn’t quite so certain.

The bus drove into Enniskerry drawing much attention from onlookers. The journey up to that point had been mostly on the flat and, as the bus began its climb up the hill that it had to take, a silence descended on the passengers. The hill is incredibly steep and as the bus moved forward we were all holding our breath. The sound of the gears grinding as the driver switched was painful, and outside I could see onlookers shaking their heads. It was a nervy few minutes but finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we crested the hill and a roar of relief filled the bus.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and if the Beatles had their Magical Mystery Tour then we certainly had ours. It had been an unforgettable experience and ‘Get me to the church…sometime,’ was about right!

Are we there yet? - Yes

Are we there yet? – Yes

 

 

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The Lady in Blue – a very brief encounter!

Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

A visit to my dentist does not always leave me with a happy memory, but thinking back to a cold and chilly January morning certainly brings a smile. Like all the best stories its beauty lay in its surprise and, unfortunately for me, its brevity. I was living in London at the time and was heading to my office having earlier been for my annual dental check-up. After a filling and polishing, and the inevitable admonishment from the dentist, I boarded the Tube and headed for central London.

As I had missed the main morning traffic I was able to get a seat and relaxed as we rolled towards town. I flicked my tongue across clean teeth, unfolded the newspaper and started the crossword. I quickly filled in a few clues and then paused and looked up. Across from me one passenger was reading the sports section of a tabloid paper while a girl sitting beside him was engrossed in a glossy magazine. The cover had an image of none other than the most photographed woman on the planet, Diana, Princess of Wales. She was on the cover of so many magazines and was the subject of countless articles about her style and love life, and to a lesser degree, her good works. She was beautiful, no doubt, and when the train jerked to a stop I returned to my crossword.

A cold, sharp breeze met me as I exited from Green Park station and turned onto Berkeley Street. I kept my head down, chin stuck firmly into my chest, and headed along the empty pavement to my office that was about a two-minute walk away. Papers and other bits and pieces flew aimlessly about the street as the chilly wind whistled around.

It was mid-morning and the pavement was almost completely empty. It was a slightly strange feeling and I looked about and saw only my reflection in shop windows as I walked. The wind continued to whip at my ears as I crossed the street and felt the numbness in my jaw slowly disappearing. Dentists, I thought, while down the street a large, black car slowed quietly before stopping at the kerb and a door opened.

Once more I buried my chin and cursed under my breath at the biting wind. It seemed as though it was going through me and I couldn’t wait to get into the warmth of my office, now only a few hundred yards away, and get a cup of coffee.

Looking up I saw the black car drive past me and its passenger was now standing on the pavement. She wore a coat that was the colour of the bluest of blue skies and it reached below her knees. It was very smart and I could not help smiling at the sheer exuberance of the woman’s style. She looked wonderful and her casual, elegant stride, as we approached, made her all the more interesting. I noticed her blonde hair was cut short but as she, too, had her face down against the wind I could not see her face. But as the distance between us closed I had the odd and pleasant feeling that I knew her, but couldn’t remember from where.

Lady Diana

Lady Diana

I was not able to take my eyes from her as I tried to remember who she might be. Was she an old girlfriend who I had not seen in years; or a former work colleague maybe? These thoughts ran around my head until we were about ten feet apart and her bag suddenly fell to the ground. Without hesitation I stopped, bent down and picked it up. The woman stopped, smiled and thanked me as I handed the bag to her. For the briefest moment the most photographed woman on the planet smiled at me, a smile so natural and warm that I was lost for words. The surprise of the situation was tingling and I heard myself utter, dry-throated, ‘Mam.’  Then, moments later, she gave me a friendly nod of thanks, turned and walked towards Piccadilly. And so, in the blink of a slightly watery eye the vision in blue, Diana, Princess of Wales, was lost in the breezy London morning.        

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Mum & Mozart – a short story

National Concert Hall (NCH)

National Concert Hall (NCH)

The line ‘If music be the food of love play on,’ always brings a smile, especially when I think about my mother. She was a music fan, a lover indeed, and the words from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night were something that she truly, deeply believed in.

Our house was never quiet when mum was around, as the sounds of opera singers and orchestras drifted merrily from big 331/3 rpm records that were treated like family heirlooms. They were her pride and joy, and she loved nothing more than tearing the cellophane from a new disc and placing it gently on the turntable. I remember the look of anticipation on her face as the needle dropped, scratched and hissed momentarily, before the strains of violin, piano, quartet or singer made her smile the broadest of smiles. It was transfixing, and one of my earliest, and happiest, memories.

Growing up with such a lover of music I was encouraged to get involved, and for many years I took piano lessons. Although I practised hard and often felt my mum’s hand gently squeeze my shoulder as she whispered ‘That’s nice, really nice,’ I knew that I was never going to be the next Mozart. It didn’t matter to her as long as I tried, but I grew to love the Austrian maestro and his wonderful works. Of all the great composers she introduced me to on my musical journey Mozart’s warm, inspiring and exuberant music is something that has stayed with me, and for that I will always be happily in her debt.

Mum’s parents were not themselves musically inclined, but she told me that they were always enthusiastic for her. They brought her to singing lessons, and concerts when they came to town. She remembered getting a record player that had to be started with a winding arm, and a box of new needles. The records were heavy, black vinyl plates that all too often became scratched and cracked. And so she spent hours in record shops and got to know the best places to go, and sometimes the owners gave her records for free because they knew she loved the music. She collected music by all the great composers and she was as knowledgeable of classical music as anybody I ever knew. I found a few of her old records recently in the attic, the sleeves dusty and torn, and I wondered how many times did she slide them out and put them on her record player. Countless, no doubt, I thought, and gently brushed them clean before putting them beside my CD collection. They may have looked awkward but their content was no different and just as enlightening.

As I grew up pop and rock music became a bigger part of my life. I listened to the radio and discovered The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and countless other bands that I now cannot remember. The music made an impression, be it good or bad, and it was discussed endlessly with friends late into the night – our musical rite of passage. Some of us were fans of one band or another and we took great delight in defending our own personal favourites. We were committed to the music and I came to understand why my mother had such a love of this mystical medium. It was something that I could not touch, taste or smell but I could most certainly feel it. It could inspire and lift the soul and express a sadness that words could never hope to do. The magic of music is wonderful and it always had the power to surprise and make me feel better.

Years later I often took my mother to concerts in the National Concert Hall (NCH) nights out that I remember fondly. One particular one stands out, and the more I think about it the more I understand her love of music. It was a Mozart Night and the foyer was abuzz with excitement long before the start. We sat and had a drink, and my mother was bubbling excitedly looking at the happy faces and listening to the friendly conversations around her. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she said, and I grinned a reply.

I led her to our seats and she immediately leaned forward and looked over the balcony at the milling crowd below and the stage beyond. Then she sat back, clasped her hands tightly and nodded her head slowly in response to some inner rhythm. When the seats were filled the lights were dimmed and the performers took the stage. A silence descended and you could almost hear the audience breath as one before the music began. It opened with a rousing version of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro that was loudly applauded. Then we had some beautifully played piano concertos and the delicious Clarinet Concerto which is my own personal favourite.

Every so often I would glance at my mother and see the concentration and happiness on her face. But it was not until the singers took the stage that I saw what I can only describe as a transformation. My mother was an old woman, in her eighties then, but the singing seemed to unlock something within her and I was privileged to see it. During the Sull’aria, from the Marriage of Figaro, I heard my mother singing very quietly, like the whisper over my shoulder a lifetime ago. I had never heard her sing like this before and I was immensely proud. And when I glanced at her again I didn’t see an old woman sitting beside me but a young girl lost in music, bright-eyed with her life to live. When it finished she smiled at me and it took all the strength I had not to cry. It was a magical moment, and I’m sure even Mozart would agree that he had struck the right chord and that music is indeed the food of love.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

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Festive Fun!

'Tis the season to be...

‘Tis the season to be…

Approaching Christmas, one of the things that we always looked forward to was the sale of work in the local girls’ school. It was a great opportunity to buy small presents, have a laugh and, of course, meet some girls. Such opportunities were important to a lad who was studying for his Leaving Cert and keen to meet members of the fairer sex. And hopefully get a few invitations to parties over the festive season.

On a cold and windy Saturday in early December Eddie, Paul and I made our way to the school where we queued under swaying lights, surrounded by lively chatter. The nervous tension was palpable, as we shuffled towards the door from where seasonal music and mirth drifted. The smell of fresh popcorn that floated past was teasing and inviting.

Hoopla

Hoopla

The sports hall was decorated in a rainbow of colourful hangings and flashing lights. It was alive with people of all ages pushing this way and that as White Christmas blasted from a dodgy stereo. There were stalls selling books, cakes, small paintings and knitted gloves and scarves. But nobody was winning on the Hoopla stall and Eddie had to give it a go.

‘Watch this,’ he said, and we gave him room.

‘You show him,’ I said, laughing.

‘Dead-eyed Ed,’ Paul urged.

A small crowd gathered and cheered each near-miss. Eddie’s last throw was close, but not close enough.

‘Bad luck,’ said the stallholder, giving a little shrug.

‘It’s rigged, it’s rigged I know it is,’ Eddie said convincing nobody, and we laughed harder the more he went on.

‘Here, have some of these,’ I said, offering him my bag of piping hot popcorn.

When we were finished I bought two books and the lads got some bits and pieces for Christmas presents. We hung around for a while and then we decided to leave.

As we were heading for the door Eddie’s sister, Marie, ran over with a look of panic on her face. She and two friends blurted out in unison that they needed our help – and that we could not refuse – dare not refuse. We found out that that Santa Claus had taken ill, and a replacement was needed.

Now!

It was too silly for words but the girls didn’t think so.

‘You’ve got to help,’ Marie said firmly, her words allowing for no argument.

We knew we had to help, as life would not be worth living otherwise. Gobsmacked, we looked at each other, before one of the girls said. ‘Well?’

I still don’t know where it came from but I heard myself say ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’

Eddie and Paul looked at me wide-eyed while the girls relaxed and took me by the arm, leading me like a condemned man through the noisy crowd. We went to a small room at the back of the stage where all sorts of junk seemed to have ended up. I hoped that this wasn’t the sign of my immediate future, quickly slipping off my jacket and scarf.

‘It’s really great that you’re doing this,’ Margaret said, breathing a huge sigh of relief. Marie and Adrienne smiled, joyously echoing her words.

‘No problem,’ I said, with no idea what I had got myself into and no chance of escape.

Rudolf and friends

Rudolf and friends

I was dressed hurriedly in a Santa Claus suit a few sizes too big and, after some tricky and ticklish attempts, managed to keep the long white beard on. The girls showed me to my throne where I was immediately involved in greeting a small girl who was not happy waiting for the old man dressed in an ill-fitting red suit. I explained that one of my reindeers, Rudolf, was not feeling well and we had to go slowly. I was sorry, and told her that her special wish would definitely be granted and my faithful assistant, Margaret, smiled and gave her a present. I did this for the next hour or so, and after a headful of wishes and promises to be good next year, I was finished, literally.

The lads laughed at my Santa routine, but not as loud as I did over the Festive Season when Margaret invited me to a party in her house, and a few others as well. It was the best Christmas present I could have wished for, and better than anything Santa Claus could have arranged. Ho, ho, ho!

The man with all the gifts!

The man with all the gifts!

 

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On Your Bike – a short story

As traffic gets heavier with each passing day more and more people of all ages have taken to riding a bicycle. ‘On your bike’ is no longer a phrase of dismissal but says that the cyclist is keen on improving his health and happy to be away from the stress of another traffic jam. Cycling offers a sense of freedom and fun that are associated with younger years, and for that alone I am thankful.

I had not owned a bicycle since I was a teenager and buying one many years later was like taking a step back in time. Getting the right one took a while as the shop owner wanted to know what I wanted it for – casual cycling or something sportier. I tested a few and finally chose my steel horse and happily, if somewhat awkwardly, took it home. After a few days in the saddle, and more sore muscles that I care to mention, I headed off into town. It was the first time that I had done that journey since my schooldays and it was fun, and brought back memories that had lain dormant for years.

Thoughts of summer days cycling with friends to swim in Blackrock Baths were bright and vivid. As were our races when we made believe that we were competing in the Tour de France or pushing for an Olympic gold medal. Bikes were our pride and joy, and a vehicle for adventure and freedom that remains.

Moving along at a steady pace I was surprised to find myself taking in places that, up until then, I would usually drive past. Shops, lanes and houses with plaques commemorating a famous writer or politician, were now places of interest that I stopped and visited.

Ernest Shackleton's home

Ernest Shackleton’s home

I discovered that the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who almost became the first man to reach the South Pole, had lived for a time in a house in Ranelagh. Did he cycle these roads with a growing sense of freedom, I wondered, and hoped he had? And that the Donnybrook Fare, a festival that gives its name to riotous and unbridled behaviour, dated back to the reign of King John, in the twelfth century.

Being able to stop and park easily means that I am now able to pop into the second-hand bookshops that I had not previously visited. This has been a real treat and getting to know the staff adds to the whole experience. As such, I have been lucky enough to find good books that I would otherwise never have known existed. Cycling is not only good for the body but the mind, too and that can’t be bad.

I have found that cyclists often recognise one another with a nod of the head or a friendly grin, and they are quick to share news of a road closure or a handy shortcut.  And on a very windy autumn day, with dead leaves fluttering about, a fellow cyclist stopped and gave me a hand when I was fixing a puncture. It was a kind and much appreciated gesture that I have since done for other cyclists. ‘Hey, it happens to everyone sometime,’ he said as I shook his hand. ‘No problem,’ he added, before setting off without any fuss, like heroic rescuers are meant to.

In recent years with the introduction of cycle lanes, a more environmentally aware mind-set and people’s desire to improve their health, cycling is enjoying a golden period. Doctors recommend it and the concept of ‘Pedal Power’ has more to do with taking control of your body than just getting somewhere quickly. Up-down-up-down-up-down is now a mantra that many are familiar with and happy to keep saying.

And as a friend said to me a while ago cycling is now one of the few places that are digitally-free. With keeping an eye on surrounding traffic, pedestrians, road and weather conditions it is impossible, and downright dangerous, to pay attention to anything else. Hence, cycling has become, as my friend said, a GDF.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Gadget Free Zone.’

We laughed at that before he threw his leg over the crossbar and put the pedal down. ‘Right, I’m off,’ he added, cycling away.

‘Yeah, on your bike,’ I said, fixing my helmet and grinning at his witty and perceptive observation.

On your bike!

On your bike!

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