writers' hub
Paul Duffy
Paul Duffy

Paul Duffy is an Irish archaeologist who has worked on diverse projects in Ireland, France and Australia. He has been writing fiction for several years and has had stories longlisted for the Bridport Prize and shortlisted for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competition. As a shortlisted author for the Francis McManus Award, he has had a work of short fiction recorded and broadcast on RTE 1 (Irish national radio).  

Shattered


Healy’s voice faltered as the woman with the dark hair moved down the aisle. His fingers tightened on the edge of the lectern, their fleshy pads seeking a sharp edge, a screwhole, a splinter. Instinctively, they sought a stab of pain to give a voice to the confronting scene of her departure. His fingers pressed nothing but bland chipboard. He internalised, slowed his words and drew out each sound to mask the disconnect. It was a thin stratagem, exposed by the silence that sank from the end of his sentence as the heavy auditorium door slid its way towards shut. The sound of the mechanism clicking closed echoed in dissonant punctuation through the ghost of his last syllable. She had sabotaged him. His wife had sabotaged him. It was a minor lapse but heads turned nonetheless, following his static eyes to the back of the room. Healy roused himself and continued reading, pushing uphill now towards the end of his composition. His charged eyes gave a last sweep of the half-filled auditorium, urging the faces there back into the story. But it was done and his performance damaged.

 

The ending pawed its way out onto the air, weak and exposed and lost of context. It died a death. A pause, then applause broke like glass and he stepped back from the podium. A painful smile barbed his face as he masqueraded appreciation with something between a bow and a nod. The compère emerged onstage clapping through a limp A4 sheet and explained again that the author unfortunately had not the time for questions today but he could be reached, as ever on his blog. The smile had tightened on his face, full of fang by the time he stepped behind a curtain and stalked through the backstage area hounded by the diminishing clapping. Outside, he planted his hands against the bare blocks of the theatre wall and he drew his leg back to kick at nothing in particular. His foot hovered in space, full of inert energy before he returned it to the ground propelling the word ‘Bitch’ through his lips. Despite the cold terseness that had grown, slow and sly as crystal between them these last few months, Deirdre’s act had appalled him. Her exit had accomplished what she was best at. She had degraded him in public and caused his words to become grasping, embarrassing things.

 

Healy barely had time for a cigarette before people began coming out into the foyer. He could see eyebrows raising and lowering as they discussed the minor scandal in hushed, delighted voices. In the foreground, a stack of his books sat arranged on a stall. Hardback copies propped each other up, the gloss of the fly covers reflecting the hard electric light in ripples. Insistent and tawdry.

 

He swallowed the last of his smoke, pushed in through the glass doors and took up his position behind his publications. He was anxious to be away and up town. It was Dublin Writers’ Week and the venues around the city were buzzing with events and discussion and enjoyable pretension. All the local publishing houses were out showing their wares and the theatres and libraries were hosting readings by big names and new names and middling, respectable names such as Healy’s own. He had no stomach for it now.

 

A modest crowd mobbed the stall and he was deflated further to recognise half of their faces. Patrons of the writing class he hosted on Thursdays in a basement off Mountjoy Square. He ended up, as he knew he would, fending off benign comments and scribbling insipid dedications. He worked hard in his ire to put a few jagged edges on his disappointingly plain script.

 

“That was marvellous, Gerald,” said a middle-aged country woman, worrying the beads at her neck. 

“We’re off to see Deirdre now. She’s reading over on Dawson St. isn’t that right?”

“That’s right Vicky,” Healy said.

“I saw she came in to give you some support earlier,” the woman continued.

 

Healy smiled wildly into the book as he scribbled. A flash of fang. He couldn’t tell if he was being needled.

His wife Deirdre had certainly attended. She had taken up her position, in full view. Imperious.

 

“That's right,” Healy said again shortly.

The woman made to move off.

“We might see you up there, Gerald.”

“Right O, Vicky,” he said without looking up. He was trying not to indulge an image that grinned somewhere in his cerebellum, of himself striding in to his wife’s reading with a flaming newspaper in his fist, putting all to flight. The more he chewed on it the more he saw premeditation in his wife’s act.

 

“Which one will you read?” she had asked him the night before. They were in bed and she was idly thumbing the pages of her new collection. He had taken the bait, saying, “You know which one, Deirdre. The best one.”

“Which?” she asked again, her face a mask of insouciance and her eyes focused on the page.

“The Brave.”

She had replied with a mild, ill-defined sound, a little ‘humph’ that spoke a thousand words and he turned over instantly, his mouth biting itself small.

 

The reading had been going well until Deirdre's little manoeuvre. She had waited for the pinnacle, the part where it all turns. At that moment she played her hand. She shuffled about in her seat and aimed an exaggerated look at her watch before gathering up her coat and performing her exit, just when he could feel the audience reaching ripeness. It was a declaration of war.

 

In the foyer, the crowd had dissipated, leaving a few hopeful lurkers eyeing him for a conversation. Healy made for the toilet but slipped out the back door, heading east towards his wife's poetry reading with action on his mind.

 

It was not going to be enjoyable. She had been writing about France lately. As had he. It had come around again full circle, their ever repeating conjugal drama. Their lives together were regulated by it, surfacing and submerging to the rhythm of some undecipherable calendar. And they reacted to its capricious cycle in their predestined way, like tin figures on a town clock. After years of peace hostilities would recommence as they fired across each other’s bows, hurting each other with the past and rooting out the old defect upon which they had built their marriage. Almost twenty years had passed since Deirdre’s scholarship from the Sorbonne took them both to France. They had come home marked.

*

Their apartment was in a student complex, on the fifth floor up among the plane tree canopies with a balcony looking out over the river to the blocks of townhouses opposite. Deirdre studied and Healy wrote. This meant in reality, a lot of slow mornings where he melted together the tastes of smoke and coffee, swirling them around his tongue like brandy in a glass. And his head full of bourgeois thoughts scanned the apartments looking for clues of life to write into stories.

 

The groundskeepers would come twice a week. Their green overalls marked them as intellectually challenged young men from some local work initiative. ‘Touched’ Healy's father would have said, as if they had been benighted or blessed. There may have been some truth that, Healy often thought while watching them in their self-contained world. They pushed their mowers around dutifully, tittering every time they passed near to each other. When they thought themselves unobserved they could become transfixed by tiny details in the grass. He had seen them all lost on different occasions, one standing mute, holding a broad leaf up to the sun to see its veins, another prodding the dead body of a rat. Or the time he had seen the one with the black hair stop his mower dead and approach an empty beer bottle on the steps of the fire escape. Healy looked down from above, fascinated, as the young man picked up the bottle, concealing it behind his wrist it as he looked around innocently. Then his hands had acted. He flicked the bottle against the bricks. Emotion spilled over him and his body tensed with the violence of the smash. Then he stood looking around wildly, delighted with it and Healy watched, invisible, understanding the joy of a secret, forbidden act.

 

Deirdre applied herself to her studies and Healy sank increasingly into a self-justified, artistic torpor. Mornings would trail on, bright and fresh. He penned worthless scraps as someone sang scales in soprano in an apartment below. There were buzzards in January and river silt on the wind coated the blinds like forensic dust. John Coltrane and Debussy filled out the air and sometimes he would leave an offering on the steps for when the groundskeepers came. Something breakable.

 

Deirdre was vital, beautiful and raw. On weekends they played lovers in nearby villages, visiting the outdoor markets and amusing each other among the antiques and curio stalls. It was her birthday when they found the bottle of blue frosted glass. A small and delicate form she turned around in the light, her fingers drinking in its imperfections. She loved it instantly. They fooled themselves back to antiquity with it; imagining it the possession of some Roman tribune or senator's wife, like the one they had seen in the Musée. He filled it with perfume for her and sealed it with a marble wrapped in burlap.

 

Down the hall lived Maxim from the Ivory Coast. Cote d'Ivoire. Mythic. And how she fell for him. Healy already knew it was a fait accompli the day she had stormed around the apartment looking for the perfume bottle. To paint her neck with scent for him. “Have you seen it,” she kept asking. Healy was silent, his back to her, leaning over the balustrade with smoke drizzling from between his teeth. He was watching. Smash. Glass broke like applause. The groundskeeper's hands at his throat, convulsed with the excitement, eyes darting around like fish in a shoal and the smell of perfume rising. Healy knew that feeling. It was the dangerous frenetic excitement that comes with the joy of doing wrong, chiming like small church bells up from the soles of the feet, through the groin and in behind the heart. He felt it too as the blue glass flew apart, cast into the grass like a handful of seed.

 

Deirdre and Maxim. His skin dark, supple as a bat's wing, the hard shape of his muscles beneath, as seductive as his soft confident voice, and she let herself veer towards him as the days went on. In their kitchen he had shown her the scars on his thigh. His fingers moved over the raised lines on his skin, his eyes sliding meaningfully from Healy to Deirdre. Over his lips poured the tales of the medicine man and the thin lacerations and the burying of his leg in the forest earth to heal. The sensuousness of the story and of the telling summoned up the fragrance of husks, yam, baobab. Healy had to hate him. The worst thing had been the honesty. The way Maxim told his tales. They were true accounts of things. There was no embellishment. The way his face, his eyes especially, were honest in his intentions. The way he would clap a warm hand on Healy's shoulder while holding the girl's gaze with expansive invitations from the brown opaque of his irises. For a girl is all she had been. Twenty and wilful. Healy was that bit older, trying to keep the lid on her, trying to keep her secret like a dove inside of his jacket. And Maxim had taken her. His expressiveness was so tangible and bare that Healy could see their every move beneath the duvet. A voyeuristic mind's eye. Healy understood. A secret, forbidden act.

 

So he settled at the balcony more and more, smoking, trying to fill the space in his chest with something physical. Watching the birds and the leaves bend, he waited for the groundskeepers to come.

 

They arrived again three days later and the one with the black hair came nosing. He pushed his mower over to the steps to see if anything had been left for him. The mower bag was empty. The blades kicked up the dry earth and the jags of glass. They tore through the canvas strafing across the young man's shins. He jumped back, his face twisted and his hands flying about like paper fans. Healy reacted immediately, rushing down the stairwell and out the fire escape. The groundskeeper lay on the grass. He clutched his legs, squeezing frightened tears from his tightly closed eyes. “It’s all right,” Healy told him, “let me see.” He lifted the groundskeeper's hands. They were sticky with blood. His shins were crazed with thin lacerations. And in the grass, as he knew it would be; blue glass, blood red.

 

“It’s okay.” Healy told him, holding up the shard with a smile. The groundskeeper looked away with a shy light of guilt in his eyes.

Healy searched for something to say.

“Did you know,” Healy asked, in his accented French, “that the Native Americans, when they first came across bottle glass, used to make arrows with it?”

The groundskeeper stared dumbly, his cheek twitching.

“It's true,” Healy continued. “They would shatter it like flint and use it as tips for their arrows.”

The young man looked down at his leg and tears came to his eyes again.

 

Later, after the supervisor had come over and they had cleaned and dressed the wound, Deirdre arrived. She came down to see what the commotion was and saw the glass shattered on the grass. Tears beaded in her lashes, her hands going roughly to Healy’s chest. While she slapped at him he switched off, letting his eyes stray over her shoulder. He saw the groundskeeper limping over to the van and when the young man turned to look back, the tears were dried on his face and he was smiling. In the evening sun Healy saw two red lines of blood drawn across his cheeks and one down the bridge of his nose. An Indian Brave.

*

Summer was on the streets as Healy made his way across College Green. He was dreading her poem, the one evoking the gargantuan dark forests, thick and shadowed, full of smothering odours like the smells in an African craft shop with the goatskin drums and the masks of worked softwood. Across Dame St. he ducked into O'Neill's and punished himself with a double at the bar. It hurt him still, the incision of her lean words. The pain was more of a dull aching these days, the sharpness gone out of it. Blue bottle glass rolled smooth by the sea. But then the anger came spiking, seeing her move down the aisle, her exaggerated tiptoe as she distracted the whole damn place, setting him up for a fool. Revenge. The word bulled itself into his head. What would he do? How would he react when he saw her there on the stage, caught up in the importance of her own words? He necked another drink and pushed himself upright.

 

The sun sat low in the sky when he emerged, the brilliance of it reacting with the whisky. He made his way through the city drinking in breaths of the dusty air. Nerves clattered inside of him with the pub looming up on the corner.

 

On the stairs he heard her voice rising and falling in that practised, oratorical timbre. The small wood-lined room was pressed with people drinking and listening in silence. Through gaps between shoulders and necks he was watching her, the white light making shadows in her cheeks. How pale she looked. The shadows shaved off the years hugging her features like a frame. He found that his jaw was clenched as he pushed into the crowd. The memory of her back working its way down the aisle played and replayed across some screen of his memory as Deirdre delivered her lines with confidence. Her back disappearing down the hall. Her back moving beneath a duvet.

 

Healy’s fists tightened and loosened of their own accord. On the walk from O’Neil’s he had fought the argument with her several times in his head, his tongue ghosting around in his mouth with the indignation. Moving through the press of people he could already taste the acrimony. He swallowed it back and grabbed a pint from a table, shoving his way towards the stage. He got his arm ready, fighting its hesitation as he drew it back ready to douse her, beer slopping over his wrist.

 

Then came something new. He didn't register the words immediately as he pushed on. Suddenly it was over him. Something said, a line or a word passing overhead into the silence and hauling out of him, as it went, things forgotten: a night. And more words followed.

 

“...the safe weave of his hands hung

A sheet, Grecian, from my shoulders,”

 

France. The storm coming, as only they can on the Continent, with sudden weighty drops of rain hammering the dry earth. It caught them in bed, the smell of wet concrete rising from the balcony. He had dressed her with a sheet across her shoulders and they had run barefoot down the corridor and up the fire escape. On the roof they watched the weather heave across the buildings, thunder threatening them, shaking across the night sky. The rain fell warm and brutal.

 

Healy stood dumb at the front of the crowd, the memory heavy with the past, dredged up things long at rest.

 

The room around him thrummed with the sound of her voice. It hit him hard and as she looked down and saw him there, her eyes forced the words home.

 

“...the wild air flush with our nakedness

Fondled our bodies.

Oblique words bring meaning. Love,

Skirmish in our stead.

Our storm washed bodies defend themselves

With vitrified skin.

To break and let our old selves in”

 

She blazed there in the stage light, as vibrant and inviting as that young slip of a girl with wet heels on the tiles. He stood in the obscurity, off-stage, middle aged and under her gaze, taking the blow. She had changed the game. She had invited him back in with details so alive, so fresh from the past. They had him stunned. Shaken. And in the impact some ancient impediment between them shattered.

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