Eric Greaves has been writing for approximately 3 years.A retired financial adviser but active mandolin player,occasional composer and music festival curator.
He is a member of the Irish Writers Centre and regularly attends Centre courses.In recent years he received an Irish Government bursary to attend the John Hewitt Summer School where he undertook a creative writing course with author Bernie Magill.
Eric is a member of the North Coast Writers Group and is currently editing an historical fiction novel.
Recently he has had a short story “Shades of Jack” accepted by Impspired.com for their August online edition and for their Print Anthology in September.
Shades of Jack
Norma walked slowly up the creaking stair to his garret.
She gathered her heavy tweeds about her.
The old granite cottage was “like Baltic” as she might say…she shivered deeply.
There hadn’t been a fire lit here for days, she could feel.
Her senses’ discomforts were layered and woven-the smell of damp, the icy cold, the deep stomach gnawing that she had left him here alone too long.
That all of this had been her fault.
As she passed the landing window, the first flecks of snow swirled down from the mountain, mocking accusing almost, the world had turned its face from Norma.
She gripped the old ceramic doorknob and twisted…she was in.
She was standing within the holy of holies, his inner sanctum.
His old Olivetti manual typewriter sat glaring at her from the small desk in the corner. His chair was upended, thrown down, splintered… from an angry kick maybe?
The pitch pine floor was strewn with typed sheets ,many with faded print where overused ribbon had gradually shaded and faded into exhausted oblivion.
She put her tired back to the wall and looked around the tiny room, Jack’s creative space, his engine room, the inner space he’d kept cloistered even from her.
A goldfinch chirped pleadingly from his cage outside the window.
She’d never understood Jack’s obsession with catching and caging these beautiful creatures-he had cages everywhere. He said it was a family tradition from his grandfather’s time in the Dublin bird market.
“ Well, it’s not my fucking tradition!”.
With a rising anger, Norma lifted the sash and opened the little cage door.
“Go little bird!
You’re free! Get away from here!”
Back in the room, she glared back at the old 1950’s typewriter relic. No pc or laptop for poor old Luddite Jack.
The cable was outside the gate for the last two years but he wouldn’t have it in.
Sure haven’t we got the radio?
Well Norma now had her 40” tv with four hundred channels. Not that she watched it much ,just nice to know it’s there.
She picked a page from the floor and read.
“Feed the cats, free the finches, shoot the dogs”, repeated line after line to fill the page.
She reached for more sheets, but after finding some 10 identical pieces, she knew now that Jack had been toying with the lure of the abyss for some time.
Among the paper morass on the desk, she found Jack’s journal.
She leaned back against the wall and began to read.
The blue lights of the police and ambulance reflected tiny in the old mottled mirror. They were winding their way down the glen.
They were coming to take him down and take him away forever.
The two young collies, Spy and Shep stood quietly by her side at the little gate.
Tall greying Sergeant O’Grady waved the others back and embraced her in a neighbours’s hug.
“A terrible business Norma. Terrible entirely .So sorry for you….”
O’Grady had daughters of his own .He was a kind man looking to take away pain.
She looked over O’Grady’s consoling shoulder.
There were three other policemen and the yellow and red uniformed ambulance crew, whose colours in an unbidden thought reminded her of the little goldfinch she’d earlier released.
And of course there among them all, master of ceremonies, chief scout was the ever present Bosco.
She turned to O’Grady.
“Sergeant, I want to be there when you take him down”
“If you’re sure Norma?
We can bring him up to the house and you can identify him there, love.”
“No Sergeant I need to see him where he is …”
Her voice began to quiver-the dam would burst soon.
“But I don’t want him down there “.
The Sergeant watched her poisonous stare light laser like on Bosco.
“He won’t be Norma, he won’t be, I promise .”
O’Grady called together the just arrived doctor, the senior ambulance man and two young Guards. The big man put a supportive arm around Norma’s shoulder as she led the little group to the river.
Earlier in her favourite coffee shop surrounded by friends, Norma’s phone had flashed ominously- a message from Bosco.
“Christ! What does he want !”
She’d forgotten that he’d even had her number.
Taking a long sip from her skinny latte she excused herself to everyone.
She squeezed out onto Dawson Street.
She’d known even before she’d called back that she’d be travelling to Wicklow for something or other.
Norma hated the sing-song cadences of Bosco’s insincere phone voice, but she put up with it.
“Ah Norma, how’s it going .Are ye well?..”
“Get on with it you bastard”, she thought.
This could be the preamble to Happy Christmas or the blackest of black news, you could never tell with Bosco.
“Ah Norma, it’s just Jack…you know he hasn’t been great in the head since you left….well Norma, the Guards is here. They want a word with ya..would ya drop up d’ya think?”
Before she could ask any question, the monotone drone continued.
“Ah Norma, wasn’t I after aul sheep down by the river pool this morning. And sure, there was poor Jack and he hangin’ from the big Ash bough, ye remember the one where the kids used to swing into the river from.”
As if she could forget the spot. And she thought:
“You couldn’t even give me the comfort of hearing this from a uniformed stranger. It had to come out of your fucking primitive mouth”
She had come to the mountains to be with Jack all of fifteen years ago.
Norma had been eighteen then and a first year Classics student in Trinity College. Jack had been her English teacher and Form head at the exclusive private school in South Dublin she’d left the year before.
She had sailed into Mc Daid’s in the happy boisterous company of friends one sunny Saturday afternoon. She still remembered the shafts of sunlight from the high windows cutting like spotlights through the blue swirl of tobacco smoke and the raucous good humour of the crowd.
Over the black and white battalions of pulled pints ,she’d spotted him in what had been till then a quiet corner. He was busy with his racing pages.
The barman had considered showing her the door ,such was the volume of her excited shouting.
“Mr McGahan!…Mr McGahan, it is you isn’t it…?
He’d looked up startled from the Racing Post and instinctively shaped for a quick exit.
But it was too late.
Seconds later the tall young woman was silhouetted above him. When she turned slightly the sunlight illuminated her breath-taking features.
He’d been overwhelmed by her wild red tresses and searching green eyes.
“Norma Hughes, as I live and breathe…”
He’d remembered her now alright. What a year in college could do for a girl.
Kate Bush with red hair drooling drunkenly all over his bets.
What was a man to do?
Three months later, her academic plans abandoned and in tatters, she broke her parents’ hearts. The thought of their baby with a man not much younger than her father!
Jack McGahan’s flights from financial and legal pursuits were coming to a close.
So with the noose closing, the Bould Jack headed to the hills and to his bolt hole. The cottage was the one asset he’d managed to cloak from them all.
Norma followed close on his heels, but not before drawing the last of her student grant in cash.
She was learning quickly from Mc Gahan.
And so began a life together, by times idyllic and by times as harsh as the rocks that surrounded them.
But away from the bustle of the city, they’d learnt to absorb the changing seasons together in a deep knowing.
They’d sown in Spring, swam in Summer, harvested in Autumn and when Winter’s frosts fell or snow drifted deeply ,they’d drawn close by bright sparking fires.
But always there was Bosco Byrne.
Jack and he had played as boys for many summers when the cottage was Jack’s family’s holiday home. They had invented empires and brotherhoods in the fields ,in the furze and along the river.
Despite Jack’s absence of a number of years, their boyhood bonds had stood the test of time.
Norma never knew when Jack’s playmate might turn up.
The bastard was everywhere!
She’d gotten used to, but still hated, the early morning rattle of the latch as Bosco stepped in at breakfast time, pulled up to the table and poured himself tea. He even had his own mug hanging on the dresser for God’s sake.
Norma had at times ,found herself to be almost an outsider in her own home. Regardless of what needed fixing in their house or tending in the garden, Bosco’s needs came first.
Stone walls to be built, fences to be fixed ,sheep to be dosed or shorn, the list was endless.
And because the Byrne land adjoined theirs ,Bosco was never out of the place.
Of an age with Jack, in his mid-fifties, Bosco had the loping gait of an ancient cave dweller. Brown skinned and with bright sly eyes, he seemed to wear a permanent demonic grin.
Norma came to hate the sight of him.
As hard as she tried to banish it, a deep fear had settled in her that Bosco meant her harm.
And this had come between Jack and her.
When she’d raised the amount of time Bosco spent in the place over dinner one night, Jack replied with an angry snort.
“Jesus! The way you’re going on, you’d think he was trying to get into bed with us.!”
“That’s all he’s fucking short of…!
She’d shaken her red curls angrily then and her eyes flashed.
“Don’t Ah Norma me! I came here to be with you Jack, not for a fucking threesome.
I could get plenty of that back in Dublin…!”
The last stinging remark had been driven home hard … to hurt.
And thus had begun Jack’s regular retreats to his garret and the old Olivetti 1950’s typewriter.
Then Penelope from Glasgow had moved into a derelict house, some five hundred yards down the lane. Tall, beautiful and raven haired, Penelope was equally at home mixing cement with her husband Paul in overalls as she was cruising Dublin’s fashionable bars and restaurants in the latest boho chic. She had quickly taken to her younger neighbour in a big sisterly, conspiratorial way. It hadn’t taken Penelope long to size up the situation and she was determined to brighten Norma’s life.
Soon Norma’d found herself back in many of her old college haunts enjoying her role as Pen’s guide to Dublin’s hedonism.
On these occasions, the ever-stoic Paul, squat red bearded Paul from the Gorbels, would rescue the Merry Sisters. He adored the ground that Pen walked on. Uncomplaining, ,he drove up to the city and happily poured the revellers into the back of his Landrover Defender to whisk them back to Wicklow.
“Mountain air…great for the hangover!”, the little Glaswegian would roar as Norma was helped giggling and tottering to her gate.
On those nights, as the Scottish lovebirds disappeared into the night, Norma sometimes felt a pang of envy. She’d be unsure what she might find behind her own door.
Jack might be in bed, his back turned sullenly away from her, asleep or pretending to be.
Or Bosco and he might be slumped in fireside chairs staring mutely into the grey embers, the sweet waft of cannabis hanging in the air.
Or worst of all, Jack might be already gone up and she’d be left alone to deal with a leery stoned Bosco. On one of these occasions, she’d been regaled with the wonders of the newly arrived Wi-Fi and the joy of the late-night porn channels when the Mother was safely in bed after the Rosary.
Jesus! Who does this fucker, think he’s talking to?!
“Let yourself out Bosco like a good man”, she’d muttered ,dragging herself up to the spare room where she’d locked and bolted the door and thrown herself sobbing onto the narrow bed.
When she’d confided in Pen the following day, her Scottish friend had hugged her tightly before exploding.
“Norma Hughes, we will go to Dublin and we will get pissed anytime we like .And don’t you mind at all that pair o’ shits.
You’re not one of Jack’s caged finches…shouldnae be allowed anyway if ye ask me.
And as for that Bosco, I’ve never liked that wee …”.
Let’s just say Penelope’s tongue could be florid when her inner Glaswegian shone through.
And so Jack grew older and Norma was leaving her youth behind her.
An unsettling began to settle on them both
Then came the year of two happenings.
~ Part Two ~
It was a hot, hot summer, and Norma liked of an evening to swim in the deep river pool below the house when she would have it to herself or at least she thought she had.
On a sultry evening she back stroked languidly across the river, her red tresses trailing in the golden-brown water.
A deep primal sense in her triggered an alert.
She was not alone.
Norma clambered to the large rocks by the riverbank where she crouched, feral almost, watching and waiting.
She wasn’t sure how long she had crouched but cramp was beginning to creep into her legs.
Then the setting sun came to her aid.
His glinting almost corvine eye gave Bosco away. The sun flashed a dying ray straight into it.
Norma rose naked, her red curls still glistening with the river’s pearls.
In her fist she held a heavy river rock which she hurled now with all her might into the bush where Bosco lurked.
She heard the crash of breaking branches, a muffled scream and a string of oaths.
She gathered her clothes and ran to safe ground.
Bosco hadn’t lifted the latch to join them for breakfast ,the next day nor for a day or two after.
His mother Margo, a poor cratur in her eighties sent word over.
A trio of little schoolgirls skipped in from waiting for the school bus.
“Mrs Byrne said to tell yez .Only it’s that Bosco got an awful kick from a bullock last night and he’ll be in bed for a day or two.
And will yez manage without him while he’s laid up?”
Jack’s few coins and the sound of the school bus eventually got the giddy little girls away off the doorstep.
“God Jack, I’m hungry this morning. Think I’ll have another bowl of porridge. More coffee? “
Norma and Jack did not keep secrets as a rule.
But this was different.
Norma wasn’t about to reveal to Jack that she had swum naked in the river under the gaze of his best friend. Nor that she’d almost brained Bosco for his troubles.
No, she could go along with the stroppy bullock story for now.
She was to come to bitterly regret keeping what had really happened that evening from Jack.
That year’s second big event followed soon after.
Not as dramatic as Bosco’s riverside adventure, but it was to influence deeply the course of Norma and Jack’s life together.
Her wealthy Great Aunt Christine had watched Norma’s recent life unfold with a growing sense of unease from her London bastion.
Childless, eccentric and nearing the end of days, Christine had adored Norma since the day of her birth Someone had to do something to get her favourite grandniece away from the clutches of that aging Lothario in the Wicklow mountains.
“Bloody medieval situation, if you ask me. Her parents are worse than useless, one talking drunkenly to himself all day long. The other in a permanent drug stupor. Something’s got to be bloody done!”.
And so Christine and her deep pockets glided to a chauffeured halt outside the granite cottage one overcast afternoon.
Thankfully, Jack was out.
Christine made it perfectly clear, sitting to a hastily laid tea table that her plans held no place for the Man of the House, as she sneeringly referred to Jack with curled lips.
Norma gripped the arms of her chair.
“I’m speaking now, My Dear, please do not interrupt.
Norma, I’ve set up a trust for you, but with strict trustee controls. So don’t get any ideas that your Jack the Lad will get a sniff. I’ve seen to that.
So My Dear ,here it is, plain and simple. I’ve bought a nice little gallery with generous accommodation overhead in Baggot Street.
You have ninety days from the end of this month to move in…alone mind!
Run this gallery and live again among cultured folk and in civilisation .
Christ only knows what brought you to this place.
Yes, yes I know, ‘Love’ and all that.…
Time to grow up Girl!
This has gone on long enough Norma .I’m giving you back your life.”
Norma sat staring into the middle of the kitchen as a cast of thousands seemed to swim in through the front door.
They drank tea, occasionally somebody lifted a glass of whiskey and the wake drifted out to the garden and the cold evening sunshine with a light white scattering about.
Pen and Mrs Byrne buttered and cut sandwiches, brewed fresh tea and coffee..
As with most Irish wakes, a conviviality of sorts was taking hold. Neighbours seeking to bury the tragedy under layers of everyday trivia – the cost of feed, the match last Sunday.
Norma beckoned Penelope to follow her upstairs. She needed to share what she had discovered in Jack’s writings.
Pen held one of the scattered texts shaking her head in disbelief.
Norma roused herself from her almost dreamlike state.
“So, I’ve opened all the cages. I’ve no doubt that many of the finches may not survive but they’re gone. I was hoping you and Paul might help with the cats?”
“Awh pet, of course we will, happily.”
“But Norma, what about the dogs? I know you want to follow Jack’s wishes.
But poor Spy and Shep, they’ve done no harm.”
Norma looked over her friend’s head. Her gaze took her up the glen along the road that couldn’t take her away from here fast enough.
“I’ve talked to Bosco. I’ll bring them over to him later. After all, he brought them to us. Said they weren’t worth a fuck as sheep dogs but sure wouldn’t they suit Jack and Norma?
And they did Penny, they did.
Jack loved them.”
“What will you do now? tonight I mean Norma.
Come over to us, we’d love to have you”.
“I’ll head back to Dublin…to the gallery. Thanks Pen, I don’t belong here just now.
Who knows? There’ll be a post-mortem tomorrow and Jack’s sisters want him in the family plot in Glasnevin…I may come back …but not to stay…and not anytime soon.
Read the last three pages of his diary…here.”
Norma handed Penelope the tattered journal and went down to begin clearing the house of the well-wishers and hearse chasers.
Pen took Norma’s place leaning against the wall and read what were plainly the pained words of a desolate man in the throes of despair.
“Even when the sun shines, the days are grey here since you’ve gone.
I know you needed to get away. God knows there’s nothing really here for a fabulous beautiful young creature like yourself. I should never have allowed you to follow me here. But I did and I’ve loved you since the day you stepped across the door.
And now I don’t know what to do.
I never knew what to say to you..
Bosco tries to cheer me up, saying you were no good for me. And sure look he says, as soon as the Scottish one showed up, sure the pair of them were off partying in Dublin any chance they got.
He even told me that you tried to get him into the river skinny dipping with you one summer and that when he wouldn’t- he’s me best pal after all – you battered him with a rock.
And I remember now. The cocky smile on you going around when he was laid up that time…………”
Pen wanted to throw the journal and it’s twisted malevolent lie away from her. But she laid it gently on the desk and followed her friend downstairs.
Norma walked from the house in the gloaming to check the cages for the last time. All empty except one in the onion patch. Here a shivering greenfinch cowered to the back terrified of the little open door.
That was the trigger, the end point.
She sank to her knees to the cold earth.
A howl of anguish arose from deep within Norma -primal, lonesome and terrible in its angry grief.
The fire in the hearth was almost finished consuming Jack’s tortured writings.
She went to the tall cupboard where the vermin shotgun was stored. Rummaging she found the box of cartridges.
Norma slid the weapon under Jack’s old oilskin on the back seat of the old Landcruiser.
Best to take Jack’s jeep…easier to get the dogs in…they’d always loved riding around up front with him.
When she opened the door, Spy and Shep instantly caught his lingering scent.
The Collies eagerly sniffed and slavered, he couldn’t be too far away.
Margo Byrne had just drifted into sleep when the first shot jolted her awake.
That was very near. Down in the yard I’d say.”
She sank back on the pillow.
That bloody son of hers out after foxes again.
If it’s not that, he’s up half the night watching tv….
The second retort shook the window.
“Bosco! For the love of Jesus!”
The old crone was out on the floor now , tugging up the sash window.
Despite her eighty odd years, Margo Byrne had strength still in her voice and she hadn’t lost her colourful turn of phrase- could blister paint, some said.
She leaned out of window and bawled
“Bosco Byrne! You fucking halfwit !
Will you go into your bed and let Christians sleep for Pity’s sake.”
Silence fell over the yard.
She thought she heard the sound of a jeeps engine fading a couple of fields over.
Back in bed, Margo reached for her beads and was soon asleep.