I was recently challenged to write a short story inspired by two verses of a poem - without knowing anything about the original poem. The lines were:
On the annual holiday in Brighton
with pain in his civil-war eyes he applied
lotion on her freckled back. she could be
the lady on the cereal packet with a free beachball.
Beside the ice-cream shed he imagines a radio -
the inevitable Galway-Mayo football match
on a Sunday evening in 1935 as you ask me
for the third time to pass the salt in 1985.
This would be the last year we would come to Brighton. It would be hard to say goodbye to that pilgrimage, made every August of my life except when I was two, the summer Joe was born. Those summers had marked the progress of my life. I took my first faltering steps on that sand, and got my first kiss from the niece of the lady in the flat below Grandad's. The summer I passed my exams and got into college, he bought me a bike, and even when it was stolen later that week, he wasn't angry at all - though he was never violent, this lovely man; he'd seen too much, been in the battle where his own brother fell in the cause of the Free State, and he vowed against all violence from that day. I came here to mourn Mam and Dad after the crash. Four years ago I first brought Gwen with me, her first meeting with anyone from the family, and I was nervous and proud and excited all at once. I needed Grandad to like her, and I knew that if he didn't like her, he'd say so. But he gave us his blessing, and we were married the following spring.
The flat is so empty without him. The furniture is half gone, his chair's still there but the TV at which it pointed for so many years lies in a skip in the road outside. We don't need it - we have three tellies between the two of us anyway - and nobody would buy such a clapped-out old thing. The picture faded with his eyesight, so he never minded as the pink fog crept in from the left, slowly wiping out the other colours. We complained every year, but he just told us we should be out having a good time, not sitting in with an old fool like him; but from his quiet smile I could tell he was glad we stayed.
Then, last year, Joe came down. It was the first time he'd come here since Mam and Dad died - the first time in three years any of us had seen him. He was full of plans, how he was going to build a new life for himself - things I'd heard from friends said he'd made a mess of the old one, but he never talked about that, he never did like admitting his failures. He cosied up to Grandad, persuaded him to let him stay on past the summer. He claimed he was setting up a business, but he never seemed to leave the flat, at least not in the daytime when honest people did business.
I knew then, in my heart, that Joe was up to something - but it never occurred to me what. Not until that October morning, watching breakfast television as the government stumbled out of the ruins of the Grand Hotel. Of course he didn't plant the bomb - he never had the balls for that - but he scouted for them, he put them up in Grandad's flat, fed them Grandad's food, the food of a pacifist. I'll never forgive him that betrayal, and he knows it: with luck he'll stay on the run.
Now I see Grandad through new eyes. Fifty years on I am the same as he, just me and my wife and my wee son, and as I sit here in his old armchair I feel him so close, I see so clearly how his life was. We've both lost brothers to what claims to be the same cause, and we both love them and miss them and hate them for doing what young men do. But Gwen is talking, and little Mikey needs feeding, and suddenly I'm back, without him now but knowing him so much better.
For anyone who was wondering, the original poem was Dreaming of Paddy Flaherty by Gerard Reidy.