A Short Story by Peter Hollywood.
Peter Hollywood is the author of Jane Alley, Pretani Press (1987); Lead City and Other Stories, Lagan Press (2002); Luggage – a novel, Lagan Press (2008); Hawks and Other Short Stories (2013) and Drowning the Gowns – a Novel (2016) both published by New Island Books. His stories have appeared in numerous journals and he has had stories represented in three anthologies: State of the Art: Short Stories by New Irish Writers edited by David Marcus, published by Hodder and Stoughton and ‘Krino – An Anthology of Modern Irish Writing’ edited by Gerald Dawe and Jonathan Williams, published by Gill and MacMillan. The Welcome Centre opens the recently published anthology: Belfast Stories, Doire Press. He has also had ‘flash fiction’ anthologised in The Bramley Volumes 1 & 2. The story The Cataracts Bus will appear in the forthcoming anthology The New Frontier: Contemporary Writing From & About the Irish Border. Peter is currently a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow in Seamus Heaney Centre, QUB.
“… saeva indignatio/Ulterius/Cor lacerate nequit.”- Jonathan Swift.
decided to ride on.
An urgent a.m. meeting.
Venue: the outer ring Ramada. A rear conference room/function suite, overlooking the river.
Tables arranged in a hollow square formation; known also as a closed U.
No break-out rooms required.
Water cooler. Air conditioning.
Housekeeping: “loos” just outside through the double doors. “Gents to the left because ladies are always right!”
No scheduled fire drill. So, real thing. Assembly point the carpark.
He watched people slide mobiles and smart phones from off the shiny, conference table surfaces; like gamblers palming the hands they’ve been dealt. Others reached inside jackets or howked around in handbags. Turning to silent.
He patted down his own pockets.
It was mostly the men who barged in with that brash briskness, all business-like in high-shine shoes and manly handshakes.
The hollow square arrangements allowed him to see the legs opposite him. Some sat cross-legged. Others had their legs tucked in under their seats. One man had his stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Expensive leather soles for all to see. One woman sat with her hands folded in her lap.
Serious, professional faces and their reflections in the polished surface of the tables. Insects sat like reading glasses on the glacial surface.
People were clicking pens now and opening notebooks and file pads. His briefcase he had set beside him on the carpet. He did not lean down to it. Discreetly he slid a sheet of hotel-headed paper towards him. He patted pockets a second time, then lifted one of the hotel pencils with their logo printed down its length.
The meeting began.
Management side: “…arms-length approach… not tenable going forward…”
Employee side: “… the situation we all find ourselves in here… other pressures have come to bear…”
One side: “ … sustainability policy… based on recommended headroom…’
The other side: “…not political conflict… not ‘conflict’… disagreement… ‘political disagreement’…”
Their side: “… it’s a paradox rather than a contradiction… go to that report… source appropriate language around this issue…’
Our side: “… not adhering to agreed guidelines… has an implementation date been set yet for starting?”
This side: “… I think we all know that. THANK YOU.
That side: “… I do know that you know that… may I finish?”
Right-hand side: “ legal advice… not carrying out statutory duty..”
Left-hand side: “… privileged information… not anticipating sharing this more widely…”
All sides: “… want to get this as right as we can…”
Then. A moment of silence. Respite.
- You’ve got something to say, he was suddenly being told.
- Yes, he stammered. Yes. That analogy.
- What analogy?
- Moving the goal-posts.
All eyes on him now.
- I was just going to say that we might have moved the goal-posts but it’s still football.
- I don’t follow. Does anyone follow?
Some eyes averted now. Others stare.
- Well, he explained. It’s not as if one minute we’re playing football then the next we’re playing golf. Or tennis.
- It’s still the same game!
- I see. Thanks for that.
Not perspicuous enough.
The meeting resumed.
As the day wore on, speakers seemed to adopt the same, droning conference-voice. His attention wearied.
Us: “Be a realist…. Demand the impossible…”
Him: “ …broken window theory…. fingerprint learning…’
Whisper: “Let’s open the gates of nurseries, universities, and other prisons…”
Sotto voce: “… colleges must seek out… old wives… sorcerers, wandering tribes… old robbers… take lessons from them….”
Afterwards, outside the conference room, people were still conducting those civil service, corridor conversations; snippets and fragments of which he caught as he made his way through.
He sat in the cubicle, the briefcase on his knees, until they had all driven their cars from the car-park across which he then traversed on foot, bringing the brief-case with him.
He walked down a short service road, past a hockey pitch, through a green iron gate, across a small hump-backed stone bridge and onto the tow-path walk-way.
And the river.
Tow-path etiquette. Keep to the left. Dogs on leads.
He was among mid-morning mothers now pushing buggies and prams; towing toddlers behind them. Retirees, coupled or alone, that tall grey-haired woman, for example, walking with her hands behind her back. Walking groups; power-walkers and joggers, laying down invisible contrails of scent and soap and antiperspirants as they passed, ear-budded or head-phones fitted. Cyclists. Solitary strollers, phones Velcroed to the sides of faces or held out before them to frown down upon and consult. Thumbs going ninety-to-the-dozen.
‘Twitto ergo sum.’
Everyone adhering to tow-path etiquette.
He passed a couple of young teen-age girls and overheard:
- …and there’s this three-hour kayak tour where you paddle out into the dark and there’s no light and stuff and you can see the stars!
Her sense of wonderment got to him and he felt a yearning drop like an anchor through his chest and throat and stomach.
Then, well along the walk-way, he met two women. One had a dog on a lead. Her companion’s dog dawdled well behind them.
- Dingbat! Called its owner. C’mon.
The little terrier’s head did jerk up at this and, as he drew near, the dog did begin to pad off in the owner’s direction. Only then its nostrils wolfed down some odour or scent which stopped it in its tracks and lured it to turn round again.
Momentarily it trotted at his heels, then overtook him, aimed at a clump of dandelions and weeds on the river-bank.
Someone had gone to the trouble of knitting a woollen coat for the dog in emerald green, with a thin red design worked into the pattern.
Putting down the briefcase, he bent and picked the dog up. This action caused the owner to call again, her summons this time tinged with the interrogative or puzzled:
- Dingbat? Don’t be bothering that man.
- Hello Dingbat, he said.
Then he tossed the little terrier into the swiftly swirling river.
- DINGBAT. Jesus Christ! MISTER. What the fuck!
The distraught dog-owner was waving her ball-launcher madly about her head.
Retrieving his briefcase, he walked on. Unhurried and, with each step taken, patently un-harrassed.
No matter now it was meant to be the briefcase.
Rounding a bend, he was out of eye-sight and almost out of voice-range but for pieces of hysterical and high-pitched pleas and pleadings, fragments of invective; and also, not quite out of earshot, scraps of yelps and yaps and barking.
It was a matter of minutes before he heard a high-speed whirr of wheels and a racing-bike sliced past him. The rider braked some way ahead. The cyclist put one support foot down on the tarmac of the tow-path but did not otherwise dismount. He looked around at him.
Without breaking step.
Without missing a beat.
Without changing pace.
He kept on.
The Beginning of the End
So that, sizing him up, the cyclist