A Hole in the Wing (shortlisted)

Ian O’Brien

The slowboat heaved on the black ocean. The weather seemed to have followed her from Dublin, lashing the deck, the windows, the roof. A baby was crying and she forced her way out onto a sheltered part of the deck. She tried to light a cigarette and gave up, found a bench to huddle into, pulled her knees up to her chin. What was she doing here? Heaving across a dark, wild sea in the middle of the night to attend the funeral of a man she didn’t know, who had walked out on her, leaving her mother to sink into the shrinking world of the fields, the house, the tiny kitchen, the bottle. She hated him, hated her more, Sheila the homewrecker. Was that it? Did she want to go and ruin things, make things as awkward as possible? Walk into the funeral, head held high, her mother’s face searing, watch them squirm through half-strangled introductions, the priest not knowing where to look. She knew that wasn’t it. She wanted to hate Sheila but she knew that she didn’t. It was Sheila who’d encouraged him to keep contact and given her the landline number, had invited her over once, suddenly, in a tipsy call on Christmas day. It wasn’t that, but what? Did she think there would be a warm welcome? A sudden rush of love for the girl that had been left behind? Half-brothers with open arms and stories of the man who’d always held a flame for her, a candle at the window of his memory for her, a photograph perhaps in his wallet, a sad song in the embers of a long night on the whiskey, all for her. Sure, he had his family around him, devoted, but nobody could compete with her. He’d been ill when all that had happened, a different man. That’s why the visits stopped, the letters slowed, the phone calls died. Too difficult for him, too painful. A flash of lightning out at sea brought her to. She looked down at her rain-soaked trainers, the hole in her jeans at the knee, picked at the fabric like a scab. 

‘You don’t have to come, you know.’ The voice had been loaded, clogged with history. ‘I mean, he wouldn’t want – have expected you to. Nobody would.’ Another pause and the crackle in the line had made her wonder if the sheet of rain that was lashing down there in Dublin stretched all the way to Liverpool. And there was a genuine shift in the voice then, she had felt it. She knew Sheila was embarrassed. Last thing she wanted was his daughter turning up, the bad penny, the troubled Irish girl with her sourness, with her history, shattering the illusion that he’d spent years building, the proud family man, the grafter, the rags to riches climber from West coast turfer to construction giant. She was a ghost from his life before. Was there sympathy there too? Maybe it would have been easier if she looked like him, but she didn’t. She had her mother’s eyes, her strong jaw, the upturned mouth, and the last thing they would want was those eyes at the funeral. The line had crackled again. ‘I want to come,’ Ciara had said with neither defiance nor pleading. When she’d hung up, she’d felt suddenly afraid. Why did she want to go? If anyone had an excuse not to it was her. What was she trying to prove? She’d pushed open the phone box door, putting the scrap of paper back into her pocket. Sheila’s writing, not his. A landline, he changed his number so often it was the only one guaranteed to work. A group of women had staggered by, laughing in the rain, tottering on heels. She’d thought of her mother, how she’d taken the news that she was moving to Dublin, the look on her face, something trapped between betrayal and pride. ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ she’d said, and she’d gone back to drying the dishes, though when she’d looked up again the forced smile was teary. 

She’d walked the city like a tourist, killing time before the bus out to Dun Laoghaire for the slowboat over. Cheaper at night.  The wind had buffeted the bus, she’d felt it strain to stay in the inside lane, pressed her head against the windowpane, as the rain bled sideways along it. The city shrank from her. She thought of the last time she had seen him. The journeys back had thinned, the last time he had been given a hero’s welcome, men slapped him on the back in the pub, she hadn’t recognised him, not at first. An uncle had taken her inside and the fug of smoke and sound hadn’t frightened her, there was something in the way the packed pub orbited him that made her oddly proud. He’d put a rough hand on her shoulder, held her to him and she’d been embarrassed in a way that a girl of twelve would be, this half-stranger that the town adored. Did they know what he was like behind closed doors? Did they approve? The thought made her stomach move. She’d looked out of the window as the wind threw gulls against clouds.

That morning she’d seen a crow fighting the weather, blown around above her as she’d huddled into the phone box. It was facing the docks, the open sea; she’d noticed it had a hole in the wing, and you could see straight through to the other side, to the silver of the clouds. A hole straight through the wing. And still it had held against the wind, though it lurched and swayed, crooked, and it seemed suspended, as if on a string in a children’s play, a cheap prop. And it had cawed, called out to the rain, to the wind that blew against it, as if to make it turn, turn back, it seemed to call, turn back.

Ian O’Brien (OB1Ian) is a writer and teacher from Manchester, UK and writes both poetry and fiction. You can find his words in several magazines including Fictive Dream, Storgy and Prole. Prizes include second place in both the Portico Poetry Prize 2012 and the Paragram Poetry Prize 2013. He was shortlisted for both the Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction in 2020 and the inaugural Janus Literary competition. He came second in Retreat West’s Novelette-in-Flash Prize 2020 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Neon Books. Ian is interested in vivid poetry and powerful fiction that are both accessible and well-crafted.