Home, a short story by Trish Best
Patricia Best began writing poetry and short stories in 2008, since then she has enjoyed seeing her work published, awarded and performed. She has been included in many anthologies, most recently, with Little Gem in Circle and Square, Platform One and Guests. On finishing a Creative Writing course in NUI Maynooth she has embarked on the adventure of writing her first novel. She is a member of Platform One and Virginia Writers in Tallaght where she lives and Phoenix Writers, Maynooth.
Debris from the latest causality of this insane war litters a quiet urbane street. People rush towards me, frightened and fearful, knowing that a follow up bomb may explode. Plums of grey ash and smoke hang in the air and I must walk cautiously, picking my way through the rubble.
When did all this insanity become so normal, so expected?
I hear a cry, coming from behind the shattered door of the chemist shop. Glass crunches under my feet as I try to navigate my way in. I’m glad I’m wearing sturdy boots.
‘Help me. Please.’ I hear the pathetic cry of a woman above the confusion and mayhem happening outside on the high street. Carefully I try to pull away fallen shelves from the young woman who is lying over her small child. She looks lost, alien almost, with grey skin and hair, matted and mottled from the contents of broken bottles of shampoo mixed with talcum powder and dust.
‘Little English’ she says.
‘It’s okay’ I reply.
I pull the baby from beneath the shield of her body.
‘Look’ I say, ‘look, she’s okay’ holding the child for her to see. The woman cries hysterically and I just stand watching tears flowing through the grey dirt embedded on her face.
‘Over here’ a voice from behind me shouts, ‘we have another one.’ The local police officer takes charge, having just arrived on the scene the medical crew get to work straight away helping the mother and child, while a crowd of rowdy young people climb through into the rear of the chemist looking for other members of staff, other survivors of the blast. Screams are heard. For some it’s their first encounter with death and destruction while for others it’s their opportunity to loot anything of value or any substance they can get their hands on, despite the fact the police are near.
I ask ‘What happened?’ the policeman says a bomb in a truck, not far from here exploded.
‘It’s the next street behind this; that’s why this building is so badly damaged. You did well’ he is saying, ‘saving that child and her mother like that.’ He looks over his shoulder and nods to the paramedics who are shaking their heads, while one of their colleagues tries to resuscitate a man lying among the fallen rubble of the building. Leaving me standing in a street filled with frightened and panicked people, I wonder if life will ever be the same.
I feel it before I hear it. The footpath beneath my feet shivers; shudders and then BOOM, it reverberates through the city. People spill out from the apartments nearby, running blindly. Scared parents gather screaming children; shepparding little ones who have no comprehension of the events taking place.
Get back, get back; shouts are heard over the stampede but no one heeds the warning. I run too. Go with the flow; not knowing if I’m running into disaster or safety. Thud, thud, thud. The dead flat sound from a flurry of rapid fire echoes through the descending night. Some people drop to the ground while others try to find a place to hide, out of harm’s way. Its chaos.
An eerie quiet is shattered by screams of banshee like sirens breaking into the night. Traffic stops, abandoned cars are strewn across the roads, life is suspended while control is taken back by force from the unknown force.
I keep running. I slip down a side street; the short cut I have always taken to my favourite department store. I know that there is a deep recess where double doors lead into a supermarket. But in the doorway is a bundle of dirty clothes and what looks like a sleeping bag over layers of folded cardboard and newspaper. Left there for the night, the street livers, the homeless and the helpless, I think, until it all starts to move. I’m frightened and my heart pounds hard in my chest. I can’t scream because the rapid fire is still continuing and I don’t want to give away my location but fear is rooting me to the spot. An old man emerges from the cocoon of his filthy sleeping bag. He looks mystified.
‘Can I help you’ I ask, gathering my wits about me when I realise there is nothing to fear.
‘What? Who are you?’ his gravel voice grumbles.
‘There’s been a bomb and the police are clearing the streets. You have to go’ I try not to sound as panicked as I feel but the urgency of the situation is lost on him.
‘Where?’ he says. ‘Where would I go?’ he is waving his filthy hands, instructing me to leave. He shakes his head forcibly,’ I’m staying. I stay here every night.’ He seems proud to tell me. ‘People know me; leave stuff for me; I’m no bother to any one.’ He is almost staccato in tone before he stops when we hear pounding footsteps approaching, telling us that we should get out of there, run.
Police shout again, this time they are dressed in riot gear and are armed. ‘If you don’t leave we will arrest you’ they are loud and aggressive; they have to be.
‘Go’ the homeless man whispers, ‘Don’t let on that you’ve seen me’ he curls away from me into the sleeping bag and hides.
‘But’ I stutter ‘I can’t. What if…’ I stop when I see my reflection in the shop doors. I think I look ridiculous talking to a bundle of rags but this man is adamant, he won’t leave his home, his refuge. I leave him and run, harder and faster than I have ever ran. I tell myself that I will have to deal with the guilt of leaving a vulnerable old man alone in this time of crises for another day.
In the pitch black I trip over a dead dog lying in the road, smashing my head off the kerb. Out of the corner of my eye I see a bright flash. It’s much closer and far louder than I ever expected it to be. Another one. Then another one, it’s not right. Is it a result of the fall or am I running into more danger. Frantically I try to rationalise what’s happening around me. My breath punches me in the chest. My sides hold onto the stitch before I vomit into a gutter.
I’m lost and terrified. My head pounds hard. I jump, screaming at the top of my voice, when I feel a hand on my back. Turning, ready to swing my hand bag towards him but I stop.
‘Robert, oh my god, Robert. How did you find me?’
‘I’ve been chasing you for the last five minutes. God you can run fast’ he is out of breath, smiling at me. He puts his arms around me and I buckle beneath the safety of his body. For the first time tonight I can’t think straight.
‘Are you okay my love?’ he asks. ‘You have no idea just how scared I was when we got split up. Where did you go?’ He is bleeding from a deep gash on his forehead and his clothes are covered in blood and dirt.
‘I just ran.’ I mumble.
‘I thought you might head to our favourite place, remembered that little restaurant on the corner?’ pointing to the red bricked Georgian building. I’m confused and look blankly at him. ‘Our first date, remember?’ His concerns are evident. I feel that I know him, my body is reacting to his touch but my mind is puzzled and fuzzy and yet, I know his name.
‘Remember how we laughed all night when they asked us to leave the place because the staff needed to go home, we talked so much.’ He is looking hard into my face, holding me. ‘You don’t look well. I’m going to the ambulance over there to get help. Will you be alright if I leave you, just for a few minutes?’
‘I’m alright’ I say. He sits me down on the kerb, slowly and gently. Kissing me on the top of my head, it feels like a familiar thing he would do.
Once again calm is restored. People gather beyond barriers the police have erected. Mobile phones light up the night. The air about the street is excited. Stories are exchanged and exaggerated. Camera crews and reporters broadcast back live to the waiting studio. Every minute of the night’s event will be scrutinized and analyzed. I hear hysterical laughter coming from a group of young women, out for a night on the tiles.
I remember earlier heading to the tube station, heading home to celebrate, something, but I’m not sure what. This confusion is bothering me. My phone rings and I plunge into my coat pocket retrieving it and happy to recognise my mother’s face on the small screen with the word home beneath.
‘Mam,’ I say when I hear her. ‘I’m okay, I’m okay, really.’ We are laughing and crying telling each other our news, but in my mind I’m screaming, I miss you so much and I want to go home where I know I will be safe. She repeats every word I say to the rest to the family and I wonder why she won’t put me on loud speaker. ‘We’re watching it on the telly. Are you sure that you are alright love? You don’t sound yourself.’ In the background I hear my father ask; what do you expect. She shushes him before continuing, ‘is Robert with you?’
‘Yes mother, he is just gone for help,’ I promise to call her later when I get home and hang up remembering when I first left home just how frightened I was. From an early age I recall my mother showing me how to cook easy meals, tips on cleaning and how to manage my money. ‘‘you will thank me one day,’’ she would say when my face crunched into a grimace. I smile in the memory.
Slumped and exhausted after the phone call, in my traumatized state I fight with my mind, trying to fit the shattered pieces into place. It happens, in a split second, I’m hit by a force as hard as any weapon or blast, realising that everything I miss from home or thought of as home, is standing across the street from me. Robert, his strong arms that shroud me each night and hands that gently caress. I watch him having his wounds dressed by a paramedic, under protest and pointing towards me. Each new memory attracts me to him, each moment of love and safety I have and hold close to my heart is here, with Robert. I’m almost in shock, I shiver again adrenalin from my lucky escape is leaving my body. Robert is looking about him, my handsome man, who wants to make memories with me and keep me safe.
Extra paramedics arrive on the scene, treating more of the walking wounded. This quiet side street is becoming a make shift clinic. I watch people helping each other. Residents arrive with tea and coffee and food, everyone willing to do their bit for a community rocked to its core. Home for many will be somewhere else tonight. But home is more than the bricks and mortar, more than fancy furnishings. It’s more than a brilliant red sunset or a walk on a beach or hot mugs of soup on freezing days. It’s that smile when you need it; that hug when you feel low; that shining light when you are lost in the dark; that promise of always being there, ready when you are, waiting for your return. It’s no questions and no judgements; it’s the love of the one you love who loves you in return.
Robert sits down beside me and drapes his arms around me. It feels like home. I’m right where I should be, I think. I’m home.
© Trish Best