No Pyramid Rising, a short short story by James Martyn Joyce
James Martyn Joyce is from Galway. He has published four books, including editing Noir by Noir West: Dark Fiction from the West of Ireland (Arlen House). His work has appeared in The Cúirt Journal, West 47, Books Ireland, Crannóg, The Sunday Tribune, The Stinging Fly, The Shop, The Honest Ulsterman, The Stony Thursday Book and Skylight 47. He was shortlisted for a Hennessy Award in 2006, the Francis McManus award in 2007 and 2008 and The William Trevor International Short Story Competition in 2007 and 2011. He has had work broadcast on RTE and BBC and has won the Listowel Writers Week Originals Short Story Competition. He won the Doolin Writers Prize in 2014. He was a winner of the Greenbean Novel Fair in 2016 with his novel, A Long Day Dead. His second collection of poetry, Furey, was published in June 2018 by Doire Press.
Austin built all the walls himself. Years later Noreen could recall the first stone he set in concrete by the back corner of their original bungalow, years before the wealth, years before Lakeview Lodge, herself and baby Derek watching from the kitchen window as he manoeuvred the boulders, muscle and bar, selecting the stones, building them up, mortaring them into place.
He’d learned while he worked, cementing as he moved along the line, Derek flexing, a muscle ball in Noreen’s arms, his tiny fists flailing, his spit soaking her jumper.
Austin worked between the day job and the dark, feeling time closing in, the final barrowful often mixed in the creeping dusk so that when he finished, Derek would be in bed, Austin bending to kiss his baby-sweat brow, the whistle call of his laboured breathing guiding him in the darkness of the small bedroom.
Soon after Derek was born the consultant confirmed that he had severe autism, and Derek and Noreen never talked about it again. They would have no more children. Austin had wept in the hospital corridor, his forehead to the cold corner, his shoulders hunched. The consultant had been blunt, the facts coming hard to both and they’d carried Derek home to their days beginning, Austin taking a second job, in a way abandoning her, turning his face towards hard work.
He’d met Staunton while Noreen was taking their son for one of his regular physio visits. Staunton had been delivering a load of something cling-wrapped on a pallet, and they’d got to talking in the dayroom.
It was Staunton who introduced him to ‘the selling business’. He never called it anything else, Staunton claiming him as one of his ‘ten’: one of his disciples, urging him to get another ten, and then Austin in turn urging those ten to forage outwards for teams of their own, the edifice growing, always growing, the base spreading, the hungry eye carried upwards towards the peak.
He’d become involved at the right time, early enough in the market for the newness to shine, the silver glint of money bringing in others like himself, serious men, focussed, eyes hunger-bright, the profits building just by being there, Staunton above him, nine others by his side.
It worked well. The long hours and late roads took him away from himself. Derek was a toddler now; Austin smiled at that word, almost unable to bear his son’s faltering steps, his manic repetitions, his staggered garble, Noreen silent, wearing the cloak of mother, her hurt locked inside her.
Then Staunton left for London on an updraught of love, a woman capturing him, pulling him away, and Austin bought his share. His own life was a numbed constant, his wife by his side, Derek in the nursery, the primrose walls holding his flickering eyes.
Noreen watched ‘the selling business’ grow, Austin with his worker bees, happy to hum. Soon he moved his profits into walls, building his first apartment block at the wrong end of a poor street, the rooms filling with students at the right price. A second, larger block followed, years before the planners even guessed at the true pattern, and Austin was established, further plots bought quietly, derelict sites safely scooped. Nothing moved on those streets now unless Austin got his share.
The morning Derek started school Austin bought his first quarry. They stood together, facing the other parents in the schoolyard, the fathers nodding towards him. His face was rising in the town, the sympathy more difficult to take because he knew he could easily buy most of them. Derek ran to the teacher with a gurgling cry, hugging her around the knees, Noreen holding on, all the other children watching too. He bought his first Mercedes that same evening and opted for the blacked-out glass, the world darkened somewhat in the hushed capsule, the purr of the engine a comfort.
Sometimes after he’d dropped Derek to school he’d take the road below the mountain, circling towards the lake, coming at the town from the blind side. This was how he found Lakeview Lodge, the ‘For Sale’ sign surprising him less than the name. Lakeview Lodge, ten acres and a poor bungalow, built on rock.
His businesses were blooming now, almost on auto-pilot, apartments, quarries, a gym, rented spaces, earnings generating their own earnings, the combination multiplying at a pace invisible to the outsider, the money cash-cropping off itself, Austin mastering the lot, spreading it wide.
Yes, he would buy Lakeview Lodge.
Delaney had pleaded with him the day of the auction, telling him that, as his solicitor, he could not advise him to purchase such a mess: a small house, in bad repair, built on rock, even if it was going cheap. But Austin had continued to bid, the opposition dropping out early, Delaney shaking his head until Austin, as owner, stood before the auction photograph in the hotel foyer and asked Delaney to tell him what he saw. Delaney had answered as before: a small house, badly built, a few acres of scrub without enough soil to plant a tree.
‘No. Look again.’ He asked, ‘Do ya see it yet?’
‘No.’ Delaney shook his head.
‘I don’t want the house, I want the rock. I’ll build my home on it and from it. See it now?’
Delaney had looked then, shaking his head, slowly. And that was how it was, how it started, the rebuilding of Lakeview Lodge, the old bungalow tipped into the foundations, buried forever, the new walls cut and hewn, climbing out of their own insides until the house stood foursquare to the mountain, facing the lake, the yellow gorse bursting around it. A cut-stone palace, fit for Noreen, and for Derek, fit for himself.
Then he’d started on the boundary walls, the masons cutting early and late, carving them out until they stood to the maximum height permitted. But Austin never called stop, raising the internal levels, buttresses carrying the extra weight, the walls rising, as they did, well above the permitted limit, the masons hewing and pointing, dawn to dusk, until only the sky and the hanging birds could see inside, Derek, chortling, pointing at their dark, slow-motion wings.
Noreen saw immediately how the recordings helped Austin. One of his colleagues, into positive thinking, recommended them at a gathering in Belfast. Austin was at the top of the whole affair now, his people networked through the country, selling early, selling late, dark cars on narrow back roads, second-jobbers with firm grips, offering a choice of goods at attractive prices, convincing the customers of the indispensable, a share coming their own way, and always something going to Austin, a glint feeding upwards to the peak.
He loved how the recordings talked to him. They fed him calm, fixing everything in the darkened cocoon of his latest Merc, feeding positivity to the miles covered. They became a cushion to him, making him believe in all he was becoming, the Mercedes sliding through the cut and thrust, Derek safe at home behind the high walls, exiting only to attend school. Noreen spoke of improving his social interaction now, his integration, how Derek would benefit from making friends, Austin working for his future, happy to meet all the costs.
Sometimes, in the evenings, he would still drive towards the mountain, snaking across the high bog, the narrow roads no challenge to the big car, and always the positivity flowing from the speakers. From up here he could see Lakeview Lodge from a height and distance, pick out the finest rooms, the curtain walls, the fierce design, the whole lot like a golden coin perched on the limestone slope, outshining the shimmering lake beyond.
Sitting there one evening he saw the waste of Lakeview Lodge: the long spit of shining rock, the acres languishing beyond the chiselled walls. He’d go for clearance, break, crush, cut the rock. He had three quarries now, rock breakers to grind it, trucks to spread it wide. A further cash crop ripped from the poor land, yet another Austin miracle.
He told Noreen as a by-the-way, how he would be clearing the acres beyond the hand-cut walls, his rock breakers already moving along the back roads from his other sites. It would be a small operation to begin with, spall for spreading, gravel for his contracts, his associates taking with one hand, offering in return, the gentle caress of reciprocation.
‘But won’t there be noise, Austin, blasting, all of that?’
‘You know how Derek hates noise?’
And she’d flinched at his sudden, sharp answer: he was providing the best he could, for Derek, for her, it wasn’t cheap; a little discomfort was nothing to ask. It was all for Derek. And even as Austin said it, he knew it was a lie.
Noreen felt the tremors first as the rock breakers pulsed, her eye level with the glass of water by the bed, the vibrations coming through the floor, then through the pillow, the water trembling as the foundations shook, ripples dancing in the half-full glass.
Derek appeared by the bed, he was thirteen now, his face a confusion, his hands pressed to his ears, his ragged mouth a wordless scream as Noreen moved and hugged him to her, the vibrations beating down on their bowed heads.
The first explosion made her jump, Derek clawing for the shelter of the bed, a frightened crab, scrabbling over shoes, Noreen on her knees, pleading, Derek a knot in the blackest corner, hands on his ears, his snotted face pushed into the dark.
Austin was standing with his foreman, Cooney, and the drivers watching the crusher spewing gravel into the broad funnel of the silo, his trucks already moving in its shadow, the throb of engines and the hanging pall of diesel. Noreen’s VW swung before them; the shock of Derek through the passenger window, his face contorted, his eyes squeezed shut. He broke from the car in a zigzag stagger to escape the noise, trying to get away, Noreen in pursuit, Austin following too.
Cooney moved quicker than either of them, his arms spread wide to the driver, his bellow ringing even above the clatter, the rock breaker pounding, smashing the broad line of stone, Derek running blindly towards the ragged edge as the engine died and Cooney swung him high and carried him back to Noreen.
‘When is enough, enough, Austin?’
Noreen’s cry took Austin by surprise, her anger leaving him speechless as she struggled to hold their son.
‘Well? When? When?’ And she beat her fist on his suited chest, his glance catching the drivers moving towards the machines, the knowing smirks between them. He tried to calm her, embarrassment reddening him, but she wouldn’t listen.
‘No! He is your son! Your son! He is all you have. You have nothing here.’ Noreen swung her free arm wide, Derek hiding his ravaged face. She turned then to restrain their son and help him to her car, his actions growing more agitated.
And Austin saw her hair streaked with grey as if for the first time. He felt age whisper in his bones, the gnawing tightness in his hip as Derek pummelled the window, his lip-smear sliding, his nose askew, leaving a nostril streak along the shine.
And he saw it then; saw Derek, almost like that first day in the hospital, except now there were no nurses to carry him away, no corner to hide his face, no darkened glass to shield him, no pyramid rising to ease his own eyes upwards.
© James Martyn Joyce