Updated on May 24, 2015
The first part of the first ‘free’ story I wrote for my Creative Writing MA. Reading it back, the metaphors seem quite heavy-handed in places (ah, hindsight!), but I’m resisting the urge to change them, and posting it as it was when I wrote it.
This, by the way, was the story’s third draft, following multiple discussions with my classmates. The first version should probably be burned.
Footsteps, Part 1
Homesickness hollowed out Dougal’s stomach as he heard his wife’s voice over the line. The sound of it had hardly been altered by the distance it travelled; with the receiver pressed to his face it retained the intimacy of a whisper in his ear. But sometimes a shout across an impassable gorge can sound like a whisper to the person standing on the other side. She asked about his flight and he gave a short reply; he wound the spiral of phone cord around his fingers as he spoke, listening to the crackles that interrupted her. After a few seconds he realised that she had stopped talking.
He released the cable and sat upright. “Sorry, what did you say? Bad line.”
“It’s fine at my end,” she said.
“I went through my notes for tomorrow again. I have a really good feeling about this meeting,” he said.
There was the sound of a little voice on the other end of the line, and a distant crash. His wife spoke. “Yes, I’ll get you some in a minute. Would you like to talk to Daddy?”
“Niamh? I don’t have time. Tell the kids I love them.”
She sighed. “Daddy has to go. I’m sorry, he’s got a very important day tomorrow.”
“Bye Niamh, I love you.”
He heard the little voice again, followed by his wife’s, more distant this time: “Oh, sweetie, come here.” She hung up.
Dougal lay back on the bed, his legs still dangling over the edge where he had been sitting. The same bed, the same bedside table with the same telephone – for emergencies call 911 – even the same neutral painting on the wall, was replicated ad infinitum up and down the hallway. The same hallway was repeated on every floor below (but not above, that was the realm of the penthouse). He felt like a harmless bug in an elaborate matchbox; part of some merciful amateur entomologist’s collection. Behind that numbered door, in the other country of his family’s history, he was blissfully alone. Is there anywhere else on earth as perfectly isolated as a foreign hotel room?
He spread out his arms and let the receiver fall softly onto the pillow, where it lay emitting its absent dial tone. His eyes closed themselves and he felt himself moving in the thick waves of approaching sleep; hours of sterile travel still lulling and rocking him after his body had stopped moving. The fog wrapped around his brain, steeped in the clinging scent of London, lied that it was half past ten in the evening. Prostrate on the anonymous bed Dougal could have surrendered to his exhaustion – he was on the brink of abandoning himself – but his suit was stale with travel-sweat and the growling from his stomach was audible.
In the shower the plug was blocked and the run-off from his body swilled around his ankles. His legs were so heavy they felt as though they were carved from wood; he smiled as he pictured roots sprouting from his toes and cracking the bath. He wondered how long it would take for the tendrils to grow, thicken and feel their way through the bathroom tiles and floors below, into the welcoming soil. With slow movements he turned off the shower, dried himself and dressed in trousers and a thick shirt, to guard against the faint autumnal chill. Beyond his window the new city beckoned. The digital clock blinked – 18:30. You’re in America now.
The day that Dougal’s boss had called him into his office had been the proudest of his working life. His software – pioneering, the pride and joy of the company – would be taken abroad and perfected by an American giant, provided the September meeting went well. Dougal would present at the meeting, with a view to establishing a lasting connection with America, where he would be needed in the New York office to assist with sales and development. Sell your passion to the highest bidder. He thought it a reasonable trade for a new life in the States.
He had hurried home to tell Niamh about his opportunity overseas. They would all have to move out there; maybe he could go a few months before to find a house and make everything ready for their arrival. The children were still young, they would easily adapt to a new school, and Niamh should be able to find a new teaching job without too much difficulty. He was effusive with anticipation, and so excited that his tongue tripped over his torrent of words.
Niamh put down the knife she had been polishing and crossed her arms. She steadily met his fervent gaze.
“You’re not seriously suggesting we move to America.” It was not a question.
“Yes! It’ll be brilliant for all of us, a real adventure. And I’ve always wanted to find out about the American branch of my family.”
“Your grandfather left for a reason,” she said.
Dougal’s stomach turned over.
“What about Ireland?” she continued. “We always said we’d move there, take the kids home.” Dougal winced at the confidence with which she proclaimed Ireland their home.
“America could be their home.” He looked out the window. “It could be mine.”
She rolled her eyes; “Don’t romanticise it.”
Dougal felt like he was choking under the weight of words that he could not say. Niamh would never understand: she was born and raised in Dublin; her identity was steadfastly rooted in her Irish history. His forebears, unlike Niamh’s, had emigrated to America to escape the famine; his grandfather had then moved to London with his American wife in the twenties and, shortly after, his father was born. To Dougal, England had always seemed to be a temporary home, yet he felt as tied to Ireland as a balloon on the end of a long and tenuous string. Secretly he had always pinned his hopes on America, as the place where he would at last feel truly connected to his ancestral past. Its shape in the atlas was comfortably familiar to him, like the photographs of dead relatives he had never met, whose faces bore unsettling similarities to his own. Since the meeting with his boss it had felt like the fates were conspiring, at last, to take him home.
“Well,” he said, “if the meeting doesn’t work out there won’t even be the chance to move out there.”
Niamh nodded and continued to polish the silver.