SLQ Fiction | Two short stories: Bunjee and The Procession
The mountain asks nothing, the river little. The old man collecting firewood down in the gorge walks slowly past the old mama with bad teeth. They do not look at each other. They do not look up at the foreigners on the bridge way above them. They are people from the gorge not top people. The woman has never been up there, and could not imagine going. The man went only once, nearly fifty years ago, and for that the boy was beaten by his father.
The old man is arguing with himself. He has learned to hate his wife and then not to hate her but then he learned to hate himself for losing love and becoming bitter. He is still strong, the man, leathery and tough, and though he doesn’t mind going bare-chested, today he wears his prized yellow waistcoat, a present from an American woman he once helped.
The girl on the bridge doesn’t think of the bottom. There is the river, there are riverbanks, but all these things are far off and none would want to be there. The bottom is so far away that the old man and the old woman do not exist.
The girl, soon, will have a few moments of fame. The first will last seconds, the second minutes, and then she will go viral for a while, into a stretched-out secondary fame, and she will ache forever thereafter for those moments, those seconds in the light, and nothing, nothing after will ever be quite enough.
The old man has meat rarely, but tonight there is Ibyx. The old man can smell the simmering meat from the fallen antelope even though it hangs in his hut and is not yet on the fire. These are old man dreams. He has learned to be like this because he knows that life, however good, is never as good as the dream.
It is like this for the girl imagining the jump, the girl who wasn’t sure how best to dress for the moment. Some of the others said wear jeans, some said thick leggings, but no point in anything too good, in case. Of course you wanted to be reasonably cool. You needed to show a decent side while you waited, while they tied things to your legs.
Imagine the old woman, who is not as old as she looks. Imagine her thirty-five years ago, so black, so shiny, with bright eyes, and with high proud breasts and a flashing smile, her belly eager for a man. Was she any less then than Sheila, tied to the bridge above? Is she now? Why does the old woodman ignore her so? Does he think she never pleased a man? She could, still! Even him!
Sheila is vaguely thinking about her death. The details surprise her, and thinking about after doesn’t feel bad at all. She laughs on and off and has told Frank, Jill and that wanker Thompson (who she can’t stand for no good reason) to fuck off and do one. She looks fired up but she wants to change her mind and have a cry. The rope guy has told her, if she’d rather, he’ll give her a push. The hardest bit is the wait, he says, and the next hardest that first split second.
The old man has a large bundle now, and a small second stack that the woman can carry, following behind. The man is thirsty but his bottle is not full, so he waits. He could go to the water and take some with his hand, but he has been taught now how the belly illnesses that killed the children all came from water. Now they had a tap in the village and clean, safe water in a big tank, water that went there whenever the village children played on the equipment. He does not quite understand this, the man, how children going round and round can make water go into the sky, or why the water is so clean and tastes so good, but he will not care. He will simply drink the clean water and be a little less unhappy.
Sheila is committed now. She doesn’t actually think she’s going to die but even if she were she wouldn’t back out now. It was better to finish it, and go out with a bang than be remembered as a bottler.
Sheila, standing there as the rope man talks with his deep brown, reassuring voice, cannot believe she is doing this. She cannot believe this is happening.
There is nobody down there, nothing. What there is the sky, the fall, the falling. Sheila feels that heavy hand in her back, remembers God and throws out her hands. She is so-o-o pleased she does it right and she begins to fly.
It’s like a hit, like sex, like a poem clicking, like coke, like a song, like sherbert in the eyes, Jimi Hendrix riffing. Like she’s wearing a red leather skirt a yellow top and a purple scarf and doesn’t-give-a fuck-and yeeeehah, the end.
And then, on the first pull the second bounce, something snaps and the casino table tips, every bet off. A rope as fat as four fingers, as certain as the sea but it’s broken.
That, before, was slow, a long forever, but after the snap it all happens quicker. It’s – then black – then slap-slap-slap – and now this is the water and then she is thinking crocs, there’s fucking crocs in this and then she realises her ankles are tied together, and she’s sort of swimming, but the rope’s caught, and there’s this old black man and he ducks into the water and fuck she’s splashing, splashing, and then she is free and somehow she is on the bank.
Now there’s no up there. Up there is too far away. She doesn’t even think about her mates. She’s on her back and then the old man, he’s rolling her over on her side and she coughs up a gallon of shitty river and Jesus Fuck her head hurts!
The old man is looking at her. Whatever is on his face is not a smile, nor is it lust or any other look she can put a name to. Then she realises it’s something both curiosity and sympathy at the same time. It’s a look that says, “You are a total, total fucking idiot, but I’m glad you’re OK.”
You wouldn’t call this bloke handsome, not by a long chalk, and Sheila, she’s thinking, the woman here, she looks even worse, but then this like wave of love comes over her and the old bloke has offered her a water bottle. She’s thinking. “Are you fucking serious? She just drank a fucking river,” but he indicates, his finger in his mouth. He means, “Rinse.”
By the time the others get down to her, Sheila is on her own again. She can’t say she is happy to be without company but the two blacks melted away into the scrub the first time there were voices.
Nobody, not one of the world’s bravest men jumped in that river and braved the crocodiles. No old wise woman said, “Roll her!
Up top, in another world, a rope man still feels sick, and someone has made a phone call. A guy called Frank, and a girl called Jill and another Oz guy called Bill Thompson (who eighteen-months from now will get to marry Sheila), are all peering into the abyss, waving and screaming with relief.
Nothing happened really. Nobody died, is the bottom line. And not that far away, no more than a half-day’s walk, in a small village without a name, the schoolchildren spin on the play-pump roundabout, obliviously working.
But in a hut, while an extra-generous piece of antelope braises outside, a toothless woman feels a little charity and she calls her wood-collector, “Anyang” (crocodile) pretending he was not always called Apunda. SLQ
©2015 Ron Jones | Bunjee by Ron Jones won first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition (February 2015)
He leans upon the old gate, my father, and watches the Corpus Christi children processing past, the girls delightful, virgin-white with red sashes, the boys in their charcoal-grey, white shirts and red ties. They walk in light, beaming, and towards light. They sing the sweetest, dearest songs. My father spits onto the grass.
I come here every year for the procession. Once I was a Catholic, now I am lapsed and agnostic, but I come for the children, the spectacle, the optimism, their raised faces and their incredible sound. One year a rabid atheist saw the children from up on the Ridgeway, and, so it was reported, found his God and came back to the fold.
One paper likened the voices to a great bird soaring over the valley. That never felt quite right to me as the voices are each tiny but their union is somehow large. It is more like I would imagine a soft flocking of hummingbirds or an exaltation of larks.
Visiting father is difficult but it fascinates me. Each of us has moved towards and then away from the religions of our childhood, circled some distant place and come back, yet somehow, once a year, we each demand of the other, “Repent!” in a hopeless, twisted mess of hypocrisy and distraction.
For me it was getting away, from the church, the gravel paths, the devout mornings, the Nine Fridays, the stare of Father Maloney. Cambridge saved me, turned me from the light through simple cognition, reflection, the working out of the absurdity of the bearded old gent in the sky. As far as I’m concerned, we are living, living, naked apes bound to die. That’s it. A shame, perhaps, for a few, but simple enough.
But for my father it is all something dark, something bigger than dark. Death is some evil, some swallowing-up thing, annihilation, waste. The great wings of a wonderful bird beat, then shudder, then become still, and no man or woman can see the carcase without weeping.
I have never known my father as anything else but very dark, bitter, with some black animal hot inside him. We never talk about Korea, my father rarely talks at all, but I was a Corpus Christi child back then who scanned the newspapers to read about the Red Hordes, while my father, on some filthy winter landscape was being changed forever.
Just once a year do I discover anything at all. He writes all year and for the hour of Corpus Christi Sunday, he hands me his writing. I am not allowed to read it while he is in the house, so my father climbs up to the Ridgeway, his back stern like that atheist, but not until the children are far away, their voices dimmed. He comes back down before their return, and by then I have read the journal.
According to my father, writing like some ancient scribe or poet he says, “I have met many at the closing of their day, but before that closing there were better moments, mates, sunrise and a great hope.
Of my mother he once wrote, “I saw her standing there and I knew absolutely, totally that I would marry her. She never lost her church, not for a second, not even when her God had her eaten from inside, not through all that pain, that wasting.”
Of his writing he says, “One day a child will laugh at this. Nothing matters. I will be the old wild man, up under the ridge, the one they wrote about in the Sentinel in 1952 and children now avoid.”
This year, as he walks, I drink from a large mug and read again. Just one day a year when I might understand my father, but I never do, I never have. He writes things down in awkward aphorisms, snatches of language, mixtures of mixed metaphor, clichés and odd little, half-realised thoughts.
This is how it was. Rain at one in the morning, black as black, filthy, and so damn cold, and them utter, murdering, machines, disgusting, uncaring, not men. Many a muddy pit was once a road to somewhere.
Every morning at six, she rose, undressed, showered. She was always beautiful, until. I loved her before it, I destroyed her after. We killed, we rested, we shit. The next day we ate, we killed, we slept. The cold was the worst of it. I hated them so much. I hate them now, all of them.
I found my destiny. I did what soldiers do. We pretended that wars might end and we become old soldiers. We lied. We missed our wives. We wept like children weep for milk.
There are just two mugs, father’s, mine, two plates, his, mine. The rest is bare. My father has no television, no radio, no computer. He has no idea that there is such a thing as the Internet.
It’s about time I boiled the kettle for father, he’ll be home soon. He likes his tea strong and sweet. We have our last one each year with a splash of brandy. Otherwise father will not drink. The stoves splutters, the Gaz bottle is empty. I go out to switch to the reserve. I can hear the children coming.
Out back the reserve is empty too. I step out and look up the ridge but my father is not walking down. The children are closer now, the day is close to over. They are singing Ave Maria. It may be meaningless but it is a beautiful sound. SLQ
©2015 Ron Jones | The Procession by Ron Jones won first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition (February 2015)