Brigitte Murphy

The Gypsy
On a cold windy midnight in a deserted railway station, Rachel, a gypsy woman is lighting a fire. Her colourful flounced skirts are grey and tired and she wears a red woollen shawl over her shoulders. A scarf hides her hair. She looks desperate and angry. In the station, a fierce, northern wind blows, made fiercer by the drafts whirling around the high walls and the open doors and passages.

She is preparing to spend the night there, as the next day she will be begging from the hurried travellers. She will try to sleep next to the fire on a mat. She is not allowed to light a fire but at that time no-one is around to forbid her or chase her away.

The wind howls, making the station a foreboding, frightening place. The fire starts to crackle. She bends and puts her hands to it. She remembers her young hands, her dancing feet, and her long raven black hair. She thinks of the days of old, when her parents and all her younger seven siblings lived in a brightly painted caravan that Raja, their old faithful horse, pulled along the narrow Irish roads, between the stone walls, up and down the green valleys. Raja was a powerful shire horse. Dark brown, he had wide hooves covered with long pale hair. He walked slowly but surely. Rachel loved the way he smelled, warm and a little acrid, after he had worked for several hours. She enjoyed rubbing his coat with folded straw to dry him and covering him with his blanket for the night. As she did this she would talk to him, confide in him sometimes, thank him for his friendship and then she would kiss him good night on his silky black nostrils. She had been so careless and happy.

In those days they could stop in a field, and the farmers would let them drink from the well. Her parents would repair their furniture; weaving new straw on the chair seats, carding old wool and stuffing the new wool into the mattresses. She enjoyed plucking the new wool with her fingers, smelling its oil as she helped them. After that, her hands would be moisturized and soft. Her father used to sharpen scissors and knives on his portable wheel. Her teeth were set on edge a little bit by the sound of the metal grinding against the fast wheel, but the sparks were like fireworks going in all directions and she always wondered why they never scorched anything.

As they passed through towns and villages, they would go into the streets and onto the square and her father would shout “Grinding knives, scissors”. Doors would open and the lady of the house would appear holding her knives. Her father would sit on the little stool he carried, and start spinning the wheel on his grinder by hand; Rachel would then collect the knives from the housewives, one lady after the other, and take them to her father. He would shout the price and Rachel would collect the money as she returned the sharpened implements. She kept the change in a small cloth purse hanging from her waist.

In the summers the whole family would be employed making hay. They then slept in the straw. She loved the smell, the comfort and the rustling of it. After work, they played the fiddle, accordion and tambourines and danced around the bonfire; many villagers came to watch them and the bolder and friendlier ones joined them. That’s how she had learnt to dance. At the gypsy yearly competition, she would win year after year.

But here in the station, gone are the fiddles and the tambourines, gone is her dancing and her happy skirts. The gypsies have been relentlessly ostracized and chased away. The family has scattered. She has lost her luscious hair; her face is now wrinkled by too much sun, too much cold and too much sorrow. All she can do is to wrap her head and shoulders in her shawl and dream of the past.

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Sally Ball

It’s a cold winter’s afternoon and the confused priest is determinedly walking his dog in the rain on a deserted beach. The wind pushes and shoves against him and the rain pulses into his face. The waves thump and crash as spray fills the air. He staggers as the wind taunts him, whipping his scarf around his neck like a noose.  His dog, small, furry, its ears blown back like streamers, coat rippling with each gust, weaves by his side. The waves draw out, thunder in, draw out, and the priest walks on, a lost, lonely, blundering figure, struggling as much to make sense of his life as the weather.

Salt stings the man’s eyes, water drips down the end of his nose. It is easy to cry here, to sob out his emptiness and frustration – no one will hear him even if he howls with the weight of the anguish in his heart. In short, juddering bursts his chest heaves with ragged sobs. As his misery consumes him, his crying intensifies. His dog whimpers in unison, glancing up every now and again as if to reassure himself that his master is there in body if not in spirit. The priest gives into the pressure of the pain which splits like a rock, snags and jabs at his heart, beats and throbs in his chest, spills out of his eyes and pours down his nose.

The sea surges against the shore, sucking sand, spitting spray, whipping white water into a froth of bursting bubbles. He wipes his clammy face with his cold hands and fumbles in his jacket pocket for his handkerchief. He keeps thinking about home, his home, which lies across this vast unthinking, uncaring ocean. A land of openness and broad blue skies, of stillness and sunshine that buries itself in his hair and his neck, caresses his back, and lifts his head. Lord, the lifter of my head. Phrases from the psalm swim into his mind. Lord, did you bring me here? Even if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there, my right hand will hold you fast. Here he is on the far side of an enormous ocean. But he doesn’t feel as if he is being held fast. He is every bit as adrift as the barnacled log that he sees being cast up onto the sand, sucked back, down, drowned by the waves, only to be vomited up once more. What has brought him to this soulless place? Does God really care? Is God real?

He remembers sand in another place. Warm sand, a sandy river bed that lies beneath vast skies. A wide expanse of sand through which is threaded a blue ribbon of shallow, clear, running water that sparkles with stars at midday. He remembers the quietness of that river, the slow step of the elephants as they come to drink in the evening. He recalls the sandstone cliffs that rise like a protective fortress across from his camp, and how, in the evenings they glow coppery-pink as the river turns from blue to a sheet of molten gold. He remembers the smoothness of the worn paths under the canopy of riverine trees, the carpet of dry leaves that crackle into the quietness under his feet. He remembers waiting, still and calm under the shade of a massive fig tree, his stealth and patience rewarded by the appearance of a shy nyala peering at him through the long winter grass. Deep brown, unblinking eyes that looked straight into his soul. He remembers the cry and majesty of the fish-eagle, the deep, reverberating grunt of the ground horn-bill, the comforting song of the mourning dove and the raucous squawk of the francolin as they nestled into the peace of the night. Night. Reveling in the warmth of the sand that crept through his thin cotton shirt, he would lie on his back gazing up into the huge, far flung tent of creation. God’s presence was very near as a million stars shimmered and sang above him.

He returns to himself. The beach, his dog, the endlessly crashing waves. The wind pulls at his jacket and berates him as he presses into it. Seagulls whirl and wheedle, a flurry of white wings and feathers as they swoop and dive, oblivious to the cold. His fingers are numb as he slips the dog’s lead over his right hand and pushes it into his pocket.  But the rain has stopped.

He halts mid-pace and turns around. Instantly his world quietens. He strides now with the wind propelling him forward, a partner rather than an opponent. How much easier not to fight, not to be ensnared by short, parrying thrusts of agony, but to let the sweet flow of memories ease his mind. As the wind slackens, and the surf drops, his breathing slows. He finds he can offer a prayer of thanks for the present, and of supplication for his future.   The phrase The past is another country comes to him, and he stops walking as the truth of it seeps into him. He stares out at the ocean and the clouds part to reveal the setting sun shining with sudden brilliance over the sea, bathing the beach, his dog, and himself, in a wash of gold.

Sue Bust

It’s 4 p.m., cold and dank. In a ruined country chapel, a concerned citizen is conducting an orchestra with lethargy.

A concerned citizen conducting the orchestra with lethargy. Craig concerned about making this earth a better place, concerned about making others succeed, concerned and conducting choirs and orchestras. Oh, this orchestra requires a kick in the rear. Oh, the efforts he has forged to get the crumbling country chapel repaired.

Craig is tired of trying, tired of incompetence, tired of trying to teach these incompetents – it’s impossible in this disintegrating country chapel. It could be so distinguished if only someone would listen to him and do something. He feels so lethargic, so loath to put any more effort into this crumbling orchestra and this crumbling building. He conducts in the cold and dank, dying to drive home to his drink and dinner.

Craig the concerned citizen thinks thoughts of bygone days, when he conducted in cathedrals, orchestras containing competents, some of the finest in the country. Cathedrals and theatres, theatrical recitals and reverent reveries. How did he end up here in this crumbling chapel with this incompetent orchestra? The finery, the fame, the recognition he received. The finest in the nation; he himself one of the finest and here he is now. Her majesty herself saw him perform. Here he is now; how, he wonders, wandering reflection.

Concerned citizen Craig conducting in a crumbling country chapel to nincompoops. Look at them, lot of losers, misfits and mongrels. Are they thankful for the favour he bestows as benefactor? For whom is he doing a favour? Time to terminate this arrangement and manage his life differently, favouring himself. Droning, drowning, draining derelict of drinks and dinner.

Isobel Terry

Fire rages gloriously.

It’s a cold winter morning and the priest is determinedly walking with a dog in the rain on an empty beach. The sky and sea are a confused hazy blue grey. The tide is going out and shells lie scattered on the sand. The wind has dropped, small waves murmur as they break. Shhhh, shhhh. They cling to the shore leaving a wiggly line of bubbles. His head is bent eyes cast down, behind him his boots imprint in the sand. A wide stride and an almost straight line. His heart judders, his breathing is shallow and the rain is beginning to seep through his woollen coat. He raises the collar up around his neck. The dog knows the beach well yet does not belong to him. He walks with him as a friend.

Fire reveals everything; yielding clinging falling into fathoming depths

And how can I speak of him, or write of him, of falling into that love, of such a suffering soul, and of such beauty? It needs a new language, the tracing of his bones and the touching of his flesh. And that last meeting before I lost him to the cloth we lay together in my small brown Renault. The seats right back. It was August in the Cheviot hills. He had been visiting Scotland, we met at Berwick on Tweed, on the border. In an empty car park over looking a reservoir the windows steamed up with our breath. On Hadrian’s wall he had stood astride for me to take this picture. How handsome a Roman invader. At a stile he took hold of my left hand to help me over and held it longer than I would have expected. I should have pulled it away. I did not want to. The flesh of his hand was exciting, warm and smooth.

Fire light fleets and flickers on flesh; flaunting flurrying fingertips .

Our arms around each other I kissed his neck. The smell of him, of rolled tobacco, pine resin and almond oil. After he died I remember searching for it in his robes nuzzling them with my face, yearning for a last sense of him. He placed his hand on my left buttock, clutched it and pressed his body into me. I shivered vigorously, my cells shaking. He looked a little startled yet held me tighter and my eyes filled with tears at the relief of it, the comfort of it. The potency of possibility, of sex, of love, of finally finding home. I remember sobbing like a baby lying in his arms. The sorrows of my whole life pouring into that moment. That first moment of tenderness, a hint of joy waiting to explode

Fire brightens fearless then dies. Ash remains. Advances from nothingness ignite.

He stops and stands still turning towards the sea. His boots sink a little into the sand. A slight shiver down his spine. Suddenly there is no shoreline between his body and the sea. It is all heaven, the unfathomable ocean, holding the vastness of sorrow. The grammar of grief, the loss, is not a noun but an eternal verb like god. He feels warm inside his coat damp, his heart beats steadily. He breathes slow and deeply. The dog has stopped beside him, its snout sniffing the salt air. The rain has stopped.