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Bloodlines Russell, Joyce

ISBN: 9781781170656

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Does a child come wailing into this world with the patterns that define it already beating in the blood? Do daughters ever believe that mother knows best and can a father come to respect the skills of a son? This collection of stories explores the ties that bind the generations together.

It dips into the quiet beauty and the horrors of keeping those bonds intact. There is lust and loyalty, joy and exploitation, innocence and trust, but deep in the heart of each story from daughter to father, or perhaps mother to son, there is always the spark of love.

Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Competition 2013.

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How can I describe this valley?

‘A hard place,’ my father said, when he first saw it. ‘A place of grief, where scratching a living could never be easy.’

I didn’t see that. I saw the beauty of hillsides covered in tumbled rock. I saw waterfalls pounding off the mountain after a long night’s rain. I saw the small ruined houses and wondered who had lived there. I imagined children going in and out beneath the low stone lintels. I saw romantic, thatched roofs instead of open sky.

‘Times have changed,’ I said to my father. ‘I just want to live here. I don’t need to make a living from the land.’

I knew he was seeing small steep fields where a sheep could break a leg. I could see his gaze scouring for topsoil, trying to spot one small place where a hayfield might grow. Or a corner for a garden, where potatoes might have shelter from a strong south-westerly. He shook his head and shifted the tweed cap back a little. He didn’t speak, but I knew he didn’t approve.

When we got to the cottage it was no better. A small, damp place, surrounded by tall, black pines that blocked out the sunlight. My father half-closed his eyes, scanning the treetops and the roof of the house. I couldn’t guess what he was really seeing.

I had loved the place as soon as I saw it. So much so that I’d tracked down the owner and walked the land over and over, trying to cut a bargain. When our prices had finally drawn together – each of us rushing, in our final moments of haste, to make a deal before either side backed out – then I had paused a moment. I didn’t want to buy this place without talking to my father. I wanted him to put his feet upon this ground and say: ‘Yes, it’s fine to return to your roots. Yes, it’s good to go back to a simpler life.’

The day was dull and low mist hung on the mountain when I brought my father to this house. The top of the pine trees shook with gusts of wind and a loose branch groaned. I had been charmed by the plate still on the table, by the seat with legs of different lengths – made to fit one place only on the uneven kitchen floor. I loved the slope down to the doorway, where years of tread had worn a dip in the threshold. The windows upstairs were low to the ground.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘You have to kneel down to see out of them. They must have been made for children to peep out of.’

My father wasn’t looking at the window. He stared up at the ceiling. The boards were painted white once, but now they were a mottled brown. There were gaps between them and small husks of grain dangled in cobwebs. A finger of light shone down onto his upturned face. It played among the grey sheen of morning stubble.

‘The slates will be soft,’ he said. ‘And there are mice for sure, if not worse. How many years since grain was stored in the shed below? How many generations of mice have fed on the droppings from a sack of oats, or barley?’

‘The cobwebs will soon brush away,’ I said.

‘It’s what’s behind the boards that I’d worry about.’

He bent forward, easing stiffly and balancing his weight with a hand on his knee. The low window gave a good view of a cracked concrete path. Two magpies hopped and sidestepped; so smartly dressed, they looked out of place among the nettles. He moved the cap again, forward and back.

‘The windows weren’t made for children,’ my father said. ‘It was impossible to raise the house up any higher. All the stones had to be lifted by hand. It’s hard enough to lift a building stone to knee height. They were strong men in those days, but it wasn’t the children they were thinking of when they built low houses and low windows.’

A wooden bed was still in the corner. A lake of candle-wax dribbled, frozen on the painted board at one end, with an inch of white household candle still at the centre. A jacket hung off a nail behind the door. One pocket was ripped and there was a piece of twine through a buttonhole. The nail was brown with rust and poked through a hole in the collar.

‘There’s no electric. Probably no water except a spring well – in the yard if you’re lucky and much further afield if you’re not.’

My father looked old in this house. The magpies tilted their heads. They hopped.

‘Two for joy,’ I said. One good clap of his hands and they would fly away.

We stood in the full depth of the chimney. There were seats to each side, but they were so ingrained with sticky blackness that neither of us chose to sit down.

‘At least there’s plenty of sky up there,’ he said. ‘But there’ll be inches of tar and soot on the sides of the chimney. If you light a fire big enough to move the damp from the house, you’ll probably set fire to it. Have you ever seen a fire in a chimney like this? I’ve seen flames roaring out of the top; scattering sparks all around. The whole end of the house had a crack from top to bottom with the heat. The fire only stops when there’s nothing left to consume. It’s no use pushing a brush up something like this. You would have to drag a holly bush up and down on a piece of rope.’

He was telling me that life hadn’t been easy, how he could read the story of this place much better than I could. I sat down at the table.

‘What do you think, Daddy?’ I asked. ‘Should I buy it? They know I’m interested. They’re pushing to close the deal, but Iwanted you to see it first. I hoped you would want to live here with me.’

My father put his hand up to his cap. He moved it forward and back, forward and back, then he removed it altogether and ran a hand across the exposed skin on top.

‘Three generations,’ he said. ‘That’s all it takes. You want to step back into your grandmother’s shoes. Do you see the one plate? Do you see the burn marks all along one edge of the table, from too many lonely cigarettes? Do you smell the damp turf that still lies in the ashes of the fire? That’s what’s soaked into this place: hard work and loneliness.’

Outside, the sun had broken through and there was light playing in the top of the pines. On an impulse I slipped my hand into my father’s fist, prising open the clenched fingers until they relaxed and held themselves loosely around my own. There was warmth in his grip and something familiar to the size of his hand wrapped around mine. My father dipped his head as we went through the doorway and the magpies flew high into the trees. There was another one now.

‘Three for a girl,’ I said. ‘That must be me.’

(from 'Changes of Light')


ISBN 9781781170656

  • Bloodlines