Winner of the 2012 VS Pritchett Memorial Prize, supported by Prospectby / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Martina Devlin is the author of several novels including Ship of Dreams, inspired by a family connection to the Titanic disaster. Her first published short story won a Hennessy Literary Prize. She has been shortlisted twice for the Irish Book Awards and was the 2011 National Newspapers of Ireland columnist of the year. This story, “Singing Dumb,” won the 2012 VS Pritchett Memorial Prize, an award founded by the Royal Society of Literature in 1999 to celebrate and preserve the tradition of the short story. The judges noted the story’s “confidence and simplicity, saying most by saying least.” Devlin says it was shaped by “a tragedy in my mother’s family in rural 1930s Ireland. The death of a child is always difficult for relatives to come to terms with—but when another child in the family witnesses it, and feels a sense of responsibility for what happened, the tragedy is compounded.”
Mrs Nash is in a hurry coming through our door. “The guards are on their way!” She drops onto a chair, fanning herself with her hands. “It’s the pair from Doon barracks. They were in Con Sullivan’s shop asking for your house. I slipped out the back, ahead of them.”
Mama looks upset. She puts Baby Bridie in the pram, and takes off her apron. Brakes squeal outside. I peek through the window: two men in navy uniforms, caps down low on their heads, lean their bikes against the hedge.
They have come to take me away. I’ve been expecting them. But I run toward the kitchen table and hide under it.
Mama bends down between the table legs. “Kitty, come out of there at once. Wash your face and hands in the basin of water in my room. Quick as lightning, now.”
I do as I’m told, but I stay upstairs. Ned is sent to fetch me.
“Mama wants to know what’s keeping you. We’re all to go outside and play, except you. The guards want to talk to you. You’re in trouble.”
I long to crawl under Mama and Dada’s big bed, in among the spiders. They scare me—but not as much as what’s downstairs. But I know there’s no use, the guards will only reach in with their long arms and pull me out. Maybe I could sneak out through the window and climb down the drainpipe. Then I could hide in the shed till the guards leave.
“Better do what Mama says. Don’t worry. When they lock you up, I’ll help you escape,” Ned promises.
Only the guards and Mama are in the kitchen when we go down. Mrs Nash is gone. Even Baby Bridie is gone. My big sister Josie must have taken her out. Me and Josie share a bed—her feet are always freezing.
“Off you go now, Ned,” says Mama. Ned wants to stay and watch.
The guards are standing by the door, wearing clips on their trousers. One has silver Vs on his sleeve. He winks at me but I look away. I know they have come to put me in jail. I wonder where their handcuffs are. Mama is by the dresser. I go to her, wanting her to hold my hand, but she’s twisting hers together. I’m hoping she can make everything right. But when I look at her face, I see she can’t.
“Isn’t she the grand girl, Mrs Tobin,” says the guard with the silver Vs. He has a silver chain, too, above his belt buckle—it goes round a button and into a lumpy pocket on the front of his jacket. He rubs the chain, and I see the top of his big finger is missing. It has no nail. Probably, the handcuffs are on the end of that chain. “What age would she be, seven?”
“Only barely, Sergeant O’Mahony,” says Mama. “She’s just a little girl. She had her seventh birthday the week before it happened, on Peter and Paul’s Day.”
I’m surprised to hear Mama call me a little girl. She’s always telling me what a big girl I am.
“June 29th, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul,” says the other guard. I know him—he’s Guard Carmody. “I had a sister born that day. Pauline died back when we were childer. Not a day passes but I think of her.”
I feel dizzy, like the time Ned and me tried to see who could last the longest looking at the sun.
“I’d love to take the weight off my feet,” says the guard with no fingernail.
“I’m forgetting my manners, sergeant. Sit down, both of you, and I’ll wet the tea,” says Mama.
“Nothing for us, Mrs Tobin, we’re only after our dinner in the barracks.”
“A cup in your hand, itself.”
“We don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“No trouble at all, Sergeant O’Mahony.”
“Well, maybe a mouthful to wet our whistles.”
Mama lifts the brown china teapot with a blue stripe off the shelf. It’s kept for special visitors—we have our tea from the tin pot. She takes the sharp knife nobody is allowed to touch, and cuts into a cake of soda bread. Mama bakes every day except Sunday.
Guard Carmody watches me while he eats. Once, he told me off for throwing stones at Ryan’s goat. I’m worried he recognises me now, and thinks I was always bad. I only wanted to get past that goat—I was afraid he’d poke me with his horns if I went too close. Guard Carmody asked for my name that day, and said he’d write it down in the bold children’s book.
“Sit over here, Kitty.” The other guard, the sergeant, pats the stool next to him. If I sit there it makes it easy for him to put handcuffs on me. I back away towards the door, lying open into the yard. Outside, my brothers and sisters are skipping.
Mrs Brown, she lives by the seashore, she has children three and four,
The eldest one is twenty-four so she’s getting married to a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…
If I run off, nobody can put me in jail. I could live in the old cabin beyond the Fiddler’s Stone, and Ned would steal food for me.
The sergeant takes off his cap. It leaves a red ring on his forehead. Whistling, he stands up, walks past me, and closes the door. The line of buttons down his front flashes in the sunshine. He taps the pocket on his jacket—the one the chain goes into, where the handcuffs must be. I’m beaten. I sit on the stool next to him.
For a while, they talk about somebody called Jack Coughlan from Pallasgreen, whose barn burned down. All at once, they stop pretending. The sergeant wipes his mouth with a hankie, and makes a sign to the other guard. Guard Carmody takes out a black notebook and pencil. Probably, it’s the book for keeping lists of bold children.
“We want you to tell us what you saw that day, Kitty,” says Guard Carmody.
I look at his boots. They are shinier than Dada’s.
“Was the motorcar going very fast?”
I keep looking at his boots. Mostly, Dada has mud on his.
“Was there any other traffic on the road?”
I wish Dada and his boots weren’t at work.
“Did the motorcar try to stop when the driver saw Joseph?”
My big brother Patrick goes to the pictures in Tipperary. He told us when gangsters say nothing, they call it singing dumb. I think about that, while the guard keeps on at me. You sing when you’re happy. But I’m not happy—I should be in jail. It’s the best place for a wicked girl like me.
Except I wouldn’t like being locked up in the dark. I’d be scared of monsters and ghosts.
“Was the motorcar wobbling all over the road?”
I sing dumb.
“Tell Guard Carmody what you remember, Kitty,” says Mama. A lump comes into my throat and I can’t swallow.
Telling hurts. Like remembering.
The sergeant coughs. “I have an idea. Why don’t you and Guard Carmody have another drop of tea, Mrs Tobin, while Kitty and I take the air?”
I know it’s all over now: he’s going to lock me up and I’ll never see Mama or Dada again. I don’t even know where jail is. It might be in Tipperary, or it might be in Timbuctoo. That’s what Dada calls faraway places. “Sure it might as well be Timbuctoo,” he says.
I kick over the stool as I run to Mama and hold her round the middle—she smells like Baby Bridie. Mama fixes the ribbon in my plait, before pushing me towards the sergeant. And it’s no good hoping for a miracle any more.
He swings me onto the bar of his bike. “Hold tight to the handlebars. We don’t want you falling off.”
Why doesn’t he lock me on? I sing dumb about that, as well.
Ned, Josie and the others stop skipping and shout something as he pedals past, but I can’t hear them. My ears are full of a ringing noise. Ned says prisoners eat bread with worms in it—I should have brought a piece of Mama’s soda cake with me.
Outside Con Sullivan’s shop in the village, the sergeant hops off and lifts me down. He sets his hand with the missing finger-top on my shoulder, and moves me towards the door. Inside, the wooden counter is too high to see over.
While I wait to find out what the sergeant means to do, I look at the poster on the wall. I can read it, I’m good at reading, but I don’t understand what it means. Con Sullivan brought it back from Chicago, when he came home to take over his granny’s shop. Chicago’s in America. Patrick says he’s going there on a ship when he saves up the money, and he’ll be a millionaire in jig-speed.
On the poster, a lady with painted red lips is smiling and holding a cigarette. It says: “Women prefer Marlboros. That is why so many packets of Marlboros ride in limousines, attend bridge parties, and nestle in handbags.” I don’t know why Americans have parties on bridges. It seems a funny place.
“Now, Kitty, pick some sweets.” I forget I’m not supposed to look right at these guards who’re going to punish me. My mouth drops open, and I stare at the sergeant. He lifts me onto the wooden counter, his buttons cold against my bare leg.
This time I’m not singing dumb. I’m too surprised to talk.
“What does this young lady like?” he asks Con Sullivan.
“In my experience, Sergeant O’Mahony, ladies usually go for chocolate.”
Con Sullivan pokes about under the counter, where he keeps things to sell. He gives a bar of chocolate to the sergeant, who puts it in my hand. I don’t know why he does that. I look at it, before reaching it back.
“No, you keep it, Kitty. It’s for you.”
The hand with the missing finger-bit pats the pocket on his front. The sergeant pulls out the chain—it has a whistle on the end, not handcuffs!—then a pipe and, last of all, two shillings. “Might as well get some tobacco while I’m here.”
“St Bruno, isn’t it?”
Sitting on the counter, I’m up close to the missing finger-bit. It’s not so bad, except a pink crease runs across the top. Sore looking.
Back outside, the sergeant lifts me up on the bike again. As he pedals, I tell him what he wants to hear—not because of the chocolate, but because I can’t keep it inside any longer.
Singing dumb is too hard.
I close my eyes while he leans down. Listening.
“My brother was scared of the geese—he’d cry when they hissed and flapped their wings. He was only three. I was going out to play, and Joseph wanted to tag along. I said no, but Mama said I had to bring him. ‘Don’t go near the road,’ Mama called after us. In the lane, I heard my name. Two girls from school were waving at me from the far side of the road. ‘You wait here, Joseph,’ I said, and went across to them.
“While we were talking, Mrs Houston let her geese out, and Joseph thought they were chasing him. I looked round when I heard them, but I couldn’t go to him because a motorcar was coming up from the village. ‘Stay there, Joseph!’ I shouted. But his face was all screwed up, and he came racing out. Trying to come to me.
“The motorcar caught him and tossed him high up into the air. As soon as it went past, I ran over and knelt down beside him. His eyes were open, but he didn’t move or talk.
“There was blood on his head. It was dripping through his hair, and falling onto his dress. It used to be my dress.
“Mama rushed down the lane towards us. She had flour on her hands and her forehead. I said her name but she didn’t listen. She pushed me away from Joseph and sat down on the road beside him. Then she picked him up in her arms and started rocking.
“A doctor came and pulled Mama away from Joseph. She was crying and didn’t want to let go, but he made her. Joseph’s head flopped down when she wasn’t holding it. He had a pink crease on his cheek where Mama held him against her apron. Sore looking. After that, I never saw my brother again.”
“Did the driver say anything?”
“He told Mama Joseph dashed out in front of him. He said he couldn’t help hitting him. Mama just looked at the driver and didn’t say anything back. Joseph did run out. That man didn’t kill my brother—I did. Mama said so. When she had him in her arms, in the middle of the road, she said: ‘My beautiful baby boy. You were meant to be minding him.’”
I open my eyes. We’re back at the house, where Mama is waiting.
“What’s that on your leg, Kitty?” she asks.
I look down. While I was telling the sergeant my story, I made a fist of my hand and squeezed the chocolate till it burst out of the wrapper and melted down my front. All the chocolate is gone. Only the paper is left. It’s dark blue, like Joseph’s dress that used to be mine.
“You need a bath, child-dear,” says Mama. “I’ll put some water on to heat.”
The sergeant pats my head. “We’ll be back tomorrow for Kitty to sign a statement, Mrs Tobin.”
She doesn’t say anything—she’s singing dumb, too.
All at once, I know Mama wants the guards to go away as much as I do. We stand at the door and watch them climb on their bikes.
“The sergeant has no nail on his big finger,” I tell her.
Mama looks at me, and nods.