Paulie

I’m entering the text below for publication in a City Lit anthology of creative writing, maximum length 1500 words. This is a second draft of shorter pieces I’ve shared before, and I need your help to improve it further before submitting. Please leave feedback in the comments.

*

William kept his shoes on as Kerry walked barefoot on the beach. She, in a tie-dyed oil-spill dress, showing off slender legs. He, somehow pulling off handsome with a fag constantly on the go.

“Right, you’ve seen the beach. Let’s go to the pub.”

“You Irish are so romantic.”

She laid a tatty towel on the sand.

“I grew up by the sea, what do I want to see it again for?”

“Because you haven’t seen it with me.”

“And what’s so special about that?”

In the early days, she had ways of winning those skirmishes. The sun was lower as they brushed the sand off.

“Come here, while I take a photo.”

She turned her head away as the shutter clicked.

“You look pretty when you’re moody. Come on, let’s get a drink before it’s dark.”

“I don’t want a drink.”

“Well I do.”

So they went.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, and took a sip of orange juice.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, in fruit-machine flash.

“How far along?”

“Two months. I’m keeping it.”

He emptied his glass.

“I’ll stand by you.”

He took her hand in his.

“It’s you and me now,” he smiled, cigarette smoke curling.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she thought, and smiled back.

*

At last Dad came home, while we were in school, and that evening we were each allowed a few minutes in his room.

Purple.

A face turned purple.

Mottled and bubbled and lumpen, one eye closed like a boxer’s.

An ogre, a brute, a fairytale monster.

Underneath was my Dad.

Still strong, with hard hands, and black, wavy hair.

He sat up in bed, beneath the bobbly green blanket, toenails curling black, peeping out. I felt secure as he pulled me onto his knee.

“Are you scared to look at me, son? I’m your Dad.”

And I wasn’t scared, it was just strange.

“Don’t you worry, Paulie. Did your mother tell you what happened?”

I nodded, but he saw me, unsure, and he knew me.

He went on and spoke words Mum hadn’t. They each tried to protect me, my parents, in different ways. He felt he was protecting me now.

He told me he’d been attacked by men with hammers. My eyes widened and I curled into him, Old Spice and cigarette-scented, as he told me the moral of his story.

“There are only two people who could’ve known, son, I’d be walking at that time in that place, with that money in that bag. One of them set me up. I’m going to find out who. And he’ll be sorry.”

And I felt good because everything was right with the world again. There was nothing my Dad couldn’t fix.

He had no idea I had betrayed him.

*

I sat on the carpet as Mum sipped her tea, curtains drawn to keep the light out.

“Has it stopped ringing now?”

“It comes and goes. At night it’s worse. My jaw hurts when I swallow. At least I should lose some bloody weight now.”

I pulled at the shaggy carpet.

“Sometimes he hits me hard, too.”

“This is different, Paulie. My head’s been ringing for two days. I didn’t want anyone seeing, but your Dad made me do the shopping.”

“Why don’t we just leave? Get away from Dad forever.”

“Sometimes I dream of running away. It always turns out the same. We pack a suitcase and I take you all on a train. For a day or two, we’re OK, in a B&B by the sea. But he always finds us.”

I leaned into her.

“He finds us and he’s so angry, you’ve never seen him like that. He screams at me for taking you all, doesn’t care who hears him. Then he beats me black and blue, and you’re all crying but he still won’t stop- doesn’t stop till he’s killed me.”

Her faraway look unsettled me.

“But dying isn’t the worst part. The worst part is leaving all of you with him, knowing I can’t do anything to protect you.”

“When I’m older, I’ll protect you, Mum.”

“No you won’t, you’ll be just like him.”

She might as well have slapped my face.

“I won’t. I’m nothing like him.”

“Then keep it that way. When you’re old enough, get far away from here and don’t come back.”

“One day, things’ll be different. I’ll be rich and you can come and live with me.”

I went to make another cup of tea.

*

His ghost stole in like the grey fingers of dawn.

His back wheel spinning, glimpsed from inside the grocer’s, while I queue for a Cadbury’s Applause. The bike on its side, handlebars on pavement.

Then he is beside me. Emotions kaleidoscope.

“Jay, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in the hospital.”

“I’m alright now, Paulie. Everything’s fine.”

Disbelief. The queue shuffles forwards and I break his gaze, making sure of my place.

“Does Mum know you’re here? She’s been so worried.”

“It’s OK. Everything’s fine.”

The queue shuffles again. One away from paying.

“Let me buy this, then we can go home. Everyone’s gonna be so happy to see you.”

“I have to go now.”

His tone arrests me.

“Where?”

Our eyes lock.

“I have to go now, Paulie. Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.”

His voice, soft but firm, holds me close. His smile, too wise for my little brother.

I fumble through my coins and buy the Applause. When I turn, the bike, and he, are gone.

A hand on my shoulder, shaking.

I burrowed deeper.

Shaking again, from dream to dawn.

Dad’s face.

“Your Mum’s home. You know what that means, don’t you?”

I nodded, smiled. He looked at me strangely.

“You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

I went to the toilet and spent a penny.

There, in dawn’s half-light, the penny dropped. My world spun upside down.

Mum and Dad were home from the hospital.

That meant Jay was dead.

*

“Do you want a cup of tea, Mum?”

“Piss off.”

I made one anyway. She didn’t mean it. Dad’s no-show upset her.

I perched on the armchair opposite, as the girls nestled into Mum on the settee, sharing an unspoken solidarity from which I was excluded. There was an empty pack of biscuits on the carpet. My stomach rumbled.

The News at Ten chimed in.

“Poll tax riots in London today.”

Trevor McDonald, admonishing tone.

A broiling throng, raised banners, clenched fists.

“Protest in Trafalgar Square escalates into running battle.”

Riot police, traffic cones hurled, bandaged head.

“Scenes among worst in living memory.”

Dad tears across the screen, dirty sleeves rolled up, dark locks flying.

A crunching blow, policeman’s jaw, helmet arcing through the air.

Trevor’s mouth, moving, Mum’s face, pinching, one second, two seconds, three.

We fought to keep it down, but in one great surge pride erupted, spilling over the barricades. Dad, hitting a copper, and I was doing an A-Team dive across the carpet while Lucy bounced on the settee and Elizabeth fell off of it.

“That’s it, get to bed, all of you.”

“But Mum, come on, it’s amazing.”

“Fucking now!”

Her tone shattered our frenzy like a truncheon breaks a rib. We went.

“Night, Mum,” said Elizabeth.

The house was consumed in silence.

Too excited to sleep, I ran action-replays in my head, waiting for Dad to return, like an Irish Father Christmas, down the chimney.

*

“Say that again.”

My eyes held his, heart cannoning, deathly calm.

“If Jay was alive, he’d beat the shit out of you, and love it, too.”

I felt each word land and let the volcano erupt inside of me, pounding Dad, right and left, again and again across the face.

Expecting a murderous counterassault at any moment, I knew I had to make this pay. Oblivious to his blows, I forced him back, back again, through the doorway, into the dining room, a cacophony of shrieks heard dimly behind me, years of violence and suffering exploding out, until suddenly, he lay face down on the lino, strangely still, as blood wept like lava from his nose.

“My God, you’ve killed him,” came Mum’s voice. “You’ve killed him, Paulie, and now you’re going to prison.”

I stood there, heart and head pounding, taking in this unexpected conclusion. He wasn’t dead, I was sure of that. More surprisingly, neither was I.

I stood on the cusp of freedom, while my sisters wailed around me, but felt no liberation from this troll beneath the bridge. Where could I go? I was sixteen, in the middle of my GCSEs.

I walked numbly back upstairs to my room, where I took out the old Slazenger cricket bat, barely a mark on it, and placed it within arm’s reach under the bed. Then I sat, on the carpet, waiting for annihilation.

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22 thoughts on “Paulie

      1. You’re welcome; I’m sorry I didn’t have more constructive feedback! I’ll read back through later on the laptop, but I think you have a great entry so far.

  1. Really good on first read. I need to read it again, preferably not on my phone, to have some constructive feedback, but it’s got a great voice and tone 🙂

  2. I found it bore powerful witness to the powerlessness of a child living in violence … and the challenge of escaping it which can mean leaving others behind. I was intrigued by the opening scene and wondering how it linked. I was okay with this wonder -it invited me to re-read. You mentioned you’d like feedback. One thing I imagined might help me connect to the narrator was to describe their body sensations. For example, when it says emotions kaleidoscope – perhaps replace the word emotion with a sensory word such as pulse. And describe the sound and texture of sensations in the ears or throat or ribs. I want to say how mug the dialogue helped me stay with the story. I could hear the voices and rhythms. Each word seemed to reveal more of the wider picture.

  3. Chris – you have an amazing way with words. This is excellent! Very gripping and I love your writing style!

    Good luck and well done – glad you are going for it!! As always, I look forward to reading more. 🙂

  4. I thought the dialogue was excellent, really good, and the story was more powerful on second read. I have questions, but that’s a good thing. From a style point of view, maybe a couple more dialogue tags, because I had to read some of it a couple of times to work out who was saying what, which took me out of the moment. Nothing much, just a couple, because I realise it’s as much a bout the rhythm of the words and the tight prose. Terrific though, good luck 🙂

      1. Sorry, out and about today, so only getting snatches of time. Really, just wasn’t sure of its significance. Is it Paulie’s mother pregnant with him? I might be being very dim, of course.

      2. No worries, all input much appreciated as and when you can! A couple of people have mentioned this, so I’m definitely going to address it. It is Paulie’s mother and father.

        I could:

        a) Remove it.

        b) Include a bridging sentence, e.g. “I was brought, squalling, into this world on a Wednesday. William named me after his father, Paulie.”

        c) Remove it and include the sestina from a a couple of weeks ago as the concluding snapshot. Same characters. Is the change of form jarring?

        Thoughts?

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