Seraphim Preening

THE WINNER OF THE BLOOMSBURY/IoS SHORT STORY COMPETITION

i Be kind to your web-footed friends

I AM a small man. I sit at the edge of my tiny cot-bed, legs dangling over the end. I am sub-vocalising a march by the late John Philip Sousa. In fifty-four minutes I go to see the doctor.

Last Tuesday. I was making small figures from sheets of paper taken from a ream on my table. I think ream is the word. They were not simple figures. They were made with care and deliberation after a pattern I copied from an Origami book in the prison library.

When I launched them into the air they floated. How they floated. Some looped the loop. Others skidded under the cot-bed between my legs. More crashed into the door of the cell.

After a while I could stand it no longer. I banged on the door. Again I banged. Very loudly. I called out. Louder still.

"Warder! Warder!"

I took a tin plate and clattered the door.

"Warder! Warder!"

A single eye appeared in the peephole. A rattle of keys. Door slammed open.

"What is it dis time?"

Dese, dems and dose: he was an ugly culchie with bad breath.

"Me shoulders."

"What's up with your shoulders?"

He was in a bad mood.

"The pain. Back again. I want to see a doctor."

He vardied the cell. Saw the paper figures for the first time. Picked one up.

"What's all dis?"

"It's a bird."

"What's it made of?"

"Paper."

"And where did you get the paper, yeh little git?"

"From you, warder."

"Yeh little git. You told me you wanted to write your bleedin' memoirs, and I bleedin' believed you, didn't I? Foolish-ate-yer-bun dat I am."

He grabbed the tiny figures, crash landed around the cell, and crushed them in his large raw-boned hairy-backed hands. He scooped up the rest of the - what was that word - ream.

"Dat's it den. Made a bloody geheck of me."

He stood at the door.

"You're a quare bloody hawk, d'ya know that. A quare bloody hawk."

"What about the pains? In my shoulders?"

"Doctor comes on Friday. Stay in your cell. Keep your nose clean and I'll fix an appointment for you."

He slammed the door. His footsteps down the corridor echoed to nothing.

I was going to write me memoirs. I really intended to. The paper birds were a ritual invocation to my anamnesis.

I'm Seraphim. Seraphim Coddles. Seraphim. I looked it up in a dictionary. It means celestial being, one of the highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy, gifted especially with love, and associated with light, love, ardour and purity. That's me. Light. Love. Ardour. And. Purity.

At school we learned about angels from the Catechism. Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels and Angels.

Angels ran in our family. Me father was Raphael, me granda's name was Gabriel. At night I'd sit up in bed and recite the names out loud.

"Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels and Angels."

They had wings and they swooped around Heaven buzzing the clouds.

ii For a duck may be somebody's mother

Every Sunday morning my father would take me to the Bird Market.

"Straighten your shoulders," he'd say, "straighten your curse-'o-God shoulders and shame the world."

Lofty red brick buildings, tall and shabby, rabbit warrens for people. Under the shadow of St Patrick's Cathedral. A square of bitter grass where the old wither in the sun and the young play piggy in the shade of Swift.

My father had often talked of the Bird Market and I imagined it as a lofty glass building, airy and spacious and ringing with the chatter and barter of bird and buyer.

It wasn't.

A shabby wicket in a lean-to falling down gate.

"This is it," my father said. "The Bird Market."

A narrow lane, evil-smelling and crammed with people. All I could see were the pockets of coats and the big gnarled hands which occasionally dropped to top a fag or knock the dottle from a pipe. Couldn't see more.

When he was in a good mood me da would remedy this by hoisting me on his shoulders. I locked my hands beneath his chin and felt the sandpaper of his unshaven cheeks.

The bird cages were strung along one wall. Tiny cages full of the flurry of angel wings and raw wet beaks and black frenzied eyes. I saw them when he was in good humour. When he wasn't; I didn't.

"Da! Daaa!"

"Yis."

"Can I have a bird? Of me own?"

"You're too young."

"I'm six and three-quarters."

"You're too young. You wouldn't look after it."

On my tenth birthday I bought a bird. A cock linnet. The dealer put it in a little brown paper bag with holes in it.

Me da wasn't pleased.

"What's in the bag?"

"It's nothing, da."

"Give it here." His big, raw-boned, hairy-backed hands tore open the paper. His fingers closed around the bird. I could see the tiny chest thumping between those fingers.

"Where'd you get this?"

I told him.

"How much?!"

I told him.

He went spare.

"Five bob! That's the money yer granda Gabriel gave yeh for your birthday."

"I know ..."

"The money I told you to put into the post office."

"I know da, but I'll save up."

"It was to be put in a post office and you bought a bloody bird with it."

"I wanted one. Of me own."

I knew I was snivelling. My father hated snivelling. He waved the bird under my nose. His tone was pleading and reasonable.

"When I tell you to do something you must obey. The fourth commandment. Honour thy father and thy mother. If you disobey you must be punished."

He didn't punish me. He punished the fucking bird. He wrung its neck. I gave it a sailor's burial. I set it in a matchbox out to sea.

I was obedient after that.

When he said I was to go to work in the timber yard, I went to work in the timber yard.

He carried me on the crossbar of his bike. My legs being tiny, got pins and needles. It nearly friggin' crippled me.

"It's a good job," he said, "a good job with prospects."

Good job? Messenger boy more like. Fifteen bob a week. I got on well with the boys, kept me nose clean, and after five years rose to the exalted rank of junior docket clerk. I was twenty-one. My father died. I rode his bike.

My legs - never my most becoming feature - didn't quite reach the pedals and to ride it I had to roll from side to side. The kids made an awful jeer of me.

"Eh ... stand on tuppence to look over thruppence."

Or

"Little oul' fellah cut short."

My legs were too short for the pedals and my mind was too slow for the speed of the orders in the timber yard where I worked.

"Docket this Coddles load waiting checker's standing out in the rain get the finger out me lorry's tickin' over I need the docket now here's the mill return twenty twelves nine by four two deeps one flat your father would've done it in his head hurry it up hurry it up Jasus this half eegit's not half the man his father was."

iii Be kind to the denizens of the swamp

The other clerks tended to pick on me.

"Have a nice weekend then? With the birds again?"

I explained that that was how I spent my Sunday. Up to the Market after Mass and stayed there till the pub opened. Then the dealers left and I went home to my books.

They made a lot of play about me having a "Bird". I'm no fool. I knew what they were at. It pleased me to indulge them.

"Ever had a bird, Coddles? Of your own?"

"Yis."

"What was it like?"

"Trembled in my hand."

A nudge. A smirk.

"Then died."

A snort of laughter.

"I set it in a matchbox out to sea."

All the time they'd make the same jokes, ask the same questions.

"How's the pains in your shoulders?"

"Still there."

"It's that bloody bike. Why don't you buy yourself a little model."

"That bike was belong to my father."

And that was the end of that.

I went for a job as commercial rep for the company. I was the best qualified but they turned me down because of my height. O'Toole the manager even allowed himself a little joke as he cracked the knuckles of his big, raw-boned, hairy-backed hands.

"You're ideal, Coddles," he said, except in one small detail. As you are aware appearance is of the utmost importance..."

I knew what was coming.

"So you will appreciate," he chuckled, "that in this vital qualification you fall short, if I may allow myself a little joke."

Gobshite. The pains in my shoulders got worse.

I never married. It was shortly after being turned down for the job that the Helen episode occurred I believe. And it was Nolan, the one who eventually got the traveller's job, who set me up.

A new assistant orders clerk, by name Helen Moraghan, had been engaged at Head Office and I grew to know her - purely because we phoned one another all the time on business.

Nolan told me that Helen was about my size. I'd never met her. She was just a pleasant daily voice on the order phone.

"Knee high to a gin bottle," said Nolan, "and she seems struck on you."

The next time she rang down from the office with a request, I remember, for seven by one tongued and grooved I took my courage in both my hands.

"Oh by the way, Helen. That is, would you be interested in coming, that is if you've nothing better to do. I mean I thought you and me like might, if you're free ... If you'd like to that is."

Yes, she said, she'd like that. Yes, she said, she'd see me Friday night. The Metropole. Half seven.

It was as easy as that.

Dearest, dearest Helen. Half past seven, outside the Metropole.

A wet Friday evening. Newsboys still crying out the evening papers.

"Herald A' Mail, Herald A' Mail"

The Metropole clock struck the half hour.

I looked in front of me. Long legs. Long long legs leading all the way up past a long slender figure. Somewhere up there a heart-shaped face framed in black curls glittering with the diamonds of rain and topped with a jellybag hat smiled down on me.

"Helen?"

"Seraphim?"

I nodded, dumb with misery and cold with rain.

She was tall. Very tall. I suppose it was funny, if you had Nolan's sense of humour. She was kind. Very kind. She was also very embarrassed particularly when at the pictures I had to sit on a tipped-up seat to see over the head of the person in front.

And no, she said, no she didn't feel like having a Knickerbocker Glory in the Palm Grove.

I didn't ask her out again. Nor did we continue our chatty little conversations. She was transferred to O'Toole's personal office. I neither saw nor heard of her again. And the pains were very severe.

"Docket this Coddles load waiting checker's standing out in the rain get the finger out me lorry's tickin' over I need the docket now wrong timber T and G we sent him P and J they'll fall through the fucken' floor if they use that hurry it up Jasus this half eegit's not half the man his father was ..."

iv Where the weather is cold and damp

Eventually I was kicked out. In 1945 during the builders' strike. The clerical staff were not members of the Union. I was afraid of losing my job. But I was afraid of the pickets as well. The first day I reported for duty I passed them. We all did. No business that day, all day. Me, I just sat on my backside and read Birds of the World (by Oliver Austin, published by Golden Press, New York and, alas, now long out of print) till it was time to go home. Then ...

Then I found they had slashed the tyres of my father's bike.

"Yiz shower of c***s."

"Listen son, that's just a warning."

I went for the nearest one.

"Yiz fucken scum of the fucken earth, My da ..."

He held me at arm's length.

"Your father got his head broke open by a bobby's baton in nineteen twelve. Raphael Coddles was no scab."

I went home. Took to me bed. I didn't get up for a week. The strike continued for six. The letter from O'Toole put the tin hat on my career in the world of the builders' providers.

"Blah, blah, blah," he wrote, "blah blah blah, your contract is considered to be terminated."

I got up to read the letter.

I went back to bed when I had finished it.

I went to bed a young man. I rose from it an old man. An old man in an older city. My love contracted to a small radius, I think is the word. I didn't have much time for people. Only for birds. And I was never short of their company.

In this city there are plenty of birds. The gush and gobble of a thousand starlings in O'Connell Street, eternally scolding, eternally noisy. Birds in the Phoenix Park: Great Crested Grebes, Mallards, Moorhens, Collared Doves, Pied Wagtails, Song Thrushes, Starlings, Sedge Warblers, Tits (Long- Tailed, Coal, Blue and Great), Jackdaws, Magpies, Linnets, Yellowhammers, and the little Wren known in Gaelic as dreolin or in Latin troglodytes troglodytes.

Oftimes I did think of myself as troglodytes troglodytes.

A poet or some such irresponsible person once wrote:

"A little robin in cage

Sets all heaven in a rage"

Any bird in any cage certainly set me in a rage. Anywhere there were birds you could expect to find me. Anywhere there were birds in cages you could expect trouble. Sooner or later.

Birds in cages.

(For the record: my father wrung the neck of a cock linnet. I gave him a sailor's burial. I set him in a matchbox out to sea.)

Timber, I scavenged off the building sites, and God knows there were enough of them. Whole sections of our fair city were being torn down in jig time and there was always timber: tongued and grooved, planed and joined, planed all over, oh my early training came in handy and no mistake. Also nails to be knocked off. A Stanley knife. Even a small handsaw. Carefully I made it. Some two foot six by two foot six by four foot with two large leather straps which fitted over my shoulders. In it were bored a series of holes approximately one inch in diameter.

I had it figured out. The Bird Market held caged birds. To open the cages was out of the question.

Wall high. Seraphim low.

Besides, there were too many people about who might legitimately be expected to object. There was no way to get them except by buying them. Money: that was what was needed. In the final analysis. Money.

The dole wouldn't buy much. Not at current prices. And if I bought a single bird, me da'd probably rise from the grave and wring its neck.

Near the market was a pet shop. The sign said: Aenghus MacGiollaphib. For a long time I thought his name was Anus. That's how he pronounced it. It tickled me to think of so aptly named an asshole. It wasn't until I saw it gilt lettered above his shop. Aenghus MacGiollaphib. Pets. Somebody had spray-painted on underneath: farm fresh, nutritious and delicious.

The owner didn't like me.

"It's you again."

"I'm a cash customer."

He peered through the shutters of the door.

"Piss off, I'm closed."

I showed him the money.

"Look, I've got money. Five shillings."

"What do you want, ya little git?"

"I'd like some millet, and a cuttlefish bone."

He drew the bolt and opened the door a crack.

"Now stay right there. And no monkey business, d'yeh hear? I've got to go into the store for it."

He went into the store. His big mistake was leaving his keys on the counter. I locked him in the store room.

Then I opened the cash register.

He started to bang the door.

"Hey what are you up to? Silly bugger. I'll have the law on you. Let me out, now, you oul' eegit."

I scooped the jackpot that morning. Twenty-five quid and change. I still had twenty minutes. Five minutes to get to the market and fifteen minutes to make my purchases.

"The cock linnets is five bob a skull."

"How many yeh got?"

"Eight."

"I'll take the lot."

Linnets, bull finches, chaffinches, even a fucken' macaw I bought.

"How much is the canary?"

"Thirty bob and that includes the cage."

"Gimme the bird, and you can stick your cage."

In they went. Into the box. They thought I was mad. In the Market. I left them gobsmacked with their backs to the empty cages.

The box was heavy and throbbing with fluttery life as I trudged down the Quays towards the Fifteen Acres. The edges of the timber lay heavy and sore on shoulder and back. I knew how the late Jesus Christ must have felt going up that hill.

Beside the Wellington Monument I stopped. I placed the box carefully on the ground. It was a grand day. A pet day. I took me time. The kids gathered around. To jeer. I couldn't give a shit for their jibes.

"Eh Mister, what's in the box?"

"Will yeh open the box or take the money?"

"Were you always that small or did your mother leave you out in the rain all night?"

Suddenly I whipped out the Stanley knife. Be Jasus that scattered them. They stood in a wide and cautious circle around me.

Out on the road I could see a police car with its blue light flashing. Two large Civic Guards got out of the car and began to run towards me. I waited until they were yards from me then I slit the leather fastening with me knife and tipped open the lid.

The birds volcanoed upwards, shit and feathers flying far and wide. It was a magnificent sight. The kids fell back. Even the Guards stood awed.

When the birds had found their freedom the Guards escorted me to the car. I have never known such peace in my life.

v Now, you may think this is the end

My name is Seraphim Coddles and I am in prison. I sit on my bunk-bed with my legs dangling over the side. I have just come back from the doctor. The warder comes in. Without knocking.

"What did he say? The doctor."

"He said there's nothing organically wrong. Gave me a bottle to rub in. He'll see me again in a week's time if the pains don't go."

The warder looks at me.

"Are you worried?"

"Wouldn't you be?"

The warder suddenly starts to chuckle to himself.

"God and mighty," says the culchie bastard, "The only ting I can tink of is dat you're sprouting a pair of wings. Hah."

He pounds the edge of the bunk with his fist in glee. His big raw-boned, hairy-backed fist. I bounce up and down.

"Dat's a good one, eh? A bloody good one. A bloody pair of wings. I must tell the lads."

He leaves laughing.

I worry for him.

I think he should be locked up.

Possibly in a cage.

If this strikes you, as it struck me, as madness ...

vi Well it is 8

THE BLOOMSBURY/IoS SHORT STORY COMPETITION

A very large number of high-quality entries meant that the judges - novelists Margaret Atwood and Will Self, Liz Calder, publishing director of Bloomsbury, and Jan Dalley, literary editor of this paper - had a challenging job to make up their minds. Our thanks go to all the entrants. Overleaf, Liz Calder reflects on the difficult process of selecting new fiction.

Our winner, Seraphim Preening, is original, well-constructed and plotted, and has a distinctive voice. Each judge also had other favourites, and we chose four more entries for special mention:

Beacons by Charles Lambert: a well-made story evoking fierce emotions underlying domestic life.

Memoirs of a White Slave by Aleks Lech: tense, evocative, highly erotic and very original.

Welcome Back by Patrick Cunningham: a wild and funny fantasy about the reincarnation of Clement Atlee.

Slugs and Snails by Ros Barber: a powerful tale of incest, abuse and ultimate survival.

Bloomsbury and the Independent on Sunday will be producing an anthology of the 13 best stories; the successful writers have been notified separately. Ios 1 is the first in an annual series featuring the best in new fiction writing. It will be published in September by Bloomsbury, and available by direct order from these pages.

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