“Seven Steps Home” by Andrew Fox

Open your eyes. The pilot is speaking, proud of himself for not killing you all. Relax your grip on the armrest. Unclench your teeth. Exhale.
Take your iPod and your bad novel from the seat-pocket in front of you. Queue in the aisle. Smile at the air hostess. Make eye-contact. Say thanks.
Feel the damp air test your lungs as you step out onto the airbridge. Resist the urge to punch the Yorkshireman with the meaty neck who dawdles in your way and is complaining already to his wife about mobile phone reception.
Take the stairs, traipse the corridors, follow the signs. Be patient.
Queue at customs and, when it’s your turn, flash your purple passport with the golden harp on the cover. Feel a twinge of disappointment when the official doesn’t say ‘Welcome home’ – just nods and waves you on.
Hurry through baggage collection and out into Arrivals, past the crowd of faces all disappointed at the sight of you. Head outside for the taxi rank. It’s cold but brilliantly bright. And for a moment you’re blinded but then your vision clears and you can see that the place is just as you left it.

Listen to your nation air its grievances on drivetime radio. Agree that dole-seekers are a blight on the economy and that NAMA will be the ruination of us all. Watch towns become villages, motorway guiderails become high, rolling hedges.
Direct the taxi driver past the cricket club and under the railway bridge; this way around the roundabout, that way at the crossroads. Watch the old man who laid your mother’s patio limp along in step with his dog, and two women – friends of your mother’s – stoop to admire the Council flower beds.
Arrive at your estate. Pay the taxi driver and stand for a moment to savour two rows of identical white houses.
Walk the driveway. Use your key in the lock. Call your mother and hear her bustle in from the back garden where she has been hanging washing. Her sweatshirt sleeves are baggy with used tissues. Her open sandals reveal long toenails painted red.
‘Let me look at you,’ she says as she holds you by the shoulders and frowns. ‘You’ve not been eating well.’
Hug your mother. Feel her softness and her new frailty but tell her that she looks good.
‘Dad’s just gone out for the messages,’ she says as she leads you to the kitchen and starts taking condiments from the fridge.
Turn on the TV beside the microwave and study the news for topics of conversation. Predict your mother’s opinions: that Fianna Fáil are the scum of the earth; that Fine Gael are too weak to lead; that the clergy should all be locked up.
Look out the window at the washing line your mother has abandoned: her flannel shirts, your father’s colourless Y-fronts, their bedsheets filling with the wind like sails.

Clean your plate into the bin. Feel pudding on toast and four cups of milky tea drop like a stone into your stomach. Thank your mother. Go with her to the back garden and help her hang the rest of the washing, asking while you work if there is anything else she needs doing while you’re home. Tell her the garden looks nice.
‘Ah, go on,’ she mutters around the clothes-peg held between her teeth. ‘It’s a state,’ she shrugs, ‘but I’ve never the time.’ She nods towards the kitchen window and your father’s silhouette, ‘and no help.’
Sweep the leaves from the side lane. Drill holes for a hanging-basket hook. Dead-head the acanthus. Cut the grass.
‘Don’t belabour yourself on my account,’ your mother says as she stands over you where you are weeding, holding a strimmer ready in her hand.
Tell her: ‘It’s no problem at all.’
‘Well then, suit yourself.’
In the driveway next door your neighbour Theresa is climbing out of her car. ‘Ah, you’re not putting him to work already, are you?’ she says, her tongue curling over her upper lip as she winks at you in conspiracy. ‘Welcome back, son.’
Your mother measures a laugh. ‘Might as well get some use out of him. Do you want some help there with your shopping, while the going’s good?’
‘Nah, you’re alright,’ Theresa says, ‘I wouldn’t do that to him on his birthday.’ She hauls a bag of groceries from the boot and the new baby from the back seat. ‘Do you want to have a look at him?’ she asks and, without waiting for an answer, stands in her flower bed to dangle the baby over the wall. ‘David,’ she tells you.
Say: ‘Hi, David.’
‘This is your uncle Kevin.’
Take the baby in your arms. He is warm and smells of milk. His eyes are clear as glass and his hands grope in the air for things you cannot see.
‘Aw,’ Theresa says, ‘he’s a natural, so he is.’ She rearranges her shopping and takes back the baby, bracing his weight against her hip and steadying him with a muscled arm. ‘Won’t be long now till he’s back with one of his own, and a little English accent on it.’
You can predict the expression on your mother’s face: there is no need to look at her.
‘A-babba, a-babba,’ Theresa says as the baby starts to scream. ‘I’ll have to talk to yous later. No rest for the bleeding wicked.’
‘Stop, sure I know,’ says your mother, who has no other children. ‘I worry about her,’ she says, when Theresa has gone. ‘And that worthless lout of a husband…’
She is still speaking but the buzz of the strimmer drowns her out.
Apply yourself to your work: give the lawn a nice clean edge.

Take a shower, take a shit, have a shave, change your shirt. Check your watch and wonder how much longer you can leave off calling Henno and the lads.
Find your father in the hallway, tying his walking boots. Ask if you can come and watch him search for an answer as though the question is outrageous.
‘Sure,’ he decides. ‘The company’d be nice. The company I suppose’d be a pleasant change.’
Follow your father out the door and down the street, matching your pace to his. Smile at the neighbours to whom he waves and wait whenever he stops to talk.
‘If you ask me it’s the owners,’ one of the neighbours tells him across a garden wall.
‘A travesty. A great club like the ‘pool deserves much better.’
Study your father: the purple flesh of his jowels, the grey in his beard, the hair in his ears. Listen to the ease of his conversation. Envy his comfort in the company of other men.
Follow him through the lane.
Ask: ‘How’re you coping with redundancy?’
‘You know how your mother is.’
‘And how’ve you been feeling?’
‘Sure I’m walking amn’t I?’
Stop at the shop to buy cigarettes but tell your father you are planning to quit.
‘How does it feel to be turning twenty-five?’ he asks.
‘It only gets worse.’
Follow your father to the coast, down the stone steps and out over the tidal plain where the sky soars heavenward and the town disappears. Feel the sand give beneath your feet and taste the salt on the wind.
Stop into the Lifeboat, where the barman is an old classmate of your father’s. Answer his questions about London. Laugh at his jokes. Predict tomorrow’s football scores.
‘Birthdays is lucky,’ the barman says. ‘And I’ll split the winnings with you.’
‘See that you do,’ your father says.
‘I will. Sure I said I will.’
‘And I said see that you do.’
Thank your father as he stands you drinks. Tell him: ‘I’ll get the next one.’
‘Get your hand out of your bleeding pocket,’ he snarls, foam spraying from his lip.

Stay too long with your father in the pub. Watch daylight stretch itself thin above the harbour beyond the window.
Field a phone call from your mother. Fill her in on your progress.
‘If the doctors told him once – ’ she says.
‘I know.’
‘I won’t wait on yous so.’
Order whisky after stout after stout after whisky. Order toasted cheese sandwiches, peanuts and crisps. Feel the pub fill up around you, its heat and its conversation.
‘Why is a woman like a tornado?’ someone asks, and answers: ‘Cause when she comes she screams blue murder and when she goes she takes the house.’
Go outside for a cigarette but tell your father you are trying to cut down. Listen to the regular clink of tacking against masts.
Lean against the pub window-ledge and look out over the harbour to the falling hills where a red sun dwindles to a flat line. Shiver. A girl is walking up the beach, the wind in her hair and her jacket sailing. Watch her pick her way around puddles, over stones, up the slipway and out onto the road. Wallow in the sorrowful distance between you. Remember her with your every sense. Wave at her.
She is gone.
Take out your phone.
‘Is it you?’ Henno slurs when he answers. ‘We were starting to think you’d forgotten about us.’
Tell him: ‘Small hope.’

Find yourself in a smoking garden with Henno, Brian and three nineteen year old girls.
‘We’re all going back to my gaff after,’ Henno says. ‘My ma’s away. We’re having a session.’
‘Your ma?’ one of the girls, a brunette, asks. ‘How old are you, like, thirty?’
‘I am not!’ Henno laughs. ‘I’m twenty-four years of age and not a day older. Ah no, it’s just… Sure she has no one else to look after her. No one else at all in the world since da died.’
‘Aw,’ the brunette says, her agile fingers finding their way between the buttons of Henno’s shirt. ‘That must’ve been so hard on you. You’re a very good son.’
Henno leans over the girl’s shoulder and flashes you a wolfish smile.
Brian rolls his eyes and elbows you in the ribs. ‘But would you not even do a half though, no?’ he says. It’s your birthday like, your birthday. Still and all I bet you get good pills in the clubs over there, yeah? What are they like? Mad, yeah? I bet they’re mad.’
‘So, Henno was saying you live in England?’ the girl nearest you says. She has small features, wet eyes: a veneer of innocence that betrays a dread suspicion of the world’s indifference to her dreams. She holds her glass with two hands and gazes up at you as though you might be in possession of some great secret.
Tell her: ‘London.’
Brian’s eyebrows climb his forehead as he turns away. Henno mouths a filthy vowel of encouragement.
‘Wow! I’ve always wanted to visit there.’
‘Well, why don’t you go then?’

Stagger down the harbour road, the world tilting in your bleary vision. Steady yourself against a telephone pole outside the sailing club and vomit on the wheel of a Landrover. Feel your phone vibrate. Read Henno’s name. Turn your phone off.
Let the sea wall lead you home through a wind that pulls at the corners of your eyes. Look out towards the islands, their flat shapes black against darkness. Watch the beacon of the lighthouse flicking on and off.
Make your way back through the lane, back along your silent street. Wrestle with your key in the lock and kick off your shoes in the kitchen. Creep up the stairs. Crawl into bed fully dressed and listen through the wall to your father’s troubled breathing as your ceiling starts to spin.
Fall asleep in the room where once you sheltered countless childish wishes. Sleep longer than you have in weeks. Sleep better than you have in months. Dream of long-forgotten futures that will come to haunt your waking hours.
Your mother is screaming.
Open your eyes.

Biographical Note:
Andrew Fox was born in Dublin in 1985. Twice a recipient of bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland, his stories have appeared, among other places, in The Dublin Review and The Prairie Schooner. ‘Seven Steps Home’ won third prize in the Francis McManus Competition 2011. He lives in Massachusetts.

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