The Situation. Featured Fiction by Dorothy Simmons

“Who was that you were with?”

“Just friends.”

“Was one of them that Connor?”

“Dad! Be reasonable, will you?  He’s in my tutorial. I can’t just ignore him.”  

Eileen pulled herself up into the cab of the lorry and settled into the passenger seat. She pulled the Belfast Telegraph out from under her bottom, took one glance at the headlines and stuffed the paper into the space behind her seat.  Say nothing, say nothing.

“Bloody hunger strikers. Bobby bloody Sands. You’d think they’d learn.”

“Some people never learn, Dad.”   Not in Northern Ireland.  “Thanks for this;               

better than freezing my bum off on the bus.”   

“Had to do an extra run to the mills. Is that flat of yours warm enough?”

“Yeah, fine.  Toasty.  Can’t believe this snow, though. Talk about deep and                 

crisp and even!  Poor beasts, freezing their butts off.”

“Better out in the field than trampling through their own shit in the byre.                     

They fairly get through the feed, though; this is my second trip to town this week.                         How did you go in that essay?”

“Got a distinction.”

Her father beamed.   “A distinction, eh?  And how many bloody words                               

did you have to write to get that?”

“Three thousand.”  

“God Almighty, that’s more than I’d use in a month!”

She laughed. Keep him happy. First in the family to go to university:                                     

proud of you, girl.  When she’d been accepted, he’d told everybody.                                            

God only knows where she got the brains, he’d told them; left school                               

at fifteen, he did. Shouldering another bag of meal, he’d swung it                                     

up to the grizzled farmer standing on the trailer hitched to his tractor.                                         

Not like in our day, hey boy?  You learned your letters and you learned                                

your numbers and then you earned your living. No two ways about it.                                  

None of these fancy grants and scholarships for us, boy!  

The windscreen wipers ticked like manic metronomes.                                            

Crusts of frost rimmed the windows.  At the Army checkpoint,                                           

soldiers squinted against the wind and stamped their feet; high                                             shouldered, they issued terse commands which misted up                                                      

in their faces. 

“God help those poor lads, out all hours of the day and night in

 this weather.” 

  Poor lads.  Tell that to Connor’s little brother, still hopping round                                             

the children’s ward.

“They didn’t have to join the Army.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  

She flicked the radio on. A newsreader’s voice blared. She glanced 

at her Dad’s frowning profile, flicked it off and knotted her hands 

firmly in her lap. Here we go: the Situation.  It’s the Situation, the 

bloody Situation. Specially when he’s had a few, specially when he 

stands up in front of the latest crop of Young Farmers, specially 

when his daughter turns on the news.   

Barricades.  Bombs.  No Pope here, and no bloody wonder.  It used                             

to be, he’d at least ask: what do you think of the Situation?  Used to 

be he voted for the Alliance party.  Not now. Now it’s just round them

 up and shoot the whole damn lot of them, it’s the only thing they 

understand.  And now he’s got another Situation. 

“Whole bloody university full of lawyers and doctors. And what 

does she do?   Slums it with a poet.  A Papish bloody poet from the                               

back streets of Belfast!”  

Which was worse, the back streets or the poetry? He said it like 

she’d betrayed him, like she’d gone behind his back, when she hadn’t.                                   

Or not until she had to.  She’d brought Connor all the way out on the                                    

bus, for goodness sake, just to meet him.  And the stupidest thing                                    

was how well they’d got on.  In the byre, Connor had helped load                                 

the trailer with bales of hay; on the tractor, he’d asked intelligent 

questions about hay versus silage and Belted Galloways versus Black 

Angus. On the way home, her Dad had dropped them off so they could 

walk back by The Six Mile Water and she could show him the ducks.  

There were swans sometimes too, but she’d always preferred the ducks. 

Standing on the bridge together, Connor squeezed her shoulder and

grinned. “Hope is a duck … bottoms up!”  

His eyes always seemed bluer when he laughed.  

Here we go. Her Dad’s jaw clenched, his eyebrows bent and bristling:                                 

the I.R. bloody A in their bloody balaclavas, didn’t know which was                                   

worse, them or the ones in Dublin in their three piece bloody suits …

Say nothing. There’s no point, you know there’s no point.  No: can’t.  

Really, really can’t.  Just sit and listen. Can’t.

Gerrymanders.  Peaceful protest.  Civil rights.    

By the time they reached the Hill Road, the silence in the cab lay thick 

as the snow on the hedges.  Her father shifted in his seat, rolling the broad 

shoulders that once upon a time had been her horsey: hi yo Silver, away!  

Broad freckled hands were clamped tight around the steering wheel.                           

Some of the freckles were liver spots now; the stubble on his jaw was white.                 

A thin blue vein meandered across his temple. Pressing her lips together, she 

blinked; no use crying. Like he said, no two ways about it.  Not now, not ever.  Connor’s mother was just the same; or, like Connor said, unjust the same. No use saying if Dad had been born Catholic, or Connor’s mother Protestant that they  would have kicked against the Situation every bit as hard, just with the other foot.  No use saying it wasn’t their fault.                                                                                                     Whose fault was it?  Try again. 

“It’s supposed to be the worst winter for twenty five years.  How long have you and Mum been married?” 

No answer; no thaw. 

The cattle were huddled along the hedge. Across the bleak white plateau 

of field, ears flattened and tails clamped to bony backsides, trudged

 the donkeys.  Pretty Polly was in front, mushroom coloured, biblically                       

meek and mild. Nudge her with your heels and off she’d trot. Rub her ears                     

and she’d nuzzle you. Behind her was Poppy, Roman nosed, the colour of black                       pepper.  Nudge her with your heels and she’d hump her back, either buck or bolt under the trees to scrape you off.  Or just lie down on the spot and refuse to budge.  

 Except that one time with Dad and Connor.  She’d jumped on Poppy’s back,                 

hoping she would bolt, wanting to show how well she could hold on.  

No chance.  Black ears flattened, she bent her knees and was down and rolling                     

over.  She scrambled to her feet, looking up at her Dad and Connor standing side by side and laughing.  Absurdly, ridiculously happy, she laughed with them, the two men 

she loved most in the world. 

Connor pulled out his mouth organ and waggled his eyebrows.  He drew in 

a deep breath and blew.  Poppy shot to her feet and bolted, braying in comic outrage.  

Her Dad slapped Connor’s shoulder.  “That’ll learn her, eh? 

That’ll learn her!”  

“Which one?” Connor grinned. 

She brushed the snow off her jacket.  All right, it was going be all right…

After lunch, her mother brought out old photographs of Belfast, the house 

she grew up in and her old school, where she’d taught piano before she 

married Dad and moved out to the farm.  She laughed when she heard about 

Poppy and the mouth organ and Dad asked Connor what tunes he could play. 

‘The Sash my Father Wore’, now, can you play ‘the Sash’?   Connor shook

 his head, said he didn’t know it.

“How can you not know the Sash, son?  Sure you hear it every twelfth of July.”

“Not very keen on marching songs.”   

“Are you not? Well, what do you like?”

Connor played ‘Bold Fenian Men.’

She stared out the lorry window. The donkeys, the beasts in the white fields 

blurred into each other.  She blinked and pointed.

“They’re the ones it’s a pity of.  No choice.”

“Listen you here, my girl: there’s many a young lad joins the Army purely 

because it’s a decent job with good prospects …”

“Yeah, hold an Armalite rifle steady, great prospects… of killing people!”

“Killing people? Don’t talk: what about the I.R. bloody A?” 

“What about the Ulster fucking Freedom Fighters?”

The word hung in the air like a gun shot.  Silence.  More snow. 

Stupid, stupid idea, coming home for the weekend.  Stupid bloody Ken, 

double booking himself… still.  The Loughside paid its bar men well.                              

 It’d get Connor on to their casual list.  She could have – should have –                                      

 just gone along, sat in a corner and read till his shift finished…

Oh God. Christmas coming.  What are they going to do?  Now? Ever?

“Watch out, Dad!” 

Her father wrenched the steering wheel and the lorry skidded around the 

church corner.  The minister’s cat scrammed up the wall.

There’d be no talking now. Just her mother fidgeting and passing food and 

being nice and her Dad sitting in front of the TV with a face like a hatchet.  

The Situ-bloody-ation.   

She could ring Stuart, he’d be going into town, he could drop her off at the 

Hotel. That should please her Dad, Stuart being a Young Farmer, Stuart being 

a decent young man… Christ, if he only knew he was gay…

Stuart wasn’t in.   

Dinner was as expected.  Her Dad passed the salt, the pepper, worked his 

way steadily through steak and kidney pie.  Did not want dessert.  Pushed 

his chair back, went through to the lounge, switched the television on and 

sat in his seat, mouth zippered, arms crossed. Jess trotted through, sat at his 

feet and barked.  He picked her up, let her circle and curl in his lap, ruffled                            

her soft spaniel coat.  

“Can I make you a cup of coffee, Dad?”

He hesitated, then shrugged. “If you like.  Milk. Two sugar.”

Milk, two sugar. Right.  Take it through.

On TV, the news presenter was looking down at his desk.  He looked up

 and cleared his throat. “News just to hand.  A bomb has exploded at the 

Loughside Hotel…”

“Damned IRA den…”

The coffee bled all over the carpet. The cup rolled under the table.

 “Connor!  That’s where Connor is!”   

Dialing, dialing: hotel, home, flat, friend’s flat.  Give it a couple of minutes. 

Try again. One minute, two… no answer.  No answer no answer no answer.    

Go to bed. Rage, rage against the dark…poetry, poetry… except where did raging ever get anybody?   

In the morning, she sat at the far end of the kitchen table, bruise-eyed and mute.  

Her Dad scraped his chair back.

“Come and give us a hand feeding the beasts, pet. Take your mind off it.”  

 She shook her head.   

 “Look, it’s a big hotel.  He might have been nowhere near it.  They’re 

saying it wasn’t a big one.” He touched her hair.  “Nothing you can do 

this time of morning, now is there? Come on.”  He fetched her coat, 

stood holding it out. 

They tossed broken bales across the snow around the long wooden troughs 

of grain mixed with chaff, snow trampled by hooves, stained by piss and

 shit.  She stood staring across the rank fug of cattle, snorting, shouldering, 

squelching cattle.   

“Where are the donkeys, Dad?”

“Somewhere about.”

“But they’re always first here.”

“Dam greedy wee beggars.  They’ll turn up.” 

“I’m going to look.”

“Hang on, let me finish…”

Tramping up the hill, tramping down.  Tripping and falling, hunkered

down in the snow, sobbing.  Her Dad heaved her back on to her feet.    

“For God’s sake, child, do you want to catch your death of cold?                                       

Here, give us your hands …” He rubbed them and pulled her close. 

“You rang his home number, didn’t you?”

“No answer.” 

“They’ve probably not let any of them home yet.  You can’t read anything

 into that.” 

She burrowed her face into his coat, then pushed blindly away, blundering

towards the path that circled the bottom of the hill.  Abruptly she stopped,                         

clapping her hands either side of her head.

“The donkeys. What if they’ve frozen to death?”

Her Dad had stopped too, but not for her. He was smiling. “Well, well.”     

“What? What is it?”   

“Over there, see those holes? Just over yonder, see? Side of the path, just                      

in against the hillside?” 

 With a grunt, he plunged into the snowdrift.  Gloved hands shoveled great                  

flurries of snow into the air.  

 Four stiff shaggy points: ears.  Donkeys’ ears.  She screamed.

“They’re dead! Buried alive!”

“Dead?  Not at all, not a bit of them, their breath melts holes, see? 

Blow holes.  Depends how long they’ve been there of course…”  

Poppy’s head was out; she shook her snow laden head, bared her 

yellow teeth and sneezed.

“They’re alive! Dad, Dad, they’re alive!”

She dived in beside him, scrabbling and scraping.

 Eyelashes spiked with frost; long whiskery icicles where the snow 

melted by their breath had frozen.  On her knees, red nosed and red

cheeked, Eileen giggled. 

Her Dad went for the horse float. She waited, stamping, rubbing ears, 

necks, backs, kissing foreheads.  Her Dad tossed her a halter; she led 

Poppy after Polly up the ramp and on to the straw. He let her stay in the                               

float with them while he drove home.  In the stable, she found hessian                            

sacks and some old blankets, kept rubbing, hugging, rubbing as hard as                                      

she could. Her Dad made up two big buckets of mash; the donkeys plunged                        

their heads in.  

He put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned in close. They watched, 

listening to the sound of munching, breathing in the smell of damp hessian, 

warm mash, clean straw.

“He’s not dead, Dad. He’s not. I know he’s not.”

Her mother didn’t say a word about the snow they tramped in.  Still no 

answer; she left another message.  She pulled the chair up next to the 

phone, sat staring, willing it to ring.  

It did. She sprang away, hand to mouth, shaking her head, moaning. 

“Dad.  Dad.  Please.”  

 He lifted it and held it out.  She shook her head harder, covered her face.                               

He answered. “Hello?”

She lowered her hands, pressed them palm to palm. Her eyes never left                                       

his.

“Yes.  Yes.  Yes. Yes. ”   

Yes what, yes what?

Her Dad replaced the phone very carefully, his big hand heavy on the                           

receiver.  She grabbed the hand, grabbed both of them, tugging urgently.                 

“He’s alive. He’s alive. Tell me he’s alive?” 

Her Dad nodded. She gasped ecstatically and flung her arms round him. 

“See?  I knew, I just knew!”     

She spun away, hugging herself, spinning till she staggered.  

“Alive, alive-o-o!”     

“Eileen.”  

“What?”

“He is alive.  Yes. He is alive. But. Come here, dear. Come here.”  

Her Dad laid his hands gently over her shoulders.  “The explosion: 

he’s been blinded. He’s in intensive care.”

She backed away, banged into the kitchen table and grabbed it.                                             

Her Dad started towards her, but she shook her head, turned and                                          

bolted out the back door.

An icy gale whipped tree tops, clanged corrugated strips of metal.  

She ran across the howl of empty yard, yanked the stable door wide 

and slammed it behind her.  Leaning back against it, she pressed the 

heels of her hands hard against her eyeballs.  The world lurched and 

lunged, blind and black and random, so fucking random … 

The donkeys were lying in the straw.  Their ears were soft and floppy

 and warm. She squeezed in between them.  Polly sleepily licked her 

hand.   Alive, alive –o-o…  

***

Her Dad was waiting at the end of the ward. “Well?  Well? ”

She lifted her chin. “One eye’s gone. But he can see out of the other.                     

He’ll have almost full vision again in it.”

She gave herself up to the bear hug, the warmth, the kindness. 

But as she followed her Dad across the car park, she could almost see                                     

the speech balloon above his head: one eyed Papish bloody poet …  

“I went downtown while he was having the tests.  Just to get out, 

you know?  Just to walk about.  Went to Australia House.”

“Sunny Australia, eh?  Do with a bit of bloody sunshine round here, 

couldn’t we?”

“We’ve been talking about it, Dad.  Ever since.  Connor and me. 

 The reason I went to Australia House was to hand in the forms.  

We’re going to emigrate.”

“You’re what?”

“We’re emigrating, Dad.”

“That’s what I thought you said. Child dear, you’re not serious!”

“Yes we are.  As soon as we can.” 

“Now listen, dear, it’s been a terrible tragedy, terrible.  You’ve been 

worried sick, we all have.  D’you think I don’t know that? No time

to go making decisions. I’m sure Connor doesn’t expect you…”  

“He doesn’t expect anything. That was one of the very first things 

he said when he came round. He said he’d understand if I wanted to                       

split up, that he wasn’t going to hold me to anything, that I had my own                               

life to lead. ”

“Did he now? God help him, he’s a good lad…”

“Yes. But you know what I said back? I said the only way we’d ever 

split up was if we stayed here. And then smiled that crookedy grin of                                      

his and said; don’t tell me: you want to take me away from all this.                                       

That’s right, I said. That’s just right.  

And then he just took my hand and we sat for a while. Till he nodded too.                                

I’m sorry, Dad. But you said it yourself.  The Situation’s not going to change,                        

or not any time soon. We only get one life, Dad. ” 

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