Akie Asemblé is a writer and poet from Dublin in Ireland. Akie’s first published story, A Ten Dollar Tear, appeared in The Manhattanville Review in 2020. This was soon followed by Lizzie Had These Great LP’s on Story Bud Web and the publication of the poem Hero on Orna Ross Poetry. Akie deals with themes around physical and mental loneliness, focusing on characters, heroes and anti-heroes that hide in the shadows of our every day. Akie is currently working on a Novella about life in modern suburbia.
By Akie Asemblé
As the old man dozed, his head bobbed like the fishing boats tethered to the nearby pier. He sat in his armchair, his paper resting folded across his lap. His hands clasped lightly and sitting on his belly. Briquettes crumbled and scorched the back hood of the fireplace.
Outside, a natterjack toad belched from his throaty balloon to the silvery cloud that would soon embrace the moon.
Inside was a world and outside was a world.
The old man’s TV filled with simmering dots. On top, three birthday cards received that day from well-wishers and family. Most of his friends were dead now. The ones who used send cards. The friends that used to call. The friends who brought him out. The friends who knew his beginning, his middle but had made it to their end before him.
“Best of luck from all of us at the community centre,” read one.
“Keep up the bridge. Looking forward to beating you.” read another. “Hope you’re recovering.”
“We love you Grandad,” said another, “Happy Birthday from Down Under”.
This one had a picture. A picture of a man and a woman and a young child standing near a bridge under a big blue sky.
In a room far from the old man’s house, a young man woke his son. The little boy looked up with a half-winced eye and fixed it on his father’s face.
I recognise this man, he thought and sitting up in bed he raised his arms. He felt his father’s waxy hands grab hold of his armpits and lift him in the air. He smiled and watched out over his father’s shoulder as they passed the familiarities that told him it was home. The basket full of clothes is there, the bookcase, the piano here, down the staircase we go, into the corridor past the bright yellow phone until kitchen air, filled with coffee, toast and melting butter greets us like a hug. The boy had heard of God in school. Someone had told him he was everywhere. The boy imagined he was in this house, in fact he thought God was in that morning air. But he never told anyone.
“Good morning,” said the boy’s mother, stuffing a bouquet of dirty washing into the machine. “Sleep well?”
“Yes,” said the boy as his father sat him at the table.
“A little too well,” said the man. “I’m up late. I was supposed to call my father this morning. His birthday. But I think it’s probably too late now.”
“Why not try him anyway,” said the woman. “I’m sure, he’ll still be up.”
The man looked back into the corridor…
“I’ll put your toast on,” said the woman. “Give him a try.”
…and turned back towards the phone.
The old man opened his eyes. His neck was stiff.
Licking his lips, he moved his heavy arms off the arms of his chair and dropped them by his sides. He flexed his hands before fumbling for the rubbery wheels. He found them and pushed.
“Bloody thing,” he said as he struggled towards the phone.
“Happy Birthday Dad,” said the man.
The old man recognised the voice. His body surged with the uncomfortable warmth of excitement and anxiety.
Today. He had to tell him today.
“Dad,” said the man, “Are you there?”
“Ah,” said the old man, “if it isn’t Ned Kelly.”
“Dad?” said the man.
“I’m only messin’ with you.” said the old man. “How are things?”
“I’m OK,” said the man. “And you? How has your day been?”
“Nothing special,” said the old man. “To be honest, after thirty you wish there was a way you could avoid the bloody things. Birthdays. Load of shite.”
The old man raised his hand to his head and rubbed it through his wolfhound hair. It felt thick and wiry.
“Nothing as cruel as time,” he continued, “and it’s the only thing we want more of.”
“Sorry, what was that?” said the man.
“Nothing,” said the old man, “Nothing.”
“How’s your foot?” asked the man.
“Fine,” said the old man, “what’s left of it.”
“Have they taken the bandages off yet?”
“Yes, she came today and took them off. It’s not a pretty site. It was bad enough when they removed the other leg. I could handle being half a man but now, all these toes gone on this one. At this rate, pretty soon, I’ll just be a mickey. That won’t be much of a coffin.”
The man at the other end smiled but stayed silent. In the kitchen he could hear his son burbling to his teddy bear. He leaned a little to listen to his fantastical narrative.
“Are you there?” asked the old man.
“I’m here Dad.”
“Eh so, have you seen anyone lately?” continued the man.
“Just the nurse,” said the old man. “And even she can only come in for five minutes.”
“Right,” said the man. “How come?”
“Ah, she says she’s busy,” said the old man looking into the phone with a wince. “But I’d say it’s more to do with having to listen to me shite on.”
“Of course,” replied the man.
“Cheeky fucker,” said the old man.
The two men shared a polite, knowing chortle. To the old man it was a warm embrace.
“I try to get a bit of craic out of her,” he continued, “but she doesn’t really understand. She’s very nice but her English isn’t the best. I mean before you’d get a smile out of her and she’d ask you how things were but lately, there’s not much craic out of her.”
“Where is it she’s from again?” asked the man.
“Near your neck of the woods,” said the old man. “Philippines.”
“They speak English in the Philippines, Dad.”
“Do they?” said the old man a little taken aback. “Well they don’t speak it very well. Nice people though.”
The old man rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked up at the mantelpiece. The memory of his wife had faded. This photo of her, this youthful photo had become a different person, a ghostly angel half remembered from another lifetime. She was no longer real. Her smell, her voice all gone too long and by now utterly outdated. He had once thought that were she to return with that hairstyle and in those clothes he would somehow be embarrassed. She had disappeared and things had moved along. Things had evolved. Evolved, that was the word. She was young, yes, but young in another time. What would she talk to people about now? What would they say to her? And would her secret still be secret?
He had forgiven her but he could never understand why she left it so late to tell him and why she bothered telling him at all. She was dying. She knew she was. She could take her soul to God so why not the guilt? Surely God, if he did exist, would unburden her, forgive her more than he could. Why leave it here?
Yet the old man was about to do the same. If he took this truth with him, it would be lost for good. It was time to tell him though. He should know. The old man just couldn’t find a reason to.
This man the old man spoke to now was, too, from another lifetime. He’d been away so long. Commonalities were missing. Landmarks stayed the same but the people in them changed. The man knew the local club but he didn’t know the players. Two priests had been and gone and the Protestants had shut up shop altogether. The man knew the local town but he wouldn’t know the new shops. The town had moved on and the old man had moved on with it but to his son, it was still the town he had left twenty years ago. In the early years, the boy, for he was still a boy when he left, would ask about the place and every now and then he’d come home. With time though, an insipid fog of distance and indifference had descended on the boy’s voice. When the old man spoke to him of the town, the boy would scoff – sometimes silently. Soon, the old man stopped talking about the town. Then the boy became a man. And the man stopped coming.
The old man sat up in his chair and scratched behind his right ear.
“Barnabas,” he said. “I’ve missed you. I want you to know that.”
The man said nothing.
“And look, before you say anything, I don’t mean that in a way to, I don’t know, I don’t mean it in a way to make you feel guilty. I don’t want you back here. I’m just saying that I’ve missed you and you need to know. I know you had to go, nothing here for you. And I know it was a long time ago now. I know you had to go but I’ve missed you. That’s all.”
He was lying. The old man didn’t miss the man he was speaking to. He missed the boy who had left. He missed their fishing trips and walks down to the club. He missed them sitting in and watching football. He didn’t watch it anymore. He used to look at the results in the paper from time to time but even that had stopped.
“Dad?” asked the man. “You’re OK, aren’t you? I will come back soon. I’m just a bit snowed under at the moment. It’s all pretty crazy here too. They thought they had a handle on it but it’s taken off again and we can’t go anywhere.”
“No,” shouted the Old Man, leaning forward in his chair. “No. That’s not what I want. I’m not saying that. It’s not that I want you to come back. I just wanted to tell you something. I just wanted you to know. There’s something that you need to know.”
A silence fell. Thousands of miles, dozens of countries and millions upon millions of people between them and this silence.
“Anyway,” continued the old man.
Just then, the man heard a crash from inside the kitchen.
“Hang on Dad, the boy has gone and fallen or something.”
The old man heard Barnabas walk away from the phone. In the near distance, he heard the little boy screaming. He heard his own son’s soothing tones and guessed he was holding the boy on his lap and rocking him. The woman’s voice was louder, more concerned. Soon the boy’s screaming turned to sobs. Gradually, they too faded and then with a final deep breath the little boy stopped.
The old man waited. He could hear little but the familiar tones of a distant washing machine, lazily churning its load round and round. It went on. Gradually, the noises in his own room became more acute. The gentle ticking of his wall clock, the hissing television and outside, the lone natterjack toad still croaking for a friend. He strained to hear more from the other end. Then something caught his ear. Music and bashing and music and clattering.
A cartoon, he thought to himself.
He pressed the phone closer to his ear and cleared his throat. His eyes now moved from side to side as his glabella narrowed. It twitched a little.
In the distance, behind the churning clothes wash and the chaos of the cartoon he could hear laughter. It belonged to the boy and the man. The boy’s laughter sounded like the laughter of a boy he had once known. A boy who grew up far too quickly and who years ago left the town. He hadn’t seen or spoken to him properly in years and yet they had exchanged words – dutiful words.
The old man pressed the phone to his ear again. He listened. Then looking up at the woman in the photo he whispered down the phone.
“You’re not mine.”
The old man withdrew the handset from the side of his head and placed it quietly on the hook.