The Chamber Pot, written by Richard Ball, is the second prize winner of the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition 2014.
This year marks the 26th anniversary of the RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition, which over the years has proved to be the launching pad for many renowned Irish writers.
SHE’S BELOW IN the house now shittin’ and I’m up here on the top of a hill in the pissin’ rain. Carry the shovel everywhere. You never know when you’d want to dig a hole to bury yourself in. She asks me to leave when she needs to go. Day or night. Rain or shine. And it’s usually night and it’s usually pissin’. I bring the shovel. That way I can pick a spot near a ditch, get my own business done, cover it up so the flies won’t have anything to talk about, nothing to announce to the world tomorrow, he shit here last night. She tells me she wouldn’t mind going outside herself while I use the throne. The throne, that’s what she calls it. How could I ask her to stand outside with the wet wind whippin’ around her knees while I sit in comfort on the throne. Modesty she calls it. Jesus don’t we all do it. Didn’t the good Lord himself. “And don’t come back for a while” she says. “Give it half an hour” she says. “Give me a chance to air the place.” I know what you’re at woman. It’s normal. The Pope in Rome. The President. The parish priest. It’s normal. Cows have no problem with it. Middle of milking. Nothing wrong with that.“And don’t come in here smellin’ of cow shite” she says. Nothing wrong with the smell of cow shite I say. I feel like sayin’ I like the smell of cow shite. Relaxes me. Nothing more natural than the smell of cow shite. “Well it doesn’t go with the dinner” she says, “so would you go out and give them boots a scrubbin’ and wash them hands of yours before you come to the table.” By the time I sit down to the dinner, the appetite’s gone. “What’s wrong with you. Just asked you to get the smell of them cows off you. If you don’t want it, the cats will eat it.” Fuck the cats. She’s mad about cats. Cats everywhere. I like animals myself. Well you know, they’re there and that’s fine. Don’t need them crawling all over me. I’d run my hand down the side of a cow. Nothing nicer. Give her a friendly slap. She knows me. I know her. That’s grand. But cats! Don’t know their place. Came in one day and there’s one of them asleep in the frying pan beside the fire. For fuck sake. Hairs everywhere. Worse than any smell.Her and her smells! Do you know, I think I’d nearly rather lose my sight than not to be able to smell. At night, beside her, it’s her smell I like. Her hair, her skin, her sweat. Go back down now and it’ll be like a soap factory. Prefer the smell of her. I might miss her in a crowd if she dressed different. But if she lay down beside me in the dark I’d know it’s her.
Give it a half an hour she says. Middle of the night. So I don’t bother dressing proper. Just shove on this old overcoat. Good and heavy and damp as a drain in winter. Socks and boots. And the shovel. Come back and she’d say do you “Do you want to go yourself?” And I’d feel like sayin’, what the fuck do you think I was doin’ for the last half an hour, apart from freezin’ my arse of on the side of a hill. “Did you clean the shovel?” she’d say. I’d never answer that. O, doused it in Eau de Cologne I’d feel like saying. Washed it in seawater and rinsed it in the river. You could stir your porridge with it in the morning. And use it to feed the child. If we had a child.
When I’d get back into bed she’d warm me. I’d turn my back when I got in beside her and she’d warm me with the full length of her body. And it must have froze her with the cold of me. But it’d be the smell of soap, not her. So I wouldn’t turn around, and when I’d wake in the morning she’d have turned her back too. I’m always the first up. Do the milkin’, wash myself, make the porridge, bring it up to her. She’d say sometimes “Would you not get back into bed and warm yourself while you eat your breakfast.” When I’m up, I’m up I’d tell her. The odd time I’d sit on the side of the bed till she’d cleared the bowl. It’d be me that had the smell of soap and she’d be smellin’ like herself again. Once I’m up I’m up I’d say. And she’d know that too. And she’d lie down again for a while on her own. And I don’t mind that. She likes to lie on a bit in the morning and I like to be up, and when she does get up she works hard. And she’d still be workin’ at night when I’d be bet.
Middle of the day I’d come in, and she’d always have her back to me washing or baking. “Do you want a cup of tea” she’d say without turning. And I’d feel like resting my hands on her hips waiting for her to press back into me. Returning the pressure. Pressing against her and she against me. Pressing right into her.
Cup of tea would be grand I’d say. I’ll wash my hands first. Opposite ends of the table. Homemade bread and jam, three slices and two cups of tea. The length of the table between us. Back out through the haggard to piss in the ditch. Feel my belly full of homemade bread and jam and be happy with what I am. But often, standing there I couldn’t help thinkin’ of her inside, liftin’ her skirt over the throne.
We read at night. Books she gets in the library. Cowboys mainly for me. And she reads romances. Sometimes pictures on the front. A man and a woman. But they look too clean to be real. Permed hair and starched collars. Hard to imagine there’s anything underneath. And mine. A cowboy on a horse under the Arizona sun just as neat and clean. No smell of sweat, no smell of horse.
We used to meet in the old graveyard. An old derelict church in the middle surrounded by a high stone wall. Seldom anyone there. I’d grab her in my arms like I wanted to squeeze the breath out of her. Sometimes I’d ask am I hurtin’ you and she’d say “No, I like that”. Couldn’t hold her close enough. The whole length of her body pressed against mine. Came in one day, she was standing by the family plot. Leaning back against the old stone wall one foot raised against the stone. Couldn’t take my eyes off her. “I’ve been talking with your mother” she said. And I loved that. That she’d say that. And I said nothing, just grabbed her in my arms tight, tight till I thought she’d faint. After I let her go she said “Do you like me that much?” And I just held her again really hard. That was the only answer I could think of.
We used to walk around that old graveyard, and I knew we were made for each other. And we talked about anything and everything. Sometimes I would do all the talking, stupid stuff, and she’d listen like it was interesting. She’d talk too about the old church and the trees. And she liked birds, the small ones, housemartins, wrens, swallows. She talked about them feeding their young and I knew by the way she talked that she would make the best of mothers. She liked to watch the swallows flying in pairs, swooping and diving and turning together. She’d say that we were like the swallows, only better. When we were together it seemed everything was possible. I loved when we talked but the feeling of her body pressed against mine was better than anything.
Once when I put my hand near her breast she said “Take it easy”. So I stopped. But soon after she opened a button in her blouse, and she let me open two or three more. I put my hand inside and I held her breast. My right hand on her left breast. She closed her eyes and her face was different, tense. And I said did I hurt you and she said “No, no”. The she opened her eyes and looked at me, right into my eyes. And we must have been like that for a long time. And I said you’ll marry me, won’t you. And I knew that wasn’t the way to say it. I knew that. And the funny thing is she didn’t answer. She never said yes or no, didn’t say a word. She just smiled.
We married seven months later. Fixed up the place below, worked all hours. I don’t think we visited the graveyard once during that time. And we had one row, our first and only row before we were married. We’d been working on the house all day. It was about eight or nine o’clock. We were painting. She’s good at painting. Better than me. And all of a sudden I look and she’s crying. And I ask her what’s wrong and she says “Are you stupid or what? And what do you think I am, a slave? And would you never think of taking me to a dance or something, anything? Even for a walk? And if this is what it’s going to be like after we’re married then what’s the point? And I need new shoes since these are destroyed with paint. And you can’t paint anyway, just in case you think you can.”
It was the first time she said something like that. The first time I thought maybe I can’t do everything even if we are together. Maybe that was the end of things even before they started.
Of course I know now that wedding nights are seldom wonderful. How could they be. I have this notion that after people get married they should stay living separate for as long as it takes. Meet for a dance or a walk or a stroll in the woods. Knowing that they’re married but knowing that this is just the beginning and not the end.
I can see the spire from here. The old church. The graveyard. She’ll be asleep when I go down now and I’ll get in beside her, glad of the heat. And maybe that should be enough for me. That and the memory that once my right hand held her left breast, pressed its softness, that she closed her eyes, opened them, looked back into my eyes and smiled.
Richard Ball, from Co Meath, was a teacher of English at St Patrick’s Classical School, Navan. He has a keen interest in theatre.
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