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The Irish Read: A short story from Adrian Duncan's new collection

Enjoy a section from a new work by an Irish author this Sunday morning.

Aoife Barry

THE IRISH LITERARY scene has long been a source of national pride, but it’s in particularly rude health at the moment. Yet with so many books to catch up on, it can be easy to lose track of what’s out there.

Enter The Irish Read, where we feature an extract from a piece of work by an Irish or Ireland-based author.

The taster from a novel or short story will hopefully spur you on to find out more about the writer and their work.

The writer

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This week, we bring you a short story by Adrian Duncan, from his latest collection Midfield Dynamo. Duncan is a visual artist and author, and worked as a structural engineer before studying fine art in the mid-2000s. He works primarily on installations, using media like sculpture, flm and photography.

His writing, meanwhile, includes the novels Love Notes From A German Building Site and A Sabbatical in Leipzig. His latest book is a collection of his short stories, called Midfield Dynamo.

The plot

Duncan’s engineering background comes into play here through his story about a draughtsman designing a set of towers to impress his mother.

There is a sense of the fairytale about the story, with its setting in a forest and characters including a widowed woman, and a determined only son. The protagonist’s fixation on specific details, and his sense of emotional detachment at times add another intriguing layer to this story. 

The story

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Two Towers in a Forest, by Adrian Duncan

The walls of the terraced house in which I live are constructed with red brick. The house has a pitched slated roof, timber floors and two upstairs bedrooms. The front bedroom, where I sleep, faces out onto a square. Some nights this square can become quite noisy: dogs barking, distant helicopters, horses pounding stable doors, sirens, speeding cars, shouting … and on these occasions I push two old wax earplugs into my ears to drown out the sound.

Then, lying there in bed, I begin to hear the blood pumping behind my ears, and I think of my grandfather, whom I never met, who died of a heart attack over seventy years ago while playing cards one afternoon with his young wife and his sisters at the kitchen table of his farmhouse, now derelict, that overlooks fields and a lake in the middle of the country.

Then I think of the inherited weakness I must have in my heart and of the possibility that my heart will suddenly, violently stop, which causes me to think, what if my heart gives in as I sleep? and what is this pulsing object within me? and how can it truly be an object when it is part of me? And all of this confusion rehearses itself in my mind, over and over, until eventually it ebbs away in cascading throbs until I fall asleep and wake the next morning, exhausted, wondering what all the fuss was about.

I work as a draughtsman in a large bright engineering office. We design houses, bridges,
churches and libraries. The engineers give me their hand-drawn sketches and I work them up into large formal drawings for issue to site. I sit beside another draughtsman.

His name is Allen; a tall man, with blue eyes and a dark full beard. We both began working here on the same day, ten years ago – a clear Monday morning in August 1978. Allen and I consider the engineers in this office as artless types. We work our handsome tracing-paper drawings up in pencil, and neatly ink in these lines, then, if the engineer spots a mistake in the design, we have to take our razor blades out and scratch away the dried-up lines of ink and redraw the correct plan area, the cross-sectional detail, the note, the specification – and the drawing is ruined. I often become quite angry and lose interest in the project at hand.

I am an only child. Once a month I go home to visit my mother, who lives in a council
cottage at the end of an old cul-de-sac in the Midlands. My mother is beautiful. She has long dark hair even though she is quite elderly, and eyes so black it is a wonder she can see out of them. She feels alone these days and cries whenever I mention anything from the past. She misses my father, who died forty years ago, two years after I was born, while he was working as a welder on a Dutch vessel exploring for oil in the middle of the North Sea. It is my wish to make her happy again, to help her forget about the past for a moment, and with this task in mind I have begun work on a large project. It is to be built in the belly of a patch of forest that was once bequeathed to her.

The forest is full of upright and fallen trees, and it smells almost of decay. I think it will die very soon – it will in a sense strangle itself to death. Before this happens I want to build two towers in the forest. Then I will bring my mother to see these towers, at night, when they are both lit up by dozens and dozens of high-strength lamps.

The day I moved into my terraced house I dismantled the two single beds in the spare
bedroom upstairs, turning it into a studio for this project. Every moment I am not working in the engineers’ draughting office, I spend in the spare bedroom working on one of the towers – a ziggurat, more precisely. I will build it in balsa wood, in 360 interlocking parts, then I will transport the tower, piece by piece, to my mother’s patch of forest. It is a plot of 4.2 acres, and in the centre of it is a large concrete pad once used for storing silage. Upon that eight-hundred-square-metre pad I intend to assemble, to its thirty-metre height, the ziggurat.

The dimensions have been carefully considered so that the internal and external surface
areas of my ziggurat will approach one one-millionth of the surface area of my mother’s patch of forest in mid-summer. By surface area I mean the area of each side of each leaf, each branch, each bole, each piece of grass, plus that of the ground these groaning things emerge from. On a number of visits to the forest last June, Allen and I – with measuring tapes, metre-square sheets of tracing paper, ladders, pulleys, rope, climbing gear, cameras, notebooks – carried out a survey of the place.

The plot has on average one deciduous tree in every two square metres; the average height of a tree is 8.2 metres; the average trunk diameter is 311 millimetres. My calculations factor in the unevenness of the bark of the tree trunks and the smoothness of the branches. The average length of the secondary branches is 3.5 metres, the average number of secondary branches is forty-five per tree, the average number of leaves on each branch is fifty-six. The average leaf area on 22 of June last year, from a test sample of two hundred leaves, was 83.2 square millimetres.

Grass: at the edges of the forest the blade count was 413 per square metre, the average area of one side of each blade was 12.5 square centimetres. In the inner parts of the forest the average blade count per square metre was 126, the average area of one side of each blade was 8.3 square centimetres. Moss: the area of moss was assumed to sit within the tree area and the forest-floor area. Flowers and miscellaneous weeds: add .05% of the area of grass.

From this Allen and I produced colour-coded maps relating to each of these layers of the
forest so we could iterate its entire surface area in summer and, from this, discern – taking away the leaves and a percentage of the grasses – the area in winter.

Which leads me to the second tower: I intend to purchase a giant roll of electric-blue stage light film, the surface area of which will tend towards one one-millionth of the area of this same forest plot, mid-winter. Allen and I will go to a clearing in another part of my mother’s plot, unfurl this roll of film across the ground and, using a number of simple geometric propositions – each corner curled to the midpoint of the opposite edge – bend the material over and upon itself over and over, repeating these rules until the sheet, through its sheer stiffness, stands upright. At night I will install and shine huge stage lights through this unsure object, and disclose, through a build-up of electric-blue tone, the curved structure.

In the end I will have two huge sculptures sitting in different places in my mother’s forest, with surface areas that are relative to the difference in the forest between summer and winter, and expressed using my two preferred types of geometry: the grid-like units of the Cartesian, and the continuous surface curves and bends of the Topological.

Allen at first did not believe in this project, but the more I talked with him about it during our lunch breaks at work, and showed him my drawings and my corrugated cardboard models, and impressed upon him just how important I felt the project was and who it was for, the more he took to it, to the point that he became enthusiastically involved. He began calling over to my apartment more often to see how the models and designs were progressing and offering often to double-check my calculations. In short, this project has brought us from being mere workmates to ‘brothers-in-arms’, as he often says.

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One evening in the early stages of construction, we were driving to the hardware suppliers in the middle of the small Midlands town not far from my mother’s house. I needed to purchase some lengths of pine as supports for my sheets of balsa. As we went, and the distant street lights began to wink on the horizon, he turned to me and said, as if he had been considering this detail of the project for some time, but had been afraid to ask, ‘… And why balsa?’

To which I replied, ‘Workability and fragrance.’

The day we lifted into place the peak of the ziggurat, Allen stood and looked out over the top of the forest. The tips of the trees bobbed around us in a slow asynchronous way, and the ziggurat creaked gently below. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and all of the different scents of timber coursed up through the air. Allen placed his left foot onto the top step of the ziggurat and stood astride it for a while, like a mountaineer, gazing out over the land.

He held this posture, closed his eyes and breathed deeply in through his nose, then out through his mouth, a number of times, until it became obvious that standing like this was tiring him out and his thighs, knees and calves were beginning to strain. The birds chirped nearby and the flies cut spiralling curves down into the sparkling forest below.

Allen opened his eyes, took out his pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette, smoked it and sent a string of ragged grey-white hoops out into the heavens – they wobbled then expanded into obliteration. I took a seat on the top step of the ziggurat, and looked out over the tips of the trees, the farmland beyond, the lake, the distant hill.

Then, Allen uttered: ‘I think we have done something very fine here.’ I did not respond.

He asked me when I hoped to light up the forest and show these two giant constructions to my mother, and I said that I would do it as soon as I got some more lights and more generators to power them. I told him that he should not worry because I would certainly take him back here some day, before it all rots, or is blown asunder.

And this is where I am now, in the middle of a very dark night, in my van, hurtling with my mother to this godforsaken plot of forest. We have gin, blankets and food. We roll up to the forest entrance and I insist on blindfolding her. She is nervous and hesitant as I lead her through the damp darkness and halfway up the side of the ziggurat. As she and I falter up the steps she asks me what on earth it is I am doing. I sit her down, and tell her not to move and that she must leave the blindfold on until she hears me call for her. I excuse myself, chase down into the trees to start the generators, to power the stage lights that will illuminate my vast curling electric-blue film sculpture.

The generators click, groan, hammer, whirr. Then the lights slowly come up, and the whole forest begins to glow and oh … it is glorious – the forest is blue-ness: blue lines, gleaming blue curves and shapes that break in senseless arcs across the trees, the branches, the leaves, the glowing sap.

The blue light quakes up through the dark undergrowth, the branches, the leaves until it blasts outward, obliterating the sky, way, way up, where it rolls and radiates and sings, and I start to shudder and run through all the blinding gunk, strand and shadow, and call from the top of my irregular heart: 

’Mother! Mother! Come see what I have done!’

Two Towers in a Forest appears in Midfield Dynamo, a collection of short stories by Adrian Duncan, published in 2021 by The Lilliput Press

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