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Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Sun Apr 01, 2018 8:12 pm
Hi all,
So this is for a project I’m on called ‘X-borders’.  Brief was to write about borders of any kind.  I can’t edit this on my phone so formatting may be a bit out but I’d love feedback on where it works or doesn’t, anything you would cut or change etc.
Thanks,
Sue

Like Starlight After Bombs.  

‘To air your head.’ Aidan’s phrase, like pretty much everything he said, was not in my English textbook.  Repeating it aloud twice, I stubbed my cigarette out on the cracked pavement and crumpled the empty packet, waiting.  I never got to smoke with my father.  If Aidan’s expression meant what I imagined, he was right.  Today was the closest date I knew to my father’s anniversary and ‘Airing my head,’ was needed.  Badly.  There was never a funeral.  No na’awes in the paper; no reciting the fateha for his soul, no ritual ram slaughter.  My first effort at beard growing had begun in grief that day.  I would have worn a white shirt amongst the traditional black suits; if there had been a wake, if Aleppo hadn’t been Hell.   I would have honoured him.  Perhaps by bringing us to Derry I had, yet increasingly breathing seemed pointless without purpose.  Saying that aloud however, was out of the question.  His car swung into the terraced street.  At least half my smile was instinctive.

‘Welcome to Ireland,’ my phone pinged five minutes up the road from home.  If I’d been more awake I might have realised it then, the danger, but we were engrossed in conversation.

‘So, like, it would be temptation on a stick to invite you a Creggan barbeque then?’ Aidan grinned as he drove.

‘Explain?’

‘A stack of cans, the most hijab-less girls on the planet and a mountain of value-pack non-Kosher sausages?’

‘Halal!’ I groaned.

He grinned with the success of dragging the laugh from me.

‘Jesus, it must be hell!  How come you never say Mohammed when you swear?’

I shrugged.  ‘So how is this place named again?’

‘An Grianan Fort.  Green-an.  Like the best colour,’ he winked.  ‘You’ll love it.  Mind you were telling me about the castle in Aleppo?  Where Abraham milked his goats?’

‘The Citadel?’

‘Aye.  This is like our version.  Saint Patrick or Columba or some one of them was supposed to have been here mediating with the Druids.  Way back.’

‘Druids?’

He glanced sideways and read my incomprehension.  ‘Erm, heathens, nature worshippers, non-Christians.  What’s it you always call us?  Infidels?  Here – don’t miss the view.  It’s class.  Gets better the higher we climb.’

It was only the second time in my life I’d seen the sea.  From the distance it looked innocent; not like the horror stories.  The tiny specks of white sailed yachts played across the blue-green Atlantic inlet.  Yana.  My heart ached.  She had always been quick with numbers.  Now she’s a statistic.  Not to me.  We would have been old enough to marry by now.  I closed my eyes, rubbing my forehead with the back of my palm.  Yana. Twenty-one months and three days since I had heard her determined voice.  

‘The dinghy is small, Omar.  We’re human sardines.  But we will be free.  Safe, inshallah.’  

There are over eleven words for love in Arabic.  Hawa to huyum - from first inclination to complete loss of reason.  Over small cups of cardamom-infused coffee with our parents we had planned our engagement; but Allah had had different plans.

‘It’s cracker isn’t it?’ Aidan deliberately interrupted my silence.

I sat up as he swung the car across the gravel and parked it facing a string of pistachio-coloured mountains.  Greens, browns, purples.  A rainbow connected grey-white clouds to the patchwork fields and the water sucking at their edges.    Mountains and sea; beauty and terror.  I rubbed my eyes, hoping to blur the mental images.  Hope is dead where rainbows first appeared.

‘You okay?’  He was studying me, eyebrows drawn together.

‘Sorry,’ I sighed.  ‘I was thinking of Syria.’

We traded a glance; something unspoken.

‘No apology needed mucker.  Do you miss it?  Think you’ll ever go back?’

‘There’s nothing to go back to.  Just rubble.’  My standard answer.  Rubble and red lightning ripping white cement clouds but, not for the first time, I sensed I was lying.  Did he?  ‘Safe home,’ they say here but the two things are not the same.  I have never felt fully alive here.  I am a mother’s son and a sister’s brother but my nightmares remind me – I am also a dead man’s son.   Return is no-longer a question of if, but when.  

‘Come on!’ He thumped me on the shoulder.  ‘Get out of your head and out of the car.  This will blow the heart back into you.’

‘But it is raining.’

‘Sure it’s always bloody raining and you’ve never melted yet.’

The cold was invigorating.  We vaulted the gate and tramped the rough planked path to the Gaelic ringfort.  It was impressive.  A stone-circle, like a mini-Bosran colosseum, commanding the windswept hilltop.  I followed him, ducking through the muddy archway and into the stillness at its heart.  Scrambling up the ledges and flights of intricately constructed flat-stone steps, we traced our way round narrow terraces to reach the parapet; the wind and the view pumping adrenalin into our veins.  

‘Why’d you pick to come to Derry anyway?’  He shivered, pulling his jacket tighter.

‘The weather report made it sound like paradise.’

‘Paradise?  Isn’t that where you’ll wind up surrounded by virgins when the jacket blows?  Man but I need one of them feckin’ jackets!’

I looked at him twice before we both creased up laughing.  He is my therapy, and knows it.  My English had been a barrier when we’d first stumbled unintentionally into friendship over an ice-cream splatted on the floor of McNamara’s corner shop.  

‘Ahlaan, welcome.  Did you cop your flag outside?  You one of the refugees?  Say bloody yes regardless because Mohammed is doling out free ninety-nines.’  

Up to that point, I’d thought I understood English.  Apart from the staff in the welcome centre, he was the first local person I’d talked to.  

‘Did I ever tell you I thought they were bringing us to London?’ I leant on the fort’s rough walls.

‘Why?’  He tilted his head.

I shrugged.  ‘Londonderry.  UK.  I thought it was just a suburb.  We all did.  Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Queen…  It was like a golden ticket out of the Turkish camps.’

‘All that glitters eh?  Bet you had to be worked with you landed here.  Had you heard of the ‘Troubles’?’

‘Had you heard of Assad?’

He shrugged, picking at moss on the damp stones.  ‘You know I was born the day of the Good Friday peace deal?’

‘Good Friday?’

‘Aye, you know, hot cross buns, fish suppers and Jesus…’ he mimed slitting his throat, dropped his head and flung his arms out wide.  ‘My ma near lost it with me once.  Caught me nicking ham out of the fridge.  Our Lord will turn in his grave wi’ you eating that on Good Friday, she says.  Isn’t the whole bloody point that he’s not supposed to be dead? says I.’  He trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck, realising I was lost in translation.  ‘You’d think it would change a place wouldn’t you?  Twenty years of peace.’

‘Has it not?’  I remembered noting how Derry people never ducked instinctively at the sound of helicopters.  ‘See you next week,’ is said here with certainty, without the Inshallah, God willing.

‘Maybe,’ he leaned on the wall, staring out over Inishowen.  ‘It’s still not normal.  Not properly.  You know Iona’s Protestant?’

‘Your girlfriend?’

‘Aye.’

‘You met how?’

‘Long story.’  He chewed his finger nail.  ‘I mean, we’re grand.  More than grand.  Fecking saving-for-a-ring kind of grand, but it was bloody hard at the start.  Our families are chalk and cheese.  Maybe I should convert to Islam and make a complete bollocks of it.’

‘You wouldn’t last a sober Friday.  Are people really that different here?’

‘Jesus, Omar.  I wonder if I’m half-wise sometimes thinking about going on one knee.  By nursery I’d learnt my ‘good’ and ‘bad’ colours from the kerbs I kicked around; my letters - f,g, aitch or haitch?  Depending on your perspective my da was a terrorist and hers was a legitimate state target.  Fecking fireworks for a wedding top table, peace or no peace…’  His voice caught as he ran his fingers through his dark hair, clasping his hands tight behind his head.  ‘Were you ever in love, Omar?’

I nodded, then looked away.  He scuffed his trainers off the wall as I wiped my eyes angrily with my sleeve.

‘Yana.’  I answered his unasked question.  I inhaled cold air deep into my lungs to steady myself.  ‘She was, is, called Yana.  I don’t know where she is.  Maybe Greece.  Maybe under the Mediterranean.’  

He sucked in a low whistle.

‘Makes my shit seem stupid,’ he dropped his head.  ‘I meant this morning to help, not make it worse.’

‘You’re doing grand.’ I punched him lightly and mirrored the smirk that spread across his face at my use of the Irish expression.  ‘I learnt it as aitch.  What am I?’

‘Sweet Jesus, you’re a Muslim-Prod.’  He folded his arms and feigned walking away before spinning with the question.    ‘Think Syria will ever get peace?’

His waited for my answer, eyes attentive, thumbs wedged into his jeans pockets.  

‘I don’t see it.’  I picked a loose stone from the wall and followed its flight through the drizzle.  ‘I did believe in peace once.  After my father disappeared, it felt childish.’

The view was shrouding now with low cloud; the wind buffeting the vantage point.  I pulled my beanie hat lower.  Aidan was already scrambling down the irregular stairways.

‘Come on.  I’m shouting you some chips at Bridgend before we go back over the border.  They’re fecking hal’al aren’t they, or does vinegar send you to hell?’

My whole body shook as his words hit me, my knees buckling.  Suddenly the text message made sense.  In a split second he was hunkered precariously in front of me on the thin terrace; hands on my shoulders and wide-eyed with concern.

‘Omar?  I was bloody messing!  Did I offend you that bad?’

I shook my head, shoving my hands together to stop them shaking.

‘Are we over the border?  Did we leave the UK?’  

‘Technically yes, we’re in the south.’  He looked at me quizzically.

‘You said north.’

‘Yeah, but Donegal’s still in the south.’

‘Republic of Ireland?’

‘Aye.  It’s no big deal. You okay?  We crossed a border but it’s not like Syria.  No-one’s going to shoot at you…  Hear me?  Can you stand?’

My head spun and the cold crept through my bones as he hoisted me up, hooking me under the arms, carrying my weight step by awkward step down the mossy slabs.  

‘I didn’t know…’ I mumbled.  How would anyone have known?  There had been no soldiers, no fences, nothing.  Gaziantep, the Turkish border stayed branded on my brain.   We’d fled from war into the face of hatred; wiping their spit off us as we shivered in thin canvas tents in sub-zero temperatures, under the eyes in the watchtowers.  From guns and into guns.  Safe from bombs, but not from suspicion.  Derry had been different - crayoned welcome pictures by school kids papered the cardboard boxes stacked in our living room on arrival; boxes crammed with food and duvets and clothes and saucepans.

#

‘Omar!’  The rain drums the windscreen heavily now.  Aidan speaks calmly in a low voice as my fingernails scrape at the car seat.  ‘Look at me.’  We lock eyes.  There is a different intensity in him now as he twists sideways in the driver’s seat to offer chewing gum.  ‘What’s the story?  Did I trigger something?  Talk to me.  Why you so freaked?’

I swallow hard, tripping over the English words as my explanation gushes out.  He sucks in through his teeth as the penny drops.

‘Are you saying you could wind up dead?  Just because we’re in Inishowen?  Just because we crossed the border and I forgot to pick up a PHD in European immigration law?’  

‘Potentially.’

‘Christ.’  He fidgets with the rear view mirror.  ‘But like you’re not tagged or anything?  They don’t follow you?’

‘No.’

‘So how’d they know?’

I pull my knees up like a kid in a huff.  ‘You have no border guards?  Look outs, patrols, cameras?  Are we really crossed?’

‘Trust me.  I know where I live.’  His fingers drum the steering wheel as the windscreen mists over with our breath; the knot in my stomach tightening until the taste of bile overwhelms my tongue and I kick the car door open to vomit in the mud.  Apologetically, he hands me a scrunched tissue.

‘Sit your ground,’ he commands.

The door slams before I realise he’s gone and I turn to see him striding purposefully across the summit carpark to a purple caravan. ‘Allaahu ‘Akbar, Allaahu ‘Akbar, Allaahu ‘Akbar…’ I rock gently in my whisperings, eyes closed.  The sudden reality of a return to Syria hits not as purpose, but poison.

A dull thump and I jump to my senses and open the passenger door to where he stands juggling two Triskelle branded coffees, a fistful of sugar packs and a lit cigarette wobbling in the corner of his mouth.

‘Go’n take the cigarette fast,’ he mumbles, wiggling it my direction.  ‘Iona’ll think I’m back on them.’   He shoves the steaming take-out cup into my hands.  ‘Drink up.  You’re a milk bottle.  Whiter than me.’

As I obediently smoke and sip, he tunes the radio in.   Again, they are talking of borders like breakfast eggs – hard and soft.  They say Europe does not want borders.  Almunafiquin.  Hypocrites. Its hardest border is salt water; a mass wet graveyard.   Why should I breathe when they don’t? Yana. Am I just a plaster for Europe’s conscience?  I want to be grateful.  I am grateful.  But inside I am dying.  A flash of pain from the spilt coffee scalding my wrist, cup crushed tight in my fist and I bolt from the car, brushing the tears I hadn’t noticed off my face.  I scream in Arabic at the wind; prayers and protests, anguish and grief, my chest tight.  Silently, he arrives by my shoulder. We stand, together, drizzle soaking us for ten minutes as he waits for me to calm. His face is pale; distant.  I feel hollow.

‘Sorry,’ I murmur.

‘No,’ he says, eyes fixed on the horizon.  ‘Don’t be.  The world’s screwed.  Promise me though – don’t let it win.’

Drying in the car, he is thinking, quietly.  ‘See the wetlands down there?’ He nods at the fogged windscreen.  That’s Inch Wildfowl Reserve.  Geese don’t need visas.  Governments welcome wildlife yet imprison people with lines on maps.  It’s wrong.  Here’s the plan.  It’s bloody complicated so listen up.  I drive.  You pray.  You don’t need a Mecca facing mat do you?’

‘My head is fried.’  I slump in the seat.

His eyebrow raises as he turns the ignition key.  ‘Mental.  Pure Derry.  I hear you bro. Listen – trust me.  Skipping borders is a distinguished part of my family heritage, but it’ll be novel for Allah so he’s bound to be more responsive than Jesus and his crew of parking angels.’

#

‘That was it?  Really?’  The colour was slowly returning to my fingers clasped tight round the squished cardboard cup.  Sloshing the car to a standstill, we stepped onto the hard shoulder.  He gestured to the roadside markings.

‘There.  For future reference – white lines good, yellow lines fecked.   There’s no hard border here.  Not yet.  Never.  Someday it’ll dawn on the Brexiteers that checkpoints would be sitting ducks for dissident target practice.  Bacon baps and vehicle import duty is the only thing on the minds of the gardaí.’

My hand shielded my eyes from the rain as I stared past the solitary sign indicating speed limits were in kilometres. Sliding my foot, I straddled the border.  A ghost shivered down my spine.  White lines on a white page.  No ditches.  No drones.  No fortified fences.  No tense crouch, counting seconds between patrols, dreading the crack of bullets.

In Aleppo, in principle, we had not obeyed government rules.  Covered in blood and dust, breathing unbreathable air, people risked death daily for disobedience because if you didn’t, something inside you was already dead.  We had known that one day my father would leave the basement and not return.  His face was known, and journalists, especially those whose words sliced government lies with cutting fluency, had a habit of vanishing.  Their broken, twisted bodies would be found dumped in the dirt on the outskirts of Salaheddine.  At fifteen his urgent whisper had burnt my ear – When I am taken, Omar, you must swear to take your mother, your sister and vanish.  When they torture me, I must know you are safe.  

I had waited seventeen anguished days, my emotional paralysis shocked to action only by the agony of my sister returning from the aid queues, her hijab, skirts and honour shredded for two litres of water.  Only then had I become the man my father had summoned.  My father died for human freedom, not for his family to fear a yellow line five minutes from their sofa.  I glance at Aidan.  Strangely, despite our differences, I know he will understand.  We have the same tattoos under our skin.  His father fought with an Irish gun; mine with a Syrian smartphone.  

‘Omar,’ he lifts his face from his hands, across the café table from me.  ‘I know I’m just a bloody head-the-ball from Creggan.  I can count my Arabic words on five fingers and I’m shite at doing serious, but if you want to talk, I’ll always listen.’

‘I am useless here,’ I whisper, ‘I need to fight.’

He raises his chin and looks at me intently, the intelligence that he masks so well written in his dark eyes.    

‘You aren’t useless,’ he turns a fork over and over on the table.  ‘Everyone has a purpose; the key is finding it.  There are many ways to fight.  Fight with words, Omar.  It’s in your blood.’

Like starlight after bombs, he stirs hope somewhere deep.  In his steady gaze, I catch a glimpse there of my father’s ferocity of spirit, his encouragement.  Different, yet the same. Chasing ice-cubes round my glass with a spoon, for the first time in days, I fully smile.  I raise my drink and utter the only Irish I know.

‘Sláinte.’

Our coke glasses chink over the mountain of chips steaming with vinegar.  He has paid in sterling, but the change on the table is in Euro.

‘So will she say yes?’ I ask.

He glances at me, blinking, the grin slowly spreading across his face.  Huyum.

‘Inshallah, Omar.  I’m so bloody in love it’s terrifying.’



3108 words
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Mon Apr 02, 2018 6:25 pm
Hey Sue, thanks for sharing!

Just wanted to say I love the title and that I posted a li'l helpful list on how to post stuff here (just in case you didn't read it): http://writersworkshop.forumpolish.com/t7-how-to-upload-your-work

I can't wait to get into this and give some feedback (sorry if the notification of this reply got your hopes up!). I'll try to get something through later tonight, assuming my daughter decides to sleep at some point...
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 03, 2018 2:43 pm
Sue, this was beautiful to read. I love it! In terms of story, character, structure, you're golden.

There were a few little things that spoke to me though (either that or it's The Voices, at it again...):


  • and ‘Airing my head,’ was needed - I'd make that 'A' lowercase: 'airing my head'
  • Perhaps by bringing us to Derry I had, yet increasingly breathing seemed pointless without purpose. - this sentence confused me a bit. I think you need more commas: definitely before 'without purpose', possibly before/after 'increasingly'
  • to invite you a Creggan barbeque then? - missing word: 'to invite you to'?
  • white sailed yachts - I'd hyphenate this one: 'white-sailed yachts'
  • a string of pistachio-coloured mountains.  Greens, browns, purples. - Think you can cut the 'Greens, browns, purples'... 'pistachio-coloured' says it all
  • No apology needed mucker. - comma before 'mucker'?
  • Return is no-longer a question of if, but when.  - I'd cut the hypen and have: 'no longer'
  • ‘All that glitters eh?  - comma before 'eh'?
  • Bet you had to be worked with you landed here. - Is this dialect? If so, leave it, but I wasn't quite sure what was meant here...
  • ‘Yana.’  I answered his unasked question - for me Aidan did ask the question ("You ever been in love?") Do you mean what her name is/was?
  • His waited for my answer, eyes attentive, thumbs wedged into his jeans pockets.  - typo: 'He waited'
  • The sudden reality of a return to Syria hits not as purpose, but poison. - is 'purpose' meant to suggest he wants to go back and fight?
  • But inside I am dying.  - I would be tempted to cut this. It feels a bit clihced when the rest of the story is not, plus you talk about this with his father later on ("something inside you was already dead")


Seriously though, well done. This is hard-hitting, beautiful and honest. Let us know how the talk goes!
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 03, 2018 5:30 pm
Hi Matt,
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this. Amazing how blind I become even to typos in my own work after a while. Like you, I really hope we get everyone linking in to this forum - it is so useful to have ‘critical readers’ look over something and give a few comments back. We’d pay a fortune for this elsewhere!
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 03, 2018 9:01 pm
Sue, I've replied by e-mail separately because I didn't have a clue how to reply on this site...I think now, I do though Very Happy
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 03, 2018 10:57 pm
Thanks!
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 10, 2018 3:29 pm
Hi Sue,

Sorry this took me so long to get to.

I started reading this hoping to be able to provide useful feedback, spot typos etc. But I'm afraid I can't. You grabbed me and carried me along immediately, and I got totally lost in the story.

I really, really loved it. As a reader, I thought the dialogue was pacy and real, the situation stark and believable, and the whole idea just perfect. I loved the convergence of everything that's going on in the world, and the amount you pack in to just 3000 words.

Was this the one you were going to read out in public? If so, I might try and get a flight across to listen!

Sorry I don't have any constructive feedback, other than to say I think you are a hugely talented writer with an incredibly authentic voice.

Thanks for sharing, it brightened up a dull afternoon!!
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Tue Apr 10, 2018 10:43 pm
Gavin thank you! Yes, it’s the one I get to read an extract from at an event in Dublin. I get a 5 minute slot so I’ll have to pick just a page roughly to read. All feedback, even just pure encouragement is still worth a mint! I’d sent a draft of this to a couple of friends - one Irish and one English. The Irish one loved it, the English one liked it but didn’t get half of it. Useful thing about this forum is I can see it does work broader than Irish understanding- it was just that particular friend didn’t relate to it. So useful to have us all as a collective ongoing resource!
Thanks once again.
Sue
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Wed Apr 11, 2018 10:31 pm
Hi Sue,
This is so interesting and I love the idea of mixing the two different conflicts. And it's so topical now. I agree with the others, the writing is accomplished and very touching. I stumbled over this:
She had always been quick with numbers. Now she’s a statistic. - I believe there's something going on with the tenses here. You've skipped a level. I think it should be 'was always' because the main text is in the present tense. Hope that makes sense.
Great to read your writing again.
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

on Wed Apr 11, 2018 10:56 pm
Thanks Mette - yip, that makes sense. Will fix it! Glad you liked it.
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Re: Short story for feedback- ‘Like Starlight After Bombs.’

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