‘some words ending in a sentence’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Hung: It would be wrong to say it was her favourite expression. Her favourite expression, my Mam, was ‘Hell’s bells!’ which was short for ‘Hell’s bells and buckets of blood.’ That was her idea of swearing. A jingle—just enough to keep a real swear word at bay.
When the real ones came, they were my father, Dar’s, and they were like my brother, Davie, you know—thick, short and fast.
So, no, ‘Be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ was not her favourite phrase, but Mam said it a lot. It was shortened, but we somehow knew what she meant. Maybe the long of it had been explained to us once, or maybe we explained it to each other.
The sentiment was that if you are going to be hanged for stealing a small lamb, then you may as well steal a whole sheep. A jingle of wisdom passed down, like a pair of shoes. It was what families did then. They’d pass old sayings down the line, the blood line. They would settle, acting like silt, determining your depth.
It was hard to picture though. Where we lived there were no sheep. A lamb chop from the butcher’s maybe, that could be stolen, but I’d not have the courage. The butcher was a big man. Blood and blades were nothing to him.
No one ever corrected Mam’s grammar, not that I can recall. Hung it was.
Ruckus: Much later, in my teens, I found this word. I had to read it out in a class story, and some of the lads sniggered; that’s why I remembered it. It rhymed with… well, it did back then.
That was the school at the Children’s Home. But before, in our house, we were suspicious of new words. We had enough; we didn’t need new ones. That’s how it felt. Some things had no words at all. You couldn’t feel what you couldn’t name. There was a lot of silence for Davie to blather into.
On the estate, fighting between grownups meant they were having a ‘go.’ That was the word we used. It was the same most Friday and Saturday nights. Friday night, ‘having a go’ because there wasn’t enough money brought home. Saturday night, ‘having a go’ because the money had been spent. That was unless they were a young couple, in which case they were likely having a more mysterious go which was called a ‘tiff.’ A black-eyed tiff. Even when the skin was broken, it would still have been a tiff.
But these were words for other people’s troubles, not ours. In our house, when Mam and Dar used to go at each other, we were not allowed to name it, and with no name, we could never discuss it. ‘Argument’ wasn’t strong enough, even if that was where it began, and ‘rage’ would be too grand to name where it ended. It wasn’t about money either, at least not all the time. There was a bit of tiff in there.
Ruckus isn’t right either. It’s a funny word. I wish I’d had it then to share with Davie. We could talk about the ruckus they had last night or the ruckus they were having right now, and maybe talking about it would have helped make it smaller than it was. When it turned up it was bigger than the butcher.
The night when it happened is still stuck inside Davie and me. Even now we can’t talk. Not really. We mumble around it, grazing in its shadow. I still see him occasionally, and we both know we feel it, but we can’t name it. And Davie’s old now.
Sandy, our sister, she would have had a name for it—she was the eldest and in her teens when it happened. She knew everything. But Sandy died of cancer before I could find her again, so I have no idea what she called it. I think I just called it ‘banging about,’ in my head at least. That’s how I spoke to myself about it: Mam and Dar were banging about.
Parabola: This is another word I only picked up later. Well, let’s be fair; I was only nine when it happened. I might have heard this one at school too. A school jingle, something we’d recite to help us remember something else—the opposing side of an oscillating diaphragm is equal to the inverse sum of the parabola it describes.
They stay with you, phrases like that. Useless fragments burned into your memory, phrases you cannot use or dispose of. Like stuff getting stuck to the flypaper. We had coils of it in our house—long, brown ribbons of sticky paper hanging from the lights, looking like a pig’s ringlet. All sorts would get stuck to the flypaper. Bugs, hair, moths, fluff. That’s memory. You don’t get to choose what sticks.
A swan can break your neck with its wing. I cannot forget this, and I have avoided swans because of it, knowing they’ll break my neck if I get too close. They must be angry, powerful beasts, swans. Like the butcher. Like Dar.
Parabolas are always described. When she threw the scissors at him, they described a parabola. As I say, I was small and could not articulate this. Not like that. As far as I could tell, and I did, they flew like a bird or a stone. More like a stone than a bird. They spun, flickered, but there was a grace to it.
It was an important moment; I knew that. We were never supposed to run with the big scissors, but no one that I can recall ever said we should not throw them—yet I knew the parabola that was being described was not right. It was the sheep, when she’d normally settle for the lamb of a plate or a cup.
The butcher hung sheep up in the cold store, at the back. You could see the red bodies when he opened the door. I used to think it was fire, all the red, and I thought the freezing mist that came from the cold room was smoke. It’s funny that. It was cold, but I thought it was hot. Likewise, I suppose, hot-blooded people can appear cold-blooded.
Scissors: I read once of a man who tossed a knife into a sink, about to do the washing up. But it bounced back up at him and pierced his eye. Dead. What are the chances of that? Well, whatever they are, it happened once, so it is possible. Like something growing on a small rock, in the icy pool of a universe. It has happened: it can be done.
The same improbability with the scissors. Describing their parabola and landing at just the right angle to pierce his heart. (‘The’ right angle is not necessarily ‘a’ right angle, which is equal to the sum of the square of something else. I can’t recall that one jingle exactly. Jingle might be a Greek word. Or a god.)
Dar, he’d raised his hands to protect his face, but the scissors sneaked in under his St. Joseph’s medal. A low blow. Maybe the alcohol was an anaesthetic because he didn’t cry out. Maybe it was shock. He just staggered backwards into the chair, then he slipped down and ended on the floor. He still had a cigarette between his fingers.
Mam pulled them out and looked at them like she’d never seen a pair of scissors before in her life.
At first, she tried to put them back in him—that’s what it looked like to me. But she couldn’t find the hole, not the same one; too much blood, I think. She was pushing the scissors in and then pulling them out again. Over and over. She got frustrated in the end.
I suppose that could look like stabbing. If you were not there to see it, if you were only seeing it after, in your mind, and trying to picture it. A frenzy, you might say. Red, like the butcher’s cold room, with the smoke curling up from Dar’s ciggie.
I mean, it’s a chance in a million that the parabola of a pair of scissors, thrown across a small kitchen, would describe itself in such a manner as to strike the chest of a swaying man with just the right force and at the correct angle to pierce his body and enter his heart. But it happened once.
It was possible then, even with all the blood and noise, that having removed the blades she could then reinsert them in exactly the right place and maybe stop the blood. There’s always a chance. But then, even if she could find the place, she’d still need to get the angle and the depth right. No. It would be unlikely—even if I avoid the word impossible. The first cut is the deepest, they say.
Murderous: We, and that would include you and me, not just everyone else, we can be, we are, very smug about being human. We approve ourselves, our brotherhood. But the truth of it is we’re a cancer.
That’s not such a bad thing. Everything has a purpose, and a cancer is as natural as a flower. We exist to destroy the host, and having taken out all the other humans, now we take out each other and most of what lives alongside us. It is a process. It is what we are meant to do, and that’s why we do it.
Our tragedy is that we are a self-aware cancer. We think, therefore we think we can stop ourselves.
I don’t believe Sandy’s cancer thought about what it was doing or communicated with itself about saving Sandy, mulling a change of behaviour to keep itself and our Sandy alive. That really is the issue. Not what we do but the fact that we resist it. That’s where the pain is.
We’re here to destroy, and the drive is too great for any amount of thinking to change us. We’re not a pleasant animal, only an animal. Just another thing, growing on the rock. Proliferating. One of many, but clever when it comes to self-deception. Mam simply did what she couldn’t not do, but on a small scale. An artless cancer, daubing red all over the small canvas of Dar.
Hanged: That was it properly. To be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, not hung. I can’t see that it would have made a difference to Mam if they told her. They don’t do it anymore, of course, but that’s something else that makes no difference now.
I remember Sandy tried to explain it to me then. I said I understood but I didn’t, and after, well, they never said anything in the home that’d help. Too busy talking about swans.
Now I try to explain it to Sandy, those times when I visit. As it turned out, she’s in the other cemetery, but it’s only a short ride from our one where they buried Dar (they kept Mam). But I suppose I can’t explain it to her brittle bones if I don’t understand it in my tired ones. And I don’t.
Time heals, Mam would say that too. I took it literally. I understood it as healing the bruises and the burns. It worked; they went. But I don’t know if she was talking about the other pains too, the ones I couldn’t name, which I didn’t know I had, then.
Families don’t pass on much anymore. Everyone has new shoes, and tradition only goes back to last year or last season. I doubt if the new mams know any of the old sayings. They put all the jingles on the back of sugar packets now, along with the calories and a helpline number. You read them while waiting to be served.
Same result though. Flypaper. A jumble. The broken jingles you can’t quite remember, stuck together with those other things that you can’t quite forget. Even when you wish to. Even when you need to.
In our house, we would throw the flypaper away as soon as it was full.
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