To save some the effort of reading this blog, it is not about planning. It’s not a true story. It’s fiction.
About two months ago I joined The Sea Road WriteClub and it’s nice to have to make things up for a change. It’s challenging but good fun too. The man behind The Sea Road WriteClub is Gary Quinn, a writer, editor and very patient writing coach. At the end of the course Gary has merged two groups to form, (and I hope you don’t take offence lads), what you might call in our case- a ‘middle age’ short story club (as opposed to a book club). Gary is still at the helm, guiding and maintaining order. It’s early days, but after one meet up on Zoom and a short story each, I can tell it will be a good laugh.
So, encouraged by Gary, I am going out of my comfort zone and putting up my first fiction short story below. I would highly recommend Gary’s writing courses for anyone, anywhere (thanks to Zoom) and of any age!
Way Up High
“Look Frank. Look, it’s the Eiffel Tower.”
Danny was shaking Frank’s shoulder to get his attention. Frank kept playing his DS and shrugged him away.
“Get lost Danny.”
Frank was just about to get to the next level in Super Mario Bros and Danny’s shaking wasn’t helping his chances. Besides, he was still pissed with Danny. When they had got on the plane Danny got his own way, of course. “I bags the window seat,” he’d said and, of course, Mum let him as usual.
There’s only two years between them but Danny always got his way. Frank knew it was pointless to argue. He could see his Mum was tense with all the packing and getting to the airport. She said he could sit at the window on the way back. He knew it would be night when they were coming back. It’s not the same, he thought.
Frank’s Mum was sitting reading her book beside him in the aisle seat and his Dad was sitting beside the girls, reading the paper with his earphones on. Frank’s big sister Carol had come along on the holiday this time. She was minding Sheila, who was colouring in her Princess colouring book. The food had come and gone. They were all allowed get a sandwich and share a large packet of M&Ms. Of course, Danny dropped some on the ground and had to squeeze down to pick them up. He was so annoying, Frank thought.
Danny wouldn’t give up and kept shaking Frank’s shoulder. “I swear Frank. it’s the Eiffel Tower.” Frank gave in. “Danny, you just made me lose a life.” He leaned over to look out the window and there it was, the Eiffel Tower.
“Wow,” was all Frank could say at the sight. All was forgiven. There it was, the Eiffel Tower way off in the distance below them. It was tiny. A miniature figure standing tall above the morning haze. He looked at it between his thumb and forefinger and studied it carefully. It really was amazing.
“Mum you got to look at this,” he said, as he nudged his mother. She put down her book and pretty soon the three of them were huddled together looking out at the Eiffel Tower. “Can we go to the Eiffel Tower some day Mum?” Danny piped up.
“Of course we can,” she replied. Mum never said no, Frank thought. He liked that because he knew that she actually would love to bring them but whether it happened or not was another story. He thought how cool it would be to pop down from the airplane and land on the top of the Eiffel Tower like the kind of thing Super Mario does in his DS game.
Frank could remember that day as if it was yesterday. Their excitement on seeing the Tower, the thrill of the skiing holiday ahead of them. That was back when things were going well at home and when they had their fair share of holidays. How times have changed, Frank thought to himself. Anyway, he was interrailing with the lads now and having a great laugh. He reckoned he’d passed his third-year exams and he was happy to be over half-way through college. The last few days had been full on, especially Antwerp, and last night Frank took it handy compared to the others. He left them, half-comatose in the Airbnb in Montmartre and said he’d meet them all at Gar de L’Este at 2pm to get the train to Stuttgart. His cousin Johnny promised he would get Frank’s rucksack to the station. Without saying anything Johnny knew the significance of the date and that Frank needed to be alone for a bit.
From the Airbnb Frank figured it would take one change on the Metro. He stood looking at the metro map and decided he would aim for Trocadero Station. That seemed like a good idea. He made his way down the steps, swapping the early morning sunlight for the busy underground world beneath the city. People were rushing by on their daily commute and he watched with a detached interest.
Hopefully the pickpockets aren’t up yet, he thought. His Mum had warned him and insisted he took the ‘fanny pack’, as she jokingly referred to it, using an American twang. Her old sense of humour was returning and he was glad he had the money belt. He checked it for the fifth time already that day. It kept everything safe. Well, so far anyway. Turns out all the lads had one. The metro pulled in and he squeezed into the corner beside the door, trying not to get in the way. Everyone looked so well dressed around him he thought. No eye-contact. That suited him fine.
An ad caught his attention on the metro. It was an image of two surfers. Probably Biarritz, he thought. He had tried to get the lads to go there but he was out-voted. They wanted to head east to Germany, Budapest and Croatia. Next on the list, Frank thought, and in fairness Ryanair fly there. He remembered the family holiday when they spent three nights in Biarritz. The surf was awesome. He remembered when they opened the hotel balcony door they could hardly hear with the roar of the waves. Danny turned it into a game. Opening and closing the door to let in the roar. It was like canned laughter where you could turn it on and off. Later in the evening he and Danny had stood out on the promenade watching the surfers riding the waves. He wished he could join in but knew that at the ripe old age of 10 he wouldn’t last a minute with those waves. They would make mincemeat of me, he thought. That day Danny and Frank made a promise that they would come back when they were older.
He also remembered the day back home when he and Danny took the SUP board out without telling Mum. It was the May before they went to Biarritz and Mum had popped to the shops. The sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea to drag out the SUP board from where it had been lying at the side of the house for the winter. Frank remembered thinking that they would stay close to the shore so they wouldn’t need the lifejackets. But the water was very cold and Danny fell in and had to cling on to the board. He was making it very hard for Frank to paddle and a cold wind was blowing them further away from the shore. Danny started to cry.
“I’m scared Frank. I’m freezing.”
Frank thought about what they said in the lifesaving classes. You have to encourage and keep the spirits up.
“Keep kicking Danny, you’re doing great. We’re nearly there Danny – keep kicking. Well done Danny. Nearly there.”
It took all their strength to get back to shallow water. Frank jumped in and hauled Danny with the board onto the beach. They had been dragged way down from opposite their row of houses but were happy to get back on the sand. Frank remembered how scared he was that day. How things could have turned out very differently. He remembers his mother running down the beach towards them and how he played it all down. He could see the look of anxiety on her face. He knew she was angry but too relieved to hold on to it, knowing they had learned a very hard lesson.
When he finally arrived at his Metro stop Frank was glad to get back out to the sunshine. It was already getting hot and there were more tourists milling about. They all had the same idea obviously. He stood for a long time taking in the sheer scale of the Eiffel Tower, now just across the river from him. A lot bigger than the first time, he thought.
Never in his life did he expect to be so blown away by something man-made. It looked so modern, yet it wasn’t. His eye followed the iron girders from the latticed arch between the four vast pillars, right up to the pinnacle. Frank couldn’t imagine anything more majestic, where engineering is in complete harmony with art. He figured that Leonardo DaVinci would probably approve.
Crossing over the bridge, Frank thought about that day exactly five years ago. The mood always changed in the house around this time of year coming up to the anniversary. He was glad he was away, even though he knew it was a bit selfish of him. They all had their way of dealing with it. The girls with their music and Dad getting stuck into his work. Sheila had gone off the rails a bit for a couple of years around the time of her Junior Cert. Getting in trouble in school and he knew she was drinking. Carol came back for a while and tried to look after everyone until she broke with the pressure of it. They were all broken of course, but thankfully life was gradually getting back to the new normal.
His father had aged at least ten years over-night, but it was his mother Frank worried about most. Afterall she was there that day. She had to live with the memories in her head. A horror show that must have played out on repeat, over and over. But in recent months it was getting better. She began to laugh again. Her dark sense of humour has probably kept her alive, Frank reckoned. But there was a time when they all thought they would lose her too. Not just because of the crash. She was broken up pretty badly, but her spirit was shattered. It was the anger and guilt she felt because she was spared and Danny wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t her fault of course, but on a deeper level she blamed herself. Frank thought about that phone call from his father exactly this day five years ago and how when he picked up the phone his father’s voice had taken on a strange tone. He knew immediately that something terrible had happened.
“Frank, it’s your Mum. It’s your Mum and Danny. There’s been a terrible accident. I’m heading to the hospital. I’ll ring you when I get there.”
He knew his father was crying and it frightened him.
Walking across the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower Frank paused to look down at the river below. He was always drawn towards water. He watched a boat that was taking some tourists along the river. Himself and Danny were saving to buy an Opi that Summer. They were lucky to have the sea at the end of their garden. They were going to sail out to the islands every day. Or so they said. Mum wasn’t too pleased at the thoughts of the garden filling up with yet another boat. Between kayaks, SUP boards, the inflatable dingy and the old Measel, all stored at the side entrance of the house, it was getting very cluttered. But Dad of course was all for it. Frank thought that if he ever had kids, he’d buy an Opi and sail out to the islands with them.
Making his way to the other side of the bridge, Frank could see the queues beginning to form at the base of the tower. He was glad he got there early. He stopped by a stall and bought a souvenir key-ring. It caught his attention because the little Eiffel Tower was almost exactly the same size as the first time they had seen it on the plane. He attached it to the loop on his small backpack and headed towards the ticket booth. The cost of the ticket would be a big chunk out of today’s budget Frank thought in amusement. Less beer money. Probably not such a bad thing.
It was a drunk driver that killed Danny. Mum and Danny were coming back from a physio appointment and one minute they were listening to the radio and the next minute it was lights out. Frank didn’t want to think about it, but he always imagined how it must have been for his mother knowing instantly that Danny was lying dead beside her. The fire brigade had to cut her out of the car. She had a broken leg, a fractured wrist and broken ribs. Danny on the other hand looked totally unscathed but his internal brain injuries were catastrophic. Luckily, he wouldn’t even have been aware of what had happened.
Frank thought about the days that followed the crash. People coming and going, Dad in and out of the hospital. Relatives and friends dropping dinners, cakes, sandwiches. The day of the funeral. Danny’s team doing the guard of honour and everyone crying. Dad was pushing Mum in the wheelchair behind the coffin with Danny’s favourite ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing in the church. Frank couldn’t think of the singer’s name. He was a big Hawaiian lad, he remembered. People were so kind and they were heartbroken too. Danny was loved by everyone. He was the joker in the family. It was clear that in his short fourteen years on the planet he’d had a big impact on many people.
Having stopped off to take in the views half-way up the tower Frank was thinking how he was glad the Eiffel Tower was still standing. He remembered watching the fire at Notre Dame on the news only a few months before and listening to Emmanuel Macron promising to rebuild it in five years. They went to see Notre Dame yesterday. The shell of the cathedral was eerily impressive with the mangled mass of burnt masonry and metal sticking out. Five years was a big ask but, on saying that, the scaffolding was up and restoration was already full steam ahead. Paris had suffered its own share of trauma. The security was evident in the Metro stations. They had nearly cut Paris out of their trip because of the terrorist attacks but they felt a sense of duty to go. It had been their original plan and besides, they got a great deal on an Airbnb. An ill wind that blows and all that, Frank thought to himself.
When he got out of the lift at the viewing platform at the top it was pretty crowded. He took no notice and found a spot at the edge facing the river. He stood staring out over the city taking in the sight below him. Paris, the city of great art, food, and culture. He loved the quiet hum of the expanse below. He admired the way the streets splayed out with a sense of purpose and how the Seine teased this order by beautifully meandering through.
At times Frank focused on different views of Paris’s landmark buildings. He saw the Sacre Coeur on its hill in the distance. They had spent the evening in Montmartre yesterday, climbing to the top and wandering around the streets looking at the artists. That was before they went for food and then later to the bar down the road from the Airbnb. He saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. He remembered the time his mother had told him how her Grandparents visited the Arc de Triomph but, when they arrived it was closing for the day. Her grandmother had spoken in her flawless French to the concierge, saying something like, “Excuse me. Do you realise that this gentleman (referring to her husband) fought in the battle of the Somme in defence of France.” With that the concierge stood to attention and saluted the old man and took them on their own personal tour of the Arc de Triomphe. Frank loved that story. He thought about his own grandmother and how she had passed peacefully only months before the accident.
Staring out over the city, many thoughts were racing through Frank’s mind. I’ll find a bistro, grab a croissant and ring Mum when I’m done here. She’d like to hear that I made it to the Eiffel Tower. She would definitely remember Danny asking if we could come here. They will want to know how the holiday is going and that I’m still alive. I’ll fill them in. Well, a sanitised version, he thought with a chuckle.
They had gone down with Sheila to visit Carol in Wexford. To get away for these few days. Carol had a new baby and, in all fairness, Frank conceded that he is cute, as babies go. The baby’s name is Michael Daniel, which was nice. It was great to see how much Mum and Dad doted on him. In fact, Mum jokingly said that grandchildren are much nicer than children. So, she is getting better. Life goes on, I guess. He thought about how lucky he was that he got to share the first part of his life with Danny.
Looking up at a cloudless blue sky Frank could see the vapour trails of airplanes flying above Paris. He enjoyed the thought that there was probably someone looking down from way up high. Smiling to himself he quietly said, “Look Danny, Look. It’s the Eiffel Tower.”