Short Story: "The Ghost of Kurt Cobain" by Emma McEvoy



In the covered city centre market, it is a morning like every other, for most. The air is infused with the aromas of coffee and baked breads, and customers’ chatter and traders’ cries blend to create a vibrant soundscape. In the midst of it all, a woman stands frozen. Streams of shoppers flow around her, swerving the obstruction she has become. She is small, and in herself, does not require much negotiation. However, the tall, gangly youth standing next to her is proving to be more of an issue. His face is etched with concern as he looks down at his mother - younger than most, more understanding than most - and calls her name gently, wondering what has caused this pause in her normal bustle. She doesn’t appear to hear him, so entranced is she. Her eyes are fixed on a tall man, similar in age to her, who is bending down to examine something on a stall in front of him; he is oblivious to her stare. Suddenly, as though he can sense he is being watched, he straightens up and scans the crowd with a furrowed brow, until his eyes lock onto her own. It’s definitely him: his hair is cut short now and his face has softened with time, but she’d recognise his features anywhere. She has imagined this scenario many times before - has played out what she would say and do if she ever came across him again. But now that the moment is here by pure chance, she is paralysed with indecision. Each rehearsed script seems wrong.

***

A memory of a different time: a summer when the woman was much younger - the same age her son is now – and she was innocent and oblivious to everything that was about to happen. Her life was all mapped out: application forms for university were carefully completed and polished; she’d planned to spend the summer working to save money for her future. And that’s where she met him, in a pub on the Grand Parade. It was heaving with an after work crowd, and the air was filled with Friday night relief and the hoppy smell of spilt beer. The sticky wooden countertops were surrounded on all sides by thirsty people leaning forwards, braced to shout their orders over the hubbub of chatter. The crew she was working with were fun, and quickly welcomed her to the team. They’d already exchanged potted histories, who they knew in common: Cork was a small place where less than six degrees separated the inhabitants - more like three. They’d reached that crazy part of the night when the drinks were flowing and there was no let-up in the pace. "Will you serve old Kurt Cobain over there?" One of the others motioned towards the end of the bar. This exact moment was one she would often contemplate in the years to come: if their paths had not crossed that night, or if someone else had served him, how different would her life have turned out? At first, he was just another punter, albeit a very good looking one, keen to catch her attention. She concentrated hard on pouring the pints he ordered, trying to appear cool as she sensed his eyes on her. But something happened between them when she handed over the drinks: a corporeal connection, a coup de foudre or some other strange phenomenon she would have dismissed up until that moment. She looked away quickly. When the evening slowed down, she took her break outside in the courtyard. The air was cooler there, and she welcomed the moment when she could sit down and take the weight off her throbbing feet. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, listening to the loud conversations and laughter erupting from different groups. Somewhere, someone was attempting to start a singsong. When she opened her eyes, she spotted the guy from the bar. He was walking towards her, taking a cigarette out of his soft pack of Camels, placing it between his lips. "D’you mind if I join you?" he asked, pushing his dark blond hair from his eyes, and holding the box out to her. He was a bit awkward looking, but her colleague was right; he bore a striking resemblance to the singer from the Nirvana posters which covered her bedroom wall. She nodded and moved along the bench so he could sit down. He sparked his Zippo and held the flame towards her so she could light up. They smoked in silence for a while, a charged energy crackling between them. Their shy smiles lead to small talk and nervous laughter. In the length of time it took to smoke her cigarette, she discovered that he was back home for the summer after finishing his second year at university in Glasgow. In the length of time it took to finish her cigarette, she knew she wanted to see him again. “Listen, I’d better be getting back to my shift,” she said reluctantly. She made her way back through the crowd, feeling altered, tingling with an energy she had not known before, while desperately hoping he was watching her – hoping that he, too, had felt what she had. A gentle touch on her arm caused her to stop and turn around. He was smiling down at her. “Can I see you sometime?”

***

The weather was unseasonably warm for Cork. Gentle salt air breezes drifted in from the Atlantic, refreshing the city, which had been deserted by the habitual rain clouds.

Her friends had all left after the Leaving Cert’: travelled to England or America for work which was arranged by families with overseas lives, or overseas connections. Having neither, she was happy to stay so she could work and save for her first semester in Dublin. She liked her new friends from the pub. She met up with the Cobain guy and his friends, but they were a different crowd to her own. He was from down the coast, near Crosshaven - an area she didn’t really know. Despite his grungy, indie kid appearance, his school friends were windsurfers and sailors who wore boat shoes and drank in bars she didn’t know. “They’re all right,” he told her, “I think we’ve outgrown each other, but they’re sound enough.” They spent time alone together, walking the city streets, down by the quays, up Summer Hill and along to Montenotte where they’d sit and look down on the River Lee. They laid together on picnic blankets in Fitzgerald Park, or took a bus down to Fountainstown, where they laughed and marvelled at those brave enough to swim in the icy ocean. Coy smiles, stolen glances, hands brushing, legs touching, heavy-lidded eyes, bodies sparking as they inched ever closer. Their first kiss was a long, slow pull which left her dizzy. She met his mother once, but it didn't go well. This bothered her. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d said, “She’s like that with everyone.” She wasn’t so sure. When his parents went abroad on holiday, she stayed in his house down on the coast - telling her own parents that she was with a friend from work. Sunshine filled their days, as did music and endless talking. They smoked, shared bottles of wine or cider, and discussed philosophy. He read her poems by Yeats and told her about the idea of souls being destined to be together. He wondered if this might be true, if it applied to them. On the evenings when she wasn’t working in the bar, they went to watch live music, or danced into the mornings at different clubs, and sometimes watched the sunrise. There are moments in life when everything aligns, and she believed this was one such moment. She thought he’d sensed this too. “I love this. I love us,” he whispered in her ear.

In these moments, they were deliriously happy.

But it didn’t last.

***

Another memory: Dublin. There were always parties in the halls, and even though sometimes she craved peace, mostly she loved this new existence. She found a tribe and ran with them, talked shit, drank late into the night, embraced her independence, loved moving around the city from bar to party, sometimes to a club, and then sleeping late in the day. She missed some lectures but never fell behind with anything. She’d always been ‘a good girl’- a people pleaser; always playing by the rules. She wrote him a letter, telling him about her new life, telling him she missed him, but her stomach lurched when she realised she’d lost his Glasgow address; she remembered him sliding it into her back pocket when they kissed goodbye at the train station. She put a hand into her freshly washed jeans, pulled out the crumpled, flaking scraps of paper that were her link to him. She sent the letter to his mother instead, asking her to forward it on, but doubted she would; the flicker of dislike on the woman’s face when they’d been introduced stayed with her: a city girl from the north side was not good enough for her boy. She suspected something was wrong, but she ignored the niggling seed of worry for as long as she could. Sitting on the floor of the shared bathroom, she checked her watch then slowly turned the plastic wand to reveal the window. Two blue lines stared back at her. She swore, cried, prayed to a god she didn’t believe in, begged for some higher power to take this truth from her. It was the fourth test she’d done, and reluctantly she realised that things were over all too soon. She grabbed her diary and counted the weeks and cycles on her fingers. By Easter, she’d repacked her cases and returned home to her girlhood bedroom in Cork, where she stayed as much as possible, desperate to avoid the disappointment in the eyes of her parents. Silence hung heavy in the house. She wrote to his mother, again, pleading with her to forward the enclosed letter. No reply came. More silence.

***

That summer, the city was very different. It stayed cool and rained most days. By the end of June, a baby boy had arrived to rock her world some more. The sleep deprivation and god- awful edginess of early motherhood rapidly helped her to realise that she was alone in this: gone were her lingering hopes for a happy ending. Her path was going to be through a landscape she had never conjured up for herself when she was studying and filling out her university application forms, when she was dreaming of her future.

Her mind filled with fog, and a darkness settled within her. Frequently, she burned with anger at the unfairness of it all. A cocktail of guilt, and love and antidepressants somehow enabled her to drag herself through those seemingly endless months.

Shortly after her boy took his first steps, she found herself again. She moved into a small ground-floor flat with him, not far from her childhood home, and started working back at the bar – her parents helped with childcare. She drove down to the house on the coast with her boy. A different family filled the rooms, spilling out onto the lawns with their wooden swings and toys. She turned the car around, and drove home. The boy grew up to be the image of his father, with his dark blond hair and jade green eyes. It was impossible not to think back to that summer. When the memories assaulted her, crept up on her without warning, she burned with anger: struggled to process the contrast between the perfection of their summer together and the abandonment she felt – it was too painful. She pictured him in Scotland, wondered if he ever thought of her, if his old school friends ever asked about her: would he shrug his shoulders and say they’d outgrown each other, like he’d said of them? She imagined different meetings and conversations with him: where he had the most tragic and perfect explanation for his absence, others where she’d pelt his chest with her raging fists.

***

In the covered city centre market, amidst the noise and bustle of what began as a normal day, their lives come together once more. Written across his softened features, she can see uncertainty, then surprise, followed by confusion when his eyes register the boy. Years of unspoken words pass between them. “Mum?” She turns and looks up at her son - kinder than most, more sensitive than most - reaches for his hand, and squeezes it in silent confirmation. She’s always been honest with him about the past, but he’s never been able to understand the world of her youth: where letters and occasional phone calls on landlines were the only means of communication; where a misplaced address could have such implications. It’s too late for her, but she hopes it’s not the case for her son and this ghost from her past, now walking towards them, looking flawed and human.






Emma McEvoy is a teacher, blogger, podcaster and lover of short fiction. Her pieces have appeared online in Ellipsiszine, Sundial Magazine, 50 Word Story, Paragraph Planet, The Levatio and Fiveminutelit, among others. After growing up in Ireland, she now lives in the north of England with her husband, two teenage children and her beagle, Lola. On Twitter she’s @corkyorky