In his eyes the medals themselves were little more than trinkets, the small scraps of hard shiny things which magpies would retrieve, according to David Attenborough, to impress their prospective mates. He never gave voice to this view, knowing too well the reaction it would augur; vague but passionate protests informing him that medals meant bravery and valour and honour, that they represented in their featherweight physical presence some ineffable something which mattered in deep, philosophical terms. Lightweight medals were, he’d be told, rendered heavy by the meaning attached to them. The Jesuits were right, though; you couldn’t take it with you, macabre as the thought may have been. For all practical, rational intents and purposes, communion was wafer-meal and medals were merely trinkets. The war, commemorative jewellery aside, was a leaden weight all of its own, and each alone knew whether it left them proud and honourable or empty of anything other than nightmares of abetment.
As a result of his dim view of them the medals spent the early years of their lives—the later years of his—sitting at the bottom of a thin-wood sock drawer, safely entombed away from imaginary thieves. An ideal army man would have no trouble tracking down these thieves to retrieve his honours, but he was getting old, his chest weighing him down when he walked, his gait stooping. He never knew whether he would bother to retrieve the medals if they were to go missing; he never wanted to know, uncertain what the trinkets meant to him and unsure what he wanted them to mean. What meaning he was intended to gleam from them.
When he died, the medals became his youngest son’s, taken from one drawer to be ferreted away into another, the charity-shop beech-wood dresser too big and imposing for a one-storey starter home bedroom. The bedroom was overstuffed, its space stolen by both the dresser and a double bed big enough for two and too small for a third. The move came after the baby and the medals, like so many other trinkets over the years, went missing somewhere along the line. Some evening when they were out, a rare treat during the baby’s first year, the medals were stolen away, the earache squawk of a car alarm ignored by anonymous neighbours, the medals missing along with the no-cash which young parents keep at home, a handful of costume jewellery earrings, a half-dozen syringes, and a car radio, invaluable back then. The pile of erstwhile belongings, an odd mix, was deposited on the forest floor inside the thick woods at the foot of the Wicklow mountains.
The medals were stashed at the foot of an oak, overgrown and towering, blotting out any rumours of sunlight and the rattling persistence of rain. Over time they grew worn, mildewed, the skin of thin gold wearing grimy with age. There were great intentions to retrieve the medals, to resell them for far more than their former owners thought they were worth, to pawn metal into money and opportunities, the freedom to leave. The handful of syringes, though, were filled with insulin, pig’s insulin back then, great unfiltered quantities of it. The mistake was obvious a second too late, a gift which looked too good to be true and was. The medal thieves never did get a chance to return to the woods, sitting and succumbing to hypoglycaemia, the shivering mix of dry-mouth lethargy and a hot-temple tension headache, muscles feeling numb and atrophied as they watched the light of a living room fade into murky, single colour stillness.
The medals sat, eventually knotted over by tenacious weeds, coated by dewy moss and settled into the earth. The forest was a reprieve in winter and summer alike, from torrential downpours and muggy heat respectively. The medals were side-stepped and tripped over by two generations of dog walkers and underage drinkers, by awkward first shifts and newlyweds, by divorcees and last chance widowers. They sat undisturbed for years, precious metal reclaimed by the scattered rocks and piles of overgrowth.
The forest was scheduled for demolition when he visited, and he was surprised to find himself discomfited by the empty darkness of the fairytale woods, still as large and looming as he remembered it being when he was a boy. He grew up near the woods, or so he had been told; he was too young to remember when they moved, when a rash of recent robberies unnerved his parents, convincing the young couple this was no place to raise a child. If they lost anything of value, they never mentioned it, though very little was of value to them, his mother reminding him “You can’t take it with you”, a phrase which never sat right with him.
Peering into the depth of the woods, he wished he hadn’t brought his youngest. At six, she was old enough to explore, roaming far enough and covering ground fast enough to get lost, but too young to find her way back. She was already leading the charge, stumble-running through the uneven floor of the forest, little footsteps just missing the protrusions of rock and tripwires of tree root-piles. She stopped before the first clearing, her magpie-eyes distracted by something shiny. He winced, walking to her in brisk steps, hoping she was reaching for the glossy gold of a King crisp packet and not the sharp point of a half-crushed discarded can of Dutch.
She picked it up before he could pick her up and walk her away, a little handful of gold, lighter than it looked, its surface tarnished but unmistakeably real precious metal. He frowned, following her eyes to the pile in front of her. They could have been real for all he knew, a discarded handful of commemorations, gold plated and weather-beaten, or they might have just been convincing costume jewellery, the same as the earrings beside them. Trinkets, worth whatever they meant to you.
Born in Blackrock, Cathal now splits his time between Dublin and Mayo. In university, he authored opinion pieces and satirical cartoons for the University Observer and film criticism for the College Tribune, and was selected for UCD’s career mentor programme. He contributed “Malahide” to online collective ‘Snakes of Various Consistency’, and he is an editor and co-founder of the online poetry, non-fiction, and literature collective ‘Cold Coffee Stand’ (www.coldcoffeestand.com). His story “Hearts/Sinews” was short-listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition and his poetry has been published in The Rose Magazine (‘Hark’, Issue 4). His debut novel ‘Innocents’ will be published by Solstice on September 30th, 2017. Excerpts from ‘Innocents’ have been short-listed for the 2015 Maeve Binchy Award and the Cuttyhunk Island Writer’s Residency.