Eyes shut tight against the water; Andy MacAuliffe fumbled for the shower tap, found it, and twisted it shut. He opened his eyes and stood motionless as the water drained off his body in a shining tangle of shallow rivulets. When the din of tinkling had died down to a steady drip-drop-drip, he stepped out of the shower. He towelled himself dry and took a piss, savouring the long, satisfying gush and the frenetic bubbling as his jet pummelled into the water.
Andy felt great, for Andy loved to shower and Andy loved to piss. He loved drying and dressing himself. In fact, Andy loved most things, most of the little actions that made up his days. He experienced life as a satisfying richness and felt in his heart that he himself was the source of this richness.
Andy wrapped a towel around his waist and returned to his bedroom where he dressed himself and primped his hair with a dab of wax. He was excited to have the whole day before him and as he rubbed the last traces of moisture from between his toes, he composed in his head a list of all those things he needed to do that day before meeting his girlfriend and their friends in the pub. It would be a good day. He was sure of this.
Andy felt that he wanted to see his brother now. He left his room to go talk to him, but, when he pushed open the door of Fionn’s bedroom with a light knock, he realised, with a thud of disappointment, that his brother was not there. He stepped inside anyway and stood still on the empty patch of floor at the centre of the room. Around him, piled against all four walls, were Fionn’s cluttered belongings — books, beer cans, bundles of creased clothing and bulging plastic bags — and it seemed to Andy that he was standing in the sagging centre of some creature’s nest. This impression was deepened by the thick brotherly odour that clung in the air. He noticed a pile of Leaving Cert textbooks on the bed, some of which he himself had carried to school nearly ten years before. He felt that he was in a privileged and intimate space and did not move for a long time.
Then he went to the desk and opened all the drawers. Nothing. Clutter. He did not know what he had hoped to find, but he knew that he should leave now.
Downstairs, Andy’s mother was at the kitchen table sorting a large, airy pile of shopping receipts into two smaller piles.
“I’m looking for Fionn’s iPod receipt,” she declared. “It’s often breaking on him. It won’t charge anymore.”
Andy murmured in response and set the kettle to boil.
“Are you going out today Andrew?”
“In the car. If I find the receipt you couldn’t take it into the Argos for me?”
“Grand, yeah, I need to pick up my dry-cleaning in Nutgrove anyway.”
His mother returned to the sorting in silence, and Andy made tea and drank it. As he was putting the mug into the dishwasher, his mother spoke again:
“No breakfast? I’ve found the receipt.”
She held the receipt aloft while still looking down at the three piles on the table, which were almost equal in size now. Andy took the receipt and slipped it between the notes in his wallet. His mother then pointed to the iPod on the table and so he picked that up and put it in his pocket.
“I’m never hungry this early, I’ll eat later,” Andy said. “And where’s Fionn? I need to talk to him.”
“He spent the night in Shay’s. He should be back soon. What do you need him for?”
“Nothing really, just need to ask him something.” Andy paused. “Listen, I’ll be back for dinner at the very latest. See you then mom.”
Andy was glad to get on the road. He turned the radio up loud and drove fast. Driving gave Andy a thrill of danger: he became intensely aware of the speed and proximity of the other vehicles, but at the same time he was confident that the thing worked and that he was as safe in his car as in his own bed. He relished the innocent joy of acceleration on the clear stretches and the thin, niggling pleasure of merging and darting at the busy intersections. Andy loved to drive.
His first stop was the row of shops near the park. He got out of the car and swung the door shut hard. He marched through the open door of the Costcutter’s with the murmur of running engines trembling in his ears. At the deli counter, he chose a big, brown breakfast sausage.
“Yeah, that’s all, but could you put some ketchup in the bag?”
Andy stood outside the shop eating the sausage and watching the cars stream down from the hills. It was the late morning of a bright winter’s day. The sky was suffused with light, an aching blue all over, with just a few marbled clouds near the horizon, strands of white stirred into the thick blue. The trees in the pitch-and-putt course across the way were bare and receded upslope in smudged rows of thickening browns and greys. On the putting green, a huge gull with a red dot on its beak was stomping diligently.
When he had finished the sausage, Andy crunched the foil bag in his fist with satisfaction and threw it into the bin. Then he lit a cigarette and relaxed into the first pulls of the day. A girl wearing jeans, high heels and a thin, black cardigan emerged from the shop. He knew her.
“Clara, long time.”
They hugged gently and Clara took the cigarette that Andy offered. He lit it.
“So what’ve you been up to?” he asked.
Clara gestured to the sky with her cigarette as she expelled the first, long plume of smoke from between her lips.
“I work in the hairdresser’s above Costcutter’s. And you?”
“I’m working out in Bray. An electricals company. Office stuff. Delivery dockets, invoices, all that. It’s like doing Junior Cert business all over again!”
“Yeah, it is.”
“You can go to the beach at lunch time, yeah? Out here, there’s only a road and a fuckin’ Costcutter’s!”
“And the park.”
Clara looked warily down the road towards the dark stain of ivy-clad trees on the horizon: “Yeah, I suppose.”
After this, there was silence.
“Ah fuck,” Andy muttered as he turned away from Clara. “We’re terrible,” he said with his back to her. “We’ve known each other for years. Come on, let’s try again.”
Andy spun back around to face Clara with a massive smile on his face.
“Clara! What the fuck? Long time no see! How are you?”
Clara laughed and reciprocated, but without letting her voice break into a roar as Andy had done:
“What the fuck Andy! How are you?”
They leaned towards each other for a big hug and Andy lifted Clara a little off her feet, and they paused there, his hands on the small of her back, her arms an encircling weight around his shoulders and neck, her thick breasts pushing into his chest.
By the time Andy let her down, both their cigarettes had gone out. Andy relit the two blackened nubs and they began to chat with the old ease and leisure that they had known in years past. They spoke for a long time, gradually rediscovering the pointed glances, the nuances of tone, the private references, all that effortlessly shared shorthand that they had once taken for granted. It seemed to Andy that he could catch the scent of his teenage summers hidden somewhere in the folds of the cold winter air.
Eventually Andy ended the conversation, cutting it short so that they would have a reason to meet again. And he took pleasure in bringing the thing to a close, for now.
“Listen, I’ve got to run Clara,” he said. “Number though, yeah?”
Back in the car, Andy was happy. He’d always liked Clara in a way, and it gave him pleasure to start something for himself. He did not know if he would ever ring her, or even if he would pick up if she rang but that she was out there and liked him was enough for now.
He drove towards Nutgrove by way of Marlay. When the light went red by the entrance to the park, three young boys with plastic helmets skewered on their hurling sticks climbed out of the jeep in front and ran across the road. At the Lidl, he let two cars out. There was a men’s match on the Broadford pitches and Andy considered stopping to watch for a while but did not.
He parked in Nutgrove Shopping Centre close to the MacDonald’s and smoked a cigarette with the window down, watching cars queue for the drive-through and mothers and fathers push overloaded, jittering trolleys across the battered tarmac of the car park. Gulls squabbled and flapped by the MacDonald’s bins. A young man he knew came out of Eddie Rocket’s and disappeared into the shopping centre. People said that he had a protection racket in the place. Nothing serious, no broken legs or anything, but, if you didn’t pay, the young lads from the estates would nick your shit, so they said. How exactly this skinny, sad-eyed traveller could control the dozens of estate kids from the hill, Andy did not know.
He flicked his cigarette away unfinished and got out of the car.
The girl turned around to face Andy.
She did not recognise him.
“Just picking up.”
He handed Sarah a pale pink ticket. She took the ticket — “Just a moment” — and disappeared behind the counter down the muggy, cellophane-lined aisle.
Andy felt a lessening in his mood, a sudden drop at his centre. Sarah was Rory’s older sister. Andy knew that she’d worked at this drycleaner’s years ago, but he hadn’t seen her since Rory’s funeral, which would be ten years gone come August.
Andy had not been a close friend of Rory’s, though they had gone to the same school. Back then, everyone had hung out together in school, but come the weekend they split into separate groups, usually composed of a tough kernel of immediate neighbours and old childhood friends. But the suburb was not big, and its session spots not unlimited, so every now and then one wandering, drunken group would collide with another, and the swell in numbers would make for a wilder, more satisfying, but also more tense night. It was on one such night by the Dodder River in Templeogue that Rory and Andy’s childhood friend Clara had met. They started seeing each other and their two groups of friends tacitly became one. Four months later, Rory was dead. Something went inside him while he was watching TV in his bedroom, one Sunday morning. In that time, Andy had come to like Rory, though in truth there was nothing much to either like or dislike about him, he was that kind of guy. They hadn’t known each other long, but it was time enough for Andy to develop an idle crush on Rory’s sister Sarah, who he had seen once or twice when he was over in their house. It was time enough too, so that when he got the news by text Andy had to put down the Playstation controller he was holding and cover his eyes. His little brother had looked on worried, and then on Andy’s cue joined in, both their faces opened up by grief, shattered by slow sobs and suffocating tears.
“That will be twenty-nine twenty please when you’re ready.” Sarah placed a modest pile of suits and shirts on the counter.
Andy paid by card and as he watched the little machine process the transaction, the black digital letters studded in the green glow of the screen, an impulse to speak came upon him. He wished to remind Sarah who he was, to tell her that he had known Rory, to relate — in fact, the whole story — how they’d gone to school together, how Rory and Clara had met, his crush for her, his fervid masturbation on her account, the moment he’d heard the news, the look of shock on Fionn’s little face, and the tears that had come after. Then he wanted to let her speak, to ask her how she felt, how she had felt then, what had happened then and since, and how she felt now, living as she was ten years on with her little brother gone, an eternally smiling teenager trapped forever in aging photographs. He experienced this desire to speak as an extra awareness, a sensitivity to a new space that seemed to have opened up beside him, a world that was there, latent, and which he could step into and inhabit any time he wished, as he had done ten years ago when he had burst into tears in front of Fionn, not caring that his little brother saw him cry. It seemed to him that something firmer, more solid, lay over this boundary, this border which today he refused to cross.
The machine beeped. Andy removed his card and in a fidget of mechanics, his receipt emerged. Sarah tore the little scrap of paper free and handed it to him:
Andy picked up his clothes and turned to go. “Bye now,” he said.
As he walked to the door, he heard in response the machine repeat its little trundling noise, then a tearing sound, and after a short pause Sarah’s tired voice:
Andy wandered the crimson tiles of the shopping centre in a daze, gazing at the rough, carven features of the other shoppers. He could sense the acute awareness embedded in each face, the shine of each mind behind the nose and eyes and mouth, and relished the ease with which he and the others avoided one another as they walked, flowing past each other effortlessly. They slowed, sped, and veered like pros and Andy, an effortless pro among them. Eventually, Andy slowed his pace and went into Tesco’s. He stared at the dense shelves, at the rows of cans and jars and cartons. He stared at the fruit stand and the flowers. Then he left and headed back towards his car.
The crisp air outdoors nudged at something inside Andy and brought him back from the side-world he had been wandering in. By the time he had reached his car and hung the shirts and suits up in the back, he felt almost normal again. It gave him pleasure to know that this little task was done, over with, ticked off the mental list which he nursed in his mind with a sense of gratified anticipation and irresolvable tension. He was glad the suits and shirts were clean and ready for Monday, but to feel this modest delight made him anxious also, as if there was something else, which he could not remember and which he had left undone.
He smoked a cigarette leaning on the bonnet of his car and then got in and drove back out into the grey, suburban tangle of noisy roads and quiet streets.
Andy pulled into the car park at Viewpoint and turned the car around to face the city, his tyres crunching the loosened gravel. Planted at the centre of the facing field was a wind turbine, its furiously spinning head a dark blur, scattered sheep cropping grass at the foot of the tall metal pole. Along the roadside was a row of trees. Their bare branches streamed all in one direction, dragged back in petrified growth by the insistence of the prevailing winds. Further on, towards Cruagh, the slopes were dark with Coillte Forestry and below Dublin was a grey smudge on the plain, the vague urban shapes crouched beneath a pale cross-hatching of winter trees. In the sunshine, Dublin Bay was the same drenched blue as the sky, and dark, cragged Howth seemed to float perilously above a light-filled abyss, sustained only by the brittle finger of Sutton welding it to the mainland.
Andy had picked up Jack at Dundrum twenty minutes before. He allowed his friend to finish speaking and then Andy said, “Do you know who I saw today? Sarah, Rory’s sister.”
Jack did not say anything for a short time and then asked, “Did you say hello?”
Jack took one of Andy’s cigarettes and lit it in silence. The topic clearly did not please him, but Andy would persist, he still had to tell him about Clara.
When Jack still would not speak, Andy took a cigarette himself and they smoked in silence. Eventually Jack gave in.
“Terrible stuff,” he said. “I still think about him. When it happened I was thinking of getting a tattoo of it, but then I thought that I didn’t know him that well, would’ve been weird.”
Andy nodded. He could sense that all this was true, but that Jack did not care much and was thinking of something else as he spoke. Andy suddenly felt guilty for pinning his friend down like this, for burdening him with his strange mood. He knew that at heart he himself did not care much about all this either. It was just something to talk about.
He spoke again, but this time cheerfully. “You know who else I met? Clara, fuckin’ Clara!”
Jack leapt on it.
“Serious man? Fuckin’ Clara! So long, so long. How is she?”
“She’s grand, working in the hairdressers by Costcutter’s.”
“And how does she look man? How does she look? Are her tits still massive?”
Andy had a vague sense of trespass hearing Jack speak like this about the dead boy’s girlfriend, but it was a tired, tired feeling and he gladly pushed it away.
“She’s looking well man,” he said, “Very, very well, tits and all.”
“Aw!” exclaimed Jack, “We should all go for drinks some time. Not Sarah, I mean Clara and the others. It’s been ages.”
“Do you have a number?”
“Yeah I do.”
“A number number? Or just a number?”
“I don’t know yet, a number-numb maybe.”
“You sly fuckin’ dog A.”
Andy felt better now, he felt great. To speak about a girl in this way made Andy feel good, and it made Rory weak. It seemed to Andy that he could see Rory clearly now, that he could look straight at him and see right through him, like the fuckin’ ghost he was.
“Lovely day man,” Andy said. “Will we go on a little further?”
“Go for it, you’re the boss Mac A!”
Past Kilakee Forest, the landscape opened up into bog and sky. Flecked snow powdered the round, brown peaks across Glenasmole Valley. To the south, on the lower slopes of Kippure, dark creases cut into the bog, the birth-scars of Dodder River. High up on the mountain ice-packed hollows glinted in the sun and, strapped to the mountaintop, the huge transmitter mast shone.
They followed Military Road for a while and then parked at a pull-in looking out over the valley. The wind was fierce up there and as Jack got out of the car, a sudden gust slammed the door open, giving Andy the awful sensation of an arm twisted back too far. They stood in silence, hands in pockets, buffeted by the wind. Andy watched the long, pale grasses bend and sway in the idling winds, and then stoop and flatten all as one whenever a wide gust pushed across the hillside. He gazed at the crammed thousands of dark heather-heads twitching and quivering as if in joy, and inhaled the heavy wet aroma of bog. Andy felt good now, he felt an immense energy of happiness, as if something had opened up inside him, as if he had traversed that boundary, the one that with Sarah in the dry cleaner’s he just could not bring himself to cross.
Afterwards, they smoked in the stillness and silence of the car, and then drove back towards Dublin, the city growing larger and larger with every flash of it they caught between the hedgerows as they rounded the crawling bends.
After letting Jack off at his house, Andy drove back towards Nutgrove to return Fionn’s iPod. He parked close to MacDonald’s again and he saw the same sad-eyed traveller as he walked across the car park towards the Argos.
Inside, a thick, chemical stench emanated from the pile of ink-drenched catalogues by the wall. On the metal bench by the pick-up desk a tired father sat, bags of shopping slumped between his feet, his little girl beside him humming loudly and slapping her knees. Above, the screen rolled through the waiting numbers.
Andy joined the queue for customer service. When the old lady in front of him timidly returned a kettle, he stepped forward and placed the iPod and receipt on the counter.
“Hey. It won’t charge anymore.”
The young lad behind the counter nodded and picked up the receipt, which he began to scrutinise in silence.
Eventually, handing the receipt back to Andy as proof, he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t see any date on this.”
Andy examined the receipt. The ink was heavily faded where it wasn’t rubbed off completely. The ghostly letters were rapidly losing pixels, sinking back into the crinkled white paper. The “S” of Argos had vanished entirely. There was no date anywhere.
“It must have rubbed off,” Andy said. “The ink’s faded.”
“Yeah,” said the lad, conceding nothing.
“Must happen a lot.”
“The thing is,” replied the lad apologetically, “I can’t take returns without a valid, dated receipt.”
“I understand, but it’s for my little brother. It was bought for Christmas last year. I swear it’s less than a year.”
The lad sighed, “Just a sec,” and disappeared through a door.
As he waited, Andy considered what he would do after this. He had nothing left to do really. He could go directly home if he wished. He could —
“Hi, I’m Sarah.”
By the time Andy looked up, Sarah was staring down at the receipt, which she had pinned to the countertop with a forefinger and thumb, her face obscured by a tumble of curly blond hair. After an appropriate delay, she looked up at Andy with an expression of genuine contrition, grimacing as if in pain.
“There’s no date here unfortunately.”
“It got rubbed off.”
“We can’t know that.”
“Well, then I was given a receipt without a date!”
“We can’t know what date was on it, I mean.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Sarah did not respond.
“Here, look, I’m sorry. It’s for my little brother, he’ll be gutted. I swear it’s correct. Do you not have your own records you could look at?”
Sarah picked up the receipt and examined it once more. Then she spoke without removing her eyes from the little white paper:
“Alright. It says here that Mark was on the till. I know he only worked the first two weeks of December last so it must be right.”
She handed the receipt to the lad who was standing behind her texting.
“Take it for repair. And put a note with it saying we could not make out the date.”
“Thanks,” said Andy.
“No problem.” Sarah smiled. “Sorry about the hassle but we just need to be careful, some people you know…”
Sarah left and the lad began to wrap the iPod in cling film. Then he paused and, nodding to a pad of pink slips on the counter, said, “Put your number on that.”
Andy wrote down his number. The lad finished wrapping, tore the film free from the roll, and wrapped the loose end around.
“Not charging, right?”
“Right,” replied Andy.
The lad began to scribble on the pink slip.
“How long?” Andy asked.
The lad looked up, apparently surprised to see Andy still there. “We’ll call you. Usually about three weeks.”
“Sound man,” said Andy, as he slapped the counter and turned to go.
Outside, the afternoon had begun to darken, grey clouds were pouring down from the hills. It was much colder now. Across the waste of the car park, well-wrapped figures shuffled, shoulders hunched against the risen wind, making for the shelter of their cars or for the path across the field that led to the estates. The cars on the main road had their headlights on now, but the streetlamps were still cold and dim. A crow shot across Andy’s vision, flung by a sudden gust.
A huge gull was perched on the bonnet when Andy reached his car. It screamed, flapped up onto the roof of MacDonald’s, and screamed again. Andy got into his car and he felt happy. He had done all that he needed to do that day, or everything that he had felt he needed to do. He had done all his errands at the very least. He still had things he needed to do at home, but at least he could say that everything he needed to do outside the house had been done and was finished, for today. Andy would go home, eat, shower, and see if he could talk to Fionn.
Andy did not go directly home. He drove past the turn at The Yellow House, past Rathfarnham Village, and down the hill towards Terenure. He considered crossing into the older part of the city, but took a left before the bridge instead. He liked the Templeogue Road, wide, unimpeded, the high wooded ridge to the left, the low wooded riverbed to the right; these landscapes he used to wander. He pulled in just after Spyder Hill, turning his car around so it faced back towards the hill and the church spire. To his left, Bushey Park was a looming wall of darkness, a heaped scramble of bare, black branches. Andy lit a cigarette and stared at the wooded ridge beyond Spyder Hill, remembering his teenage years amongst the bushes and the briars, but failing to feel the pang of nostalgia that he had come here to collect.
He lit another cigarette when the first was finished, and probed his memory for something that would bring those years back to him. He caught a glimpse of the woods at night, the orange glow of the nearby streetlamps breaking in, shards of light strewn all over the ivy. It seemed to him that it was during those joyous, drunken nights that he had first felt his own richness and power. On those nights, he would stumble from face to smiling face, talking to everyone. All the lads and all the girls had loved him. He had discovered then his capacity to captivate people, to make them like him, to make them almost need him.
“Mac A! Hey, Mac A!”
He had also lost his virginity up there, on the steep slope of the ridge by an old, rusted barrel flourishing with summer buddleia. It was the first time he had touched a girl. He could not remember the sex but he recalled distinctly the first tickle of pubic hair on his fingertips as he slid his hand down the front of Jen’s jeans, and then the warm swoop where her belly ran down between her legs.
Andy was erect. That heavy trip, trip, trip ticked at the base of his throat, the impatient, sensual heave of desire. He glanced around, saw no one, unbuckled, and slid his hand down behind his boxers. He masturbated with the flat of his palm and came quickly. Then he sat, breached, mind blank, suddenly cured of the tug of nostalgia that had brought him to this place.
He found a packet of tissues in the glove compartment and wiped up what he could. He would let the rest dry in. Then he opened the door of the car a crack and deposited the tissue on the roadside. When the road was clear, he pulled out and drove towards Templeogue.
He passed The Morgue, smokers by the door, the tennis club where he’d had his eighteenth, and then Ashfield where Fionn went for grinds on Thursday evenings. As he approached The Blue Haven, Andy realised it was almost dark. The streetlights were lit all along the road. He drove on towards Cherryfield, past the traveller estate and then the fields. At the far end of the pitches, the fibrillated silhouettes of bare trees were delicately stamped on the bluing horizon, marking the boundaries of old farms. He drove on through Knocklyon and took the Scholarstown Road home.
Andy knocked gently on his brother’s door, coaxing a “yep” from behind the varnished wood. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The room was chilly, the window open onto the darkness of back gardens. Fionn was sitting on the sill smoking a joint, his socked feet resting on the bed.
“What’s up?” Fionn asked, as he stretched his arm back to ash out the window.
Andy took the chair from by the smothered desk and sat down facing his brother.
“Not much. You?”
“Not much.” Fionn pinched the thickly smoking stub between his forefinger and thumb and offered it to Andy. “Want some?”
Andy raised a palm in refusal and chuckled feebly.
“I’m going to The Morgue later, need to be sociable, you know? If I smoke I’ll just stare at my hands all night!”
“I’m going to The Castle later,” Fionn replied.
“Fair play… So how was last night? You go out?”
Fionn sucked on the joint and did not answer. He exhaled through his nostrils, the smoke thick as wool.
“No, we just stayed in and drank.”
“Just you and Shay?”
“Just our lonely selves, yeah.”
Fionn looked down at the joint, considered it briefly, and then tossed it out the window. He immediately took a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit up. He offered one to Andy. Andy took it.
As they smoked, Andy examined his brother, considered him in the giddiness of the hotbox. Fionn’s thick, curly, brown hair was greasy and piled up erratically on his skull, like some startled professor’s. He was wearing a blue denim shirt and the O’Neill’s tracksuit bottoms which he never wore outside the house. A tiny ball of snot, like a speck of grit, dotted the tip of his nose. Andy suddenly felt a vague fear. He sensed a hardness in this smoking teenager, a hint of ruthlessness, which he had never noticed before, a contained and casual viciousness in the eyes. I do not know this person, Andy thought.
“Guess who I met today,” said Andy.
“Sarah, Rory’s sister!”
Andy scrambled: “A friend, a friend. He was Clara’s boyfriend. And I met Clara! You remember Clara?”
“Yeah, I remember her. Big tits, right?”
“The very one.”
“And how are they?”
“Grand. Sarah’s working in the drycleaner’s in Nutgrove. Clara’s a hairdresser in the place above Costcutter’s.”
“Good, good. Yeah, I seen her around there.”
Fionn nodded as he took a drag from his cigarette. They smoked in silence after this.
“Listen,” Fionn finally said, “I need to get some shit done before I go out. You staying for dinner?”
“I am. What are you doing?”
“Just want to finish a chapter.” Fionn held up a book. “Viking Dublin. That’s why I smoked the joint!”
He smiled, willing Andy to indulge him.
“Cool, I’ll see you at dinner so.”
Andy made for the door, but then turned back to his brother, who was reaching out to shut the window.
“Oh yeah, I took your iPod back to Argos. They were cunts about the receipt but they took it in the end. They said it’ll be about three weeks. I gave them my number by mistake though…”
“That’s grand, cheers bro, just let me know.”
“Will do. See you at dinner so.”
Andy made to go but halted again.
“There’s something on your nose.”
“What?” Fionn wiped a sleeve across his face.
Andy squinted, “It’s gone now,” and then stepped outside, shutting the door smartly behind him.
He gazed for a moment at the flat sheen of the varnished door, at the puddle of glare cast there by the hallway light, and then Andy turned away towards his own room, the room that he and Fionn had once shared.
Andy sat down on his bed feeling vaguely excited about the night’s drinking ahead, but also obscurely aware of a sapping, hollow core behind this excitement. He was excited. He felt though that there was something else, something to do with Rory, something to do with Fionn and Sarah too, some broken edge that he was trying to grasp but that he could not even touch.
He thought of that moment when he and Fionn had cried together, Sarah sobbing somewhere too perhaps, all three of them wallowing in tears that now seemed to have dried up utterly. He saw again, through the blur of tears, the split TV screen, he and Fionn’s cars idling on the racetrack, the other racers whizzing by unchallenged, the pixellated crowds cheering in the stands. But tears did not come now. It all seemed somehow arbitrary, as if his grief was a show that Andy was putting on for himself. He felt the tug of tears at the back of his nose, like a distant sneeze that would never come.
Andy stood up. He would eat dinner and then shower and then go. Maybe, he thought, his mother would give him a lift to The Morgue.
First came the carrots, orange coins glossy with butter, which the mother scooped from the steel pot with a large, wooden spoon and deposited in equally sized piles on their three plates. Then the mash, doled out splodge by splodge with the same wooden spoon. Finally, browned and shining in the black pan, reclining in a shallow pool of oil and liquid fat, the sausages. There were ten. When she had dealt out three to each of them, the mother shifted her gaze from the remaining sausage to her sons.
“So, who wants it?”
“Me, mom,” said Fionn smiling.
“I do,” said Andy, reaching his fork into the pan and plucking up the sausage. He smiled at his brother.
“Prick,” muttered Fionn.
“Ah, would yous stop!” their mother exclaimed. “Andrew’s after taking your iPod back today, didn’t he?”
She returned to the kitchen with the pan, and Andy cut the sausage in two and gestured to Fionn to take half. Fionn reached over with his hand, took it in his fingers, and put it straight into his mouth. Their mother returned without her apron on and sat down.
“And you, Andrew, you could have shared.”
“That’s right mom,” said Fionn. “He’s a right prick, isn’t he?”
Andy and Fionn burst into laughter.
“You’re both right pricks sometimes,” their mother replied and all three laughed. Then they settled into their meal in silence, forks and knives clicking and dunking as the steam rose in billows from the smoking pyres of mash.
When they were done, their mother asked, “Have either of yous heard from your dad?”
Andy had not.
“Lord help me the day I’d be saying it, but yous should go see him more often. It must be very lonely for him. I’m almost fit to give him a call myself.”
“I spoke to him the other day,” said Fionn.
“And what did yous talk about?”
Fionn considered this for a moment: “We spoke about Viking Dublin, and some other things, not much.”
“Ah, sure he loves all that stuff, loves to hear you talk about it, always did.”
A little silence came upon them then, a short silence that to Andy seemed somehow longer. He felt an urge to speak about their father, to really speak about him, about the man himself, not just what he was doing, or who had called him last, or memories from when he had lived with them. He wanted to ask his mother and he wanted to ask Fionn what they thought of this man, this bumbling wreck who had left their house six years before, this vicious, vulnerable baby of a man who now lived with his sister in Cabra and whose favourite pastime was to feed rashers to the gulls in Clontarf. He felt again this verge, this edge where things could perhaps become real again. He felt it in this moment and, with a deep pang of relief, he let the moment pass once again.
“So what’s new in Viking Dublin?” he asked, repeating the tired joke their father had used every time he had inquired about Fionn’s readings on history.
“Well, they’re not up to much these days,” replied Fionn, with a level of wit he had not had when their father had still lived with them. “Let’s see… You know, College Green used to be called Hoggen Green before Trinity was built. The Vikings used to bury their dead there and Hoggen was their word for a burial mound. So, College Green’s really an old Viking graveyard. Mad, isn’t it?”
“It is,” replied Andy.
“It’s a pity all that isn’t on his Leaving Cert now, isn’t it Andrew?” their mother said.
“He wouldn’t read about it if it was.”
“Ah, leave him! He does well, he’ll get a course.”
“He’s right though, mother,” said Fionn. “I would spit on Viking Dublin if it was on the Leaving, as I spit on everything that’s on the Leaving, but I’ll still do better than Andy did, won’t I?”
“Ah, stop it!”
“He’s right though, ‘mother,’” said Andy. “He’s smarter than me, but when I was his age I’d already had a string of girlfriend, hadn’t I? That’s what interested me.”
All three fell into silence. Fionn ran his forefinger across the fatty stain on his plate and licked it.
Andy felt ashamed. He had wanted to touch on something with these two, anything which was real and which united them, and the only thing he dared approach was the niggling embarrassment they all felt for his apparently sexless younger brother. He looked over at Fionn who seemed terrified and almost ill.
Andy laughed jovially: “But sure who knows where he really is when he says he’s at the library?”
“Oh stop it Andrew! I don’t need to be thinking of that!” their mother shrieked, expertly exchanging their real embarrassment for a reassuring counterfeit.
Fionn remained silent. Eventually their mother asked Andy, “So, how was your day?”
For a moment Andy drew a blank on his day, but then he felt himself suddenly grounded, drawn back to something more solid, his mind moving away from his brother excruciating beside him. He said almost mechanically, “Guess who I saw today.”
“Who?” his mother asked.
“Sarah, you remember, Rory’s sister…”
Andy stepped into the shower and twisted the tap. A plunge of hot water struck his head, wiping out his thoughts. As he soaped, washed, and rinsed, Andy felt his naked body, its long, smooth stretches, its creases and folds, the sodden mat of hair on his scalp. When he was done, he immediately stepped out of the shower, festooned with pulsing streams and dangling droplets of water, and began to dry himself. He felt great. He felt clean.
He felt good because he was about to meet up with his girlfriend and his friends. He could anticipate the steady rise in excitement that would accompany each new round of drinks. There was nothing Andy enjoyed more than the broad pleasure of drinking with friends in a pub.
Andy found the nail scissors and lifted the cover of the toilet to cut his nails over the bowl. Inside was a dark stew, Fionn’s piss, stinking, a deep caramelised yellow in colour. The fertile smell of urine was like a warm hand smothering Andy’s face. He flushed the toilet in annoyance and waited for the water to subside. Then he cut his toe and fingernails, wrapped a towel around his waist, and returned to his bedroom.
He put on The Prodigy and began to dress. He felt good. There was a can of cider on his shelf and he opened it and drank. His mind seemed possessed of a certainty now and as he did his hair he shuffled around in his mind, the anecdotes and jokes he had been storing up all week for this occasion. Andy was excited and glad. When he was ready, he sat down on his bed and smoked a cigarette. Then he sprayed deodorant on each of his armpits and went downstairs, carrying the sharp, metallic odour into the sitting room where his mother was watching TV.
She looked up before he said anything: “Smell you, I could.”
“Can I get a lift to The Morgue?” Andy asked.
“Yes you can, get the keys from the kitchen and we’ll go now.”
Andy found the keys by the sink, on top of a neat stack of receipts loosely girdled by a stretch-marked elastic band. His mother hadn’t done the washing-up yet. The wooden spoon lay encrusted with dry mash and the fat in the black pan had congealed into a glassy pancake. If she did not do it before she went to bed, Fionn would take care of it after. It was something he did. Andy had often returned home drunk at one or two in the morning to find his brother in the kitchen elbow-deep in suds. Andy would help him to dry and put the things away. They had good chats on these occasions. Andy hoped that this might be the case tonight.
Andy’s excitement grew as they drove across the suburb, the road like an orange river beneath the streetlights. He never failed to enjoy a good session. He gazed at the lighted windows on the stern houses they passed, at the gardens, at the darkened hedges, the skeletal trees. The traffic was light and they soon reached Templeogue.
Andy got out of the car and slipped between the smokers at the door. The place was packed inside and smelled of cut limes and spilt beer. He could not see his friends. He moved towards the back, shuffling sideways between the drinkers, gently placing a hand on their shoulders to let them know he was passing. He reached the back and still could not see his friends. Then something happened behind him, a voice called out:
“Mac A! Hey, Mac A!”
It was Jack. He led Andy through the crowd to a table in the corner. The others were there. They all looked up at his approach.
“Mac A!” they cried.
It had been a good night. As usual, Andy had been the star of the show, loud and greedy for an audience, he had outshone all the others, to their immense enjoyment. He had not mentioned Sarah or Rory. He had not needed to.
The road home was long. He had decided to take the Templeogue Road to Rathfarnham and then the Ballyboden Road, which doubled the distance at least. He had just passed Spyder Hill. Bushey Park was a pitch darkness to his left and darkness was closing in on the right where the field ended and the wooded ridge bellied out against the road. The night was chill and the sky clear. A few sparse stars, hard points of light, were visible above the buzzing glare of the streetlamps. Andy’s nose burned and ran with the cold. Occasionally a car caught up with him and in a brief intensity of noise passed him by.
Where the ridge petered out and gave way to another field, Andy paused. He stepped off the concrete footpath into the field. The grass, stiff with frost, cronched as he made his way back towards the gentle end-slope of the ridge. There was a thinness in the air as he walked now.
He passed a couple of feet into the woods and then stopped. It was not dark. In the summer, the thick canopy blocked out all but a few scattered beams, but now light came in freely from the road, and Andy could see all about him the bleached skeletons of dried out summer weeds, like an army of ghosts on the march. He stood motionless as the cold air began to creep along his shoulders and snot dribbled from his upper lip to his lower. He was too frightened to go in any further, alone like this, afraid of what may be hidden deeper in the shadows. He stood motionless among the ivy beds, the glossy leaves lapping shallowly about his feet.
He knew that further along the ridge — he could sense the distance through the matted darkness of the trees — along the track beaten through the brambles and the tall weeds, past the old, rusted barrel, was the concrete wall where they used to drink and where they had spray-painted a giant R.I.P. after Rory had died. Rory had drunk there only once or twice. It had been their spot, his and Clara’s and their friends’. It had seemed wrong to Andy at the time. Rory’s spot had been down by the Dodder and Andy suggested that they put it there, but Clara had been crying nonstop that night and wanted it done and finally he had relented.
Andy later realised that Clara would have been embarrassed to go to the spot where Rory’s oldest and closest friends met. Rory’s newer friends, and even Clara, had been side-lined at the funeral. This had not been done out of malice; it had seemed natural at the time. Briefly coupled by Clara and Rory’s courtship, the two groups of teenagers, at the silent signal of Rory’s death, had silently broken apart. It seemed that Andy and Clara, and their friends did not have the same claim to grief as the others did, and they did not have the courage to push the issue, so they had spray-painted the wall here, here where it made no sense.
Andy sneezed, sniffled, and sneezed again. He had wanted to talk all day — he had wanted something firmer, something more solid — but now he did not want to talk at all, now that he knew there was nothing to say. Andy wanted to walk home and shower and go to bed and wake up again. He could feel a tantalizing emptiness just ahead of him, away beneath the trees. He could feel the thinness in the air but now it seemed to Andy that it was in himself that this thinness lay.
Andy was cold and soon he would walk again. He would march up the hill to Rathfarnham and this would warm him up. On reaching The Tuning Fork, he would be hot and sweating beneath his thick jacket. He would shower quickly and go to bed. He had things to do tomorrow. Tomorrow would be a good day, he was sure of this. He hoped that Fionn would be in bed by the time he got home.
He looked up at the bare, darkened branches, at the dark, foaming ivy, and Andy felt that the world was hiding something from him, but something that he had long ago laid aside and did not care if he ever found again. He realised all that he was lacking, and he realised that he did not miss it at all, any of it. But that he did not care, this perhaps did worry him. But he was cold too and he needed to go, and he was glad too, in his heart Andy was glad, so he turned, and stepped out from beneath the trees, and walked away from all those things he knew he could afford to lose.
Dermot O’Sullivan is from Dublin, Ireland. He studied English Literature in Trinity College, Dublin. His work has been published in various journals including The Honest Ulsterman, Causeway/Cabhsair, The Incubator and Fence. He currently lives in Brazil, where he recently had his first full-length play produced.
©Featured Image Credit: Amy Mitchell