The fish had no head. It was the first thing we noticed when we got up close. The body was about two-foot long. With the head I reckon it would’ve made three.
The fish had washed up on the sand, just beyond the pull of the waves that toyed with its tail now. It was freshly killed: you could tell that right away. Its belly was the colour of Milk of Magnesia, its back mottled, grey-green and glittery still. There was no rot either. No smell of it. Just that spermy smell you get off things that live in the sea. Where the head should have been attached though was all red and chewed up and pulpy.
‘The poor fish,’ Johnny muttered.
I’d run into Johnny that morning. Downtown. A Sunday it was. Early. I woke around six. I was hot under my skin. The veins swelled in my temples. It felt as if some small thing with sharp feet was kneading the walls of my stomach. I tried to fall asleep again but I couldn’t, so I climbed out of bed and dragged on some clean clothes and went out. I meant to get a box of Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed but the all-night mini-mart on the corner was closed and I kept walking. The town was nice at that hour anyway, before the traffic got going.
I spotted Johnny in the Spar on the main square buying a bottle of Coke. I stepped inside and grabbed a Pepsi out of the fridge and stood at the end of the queue. There were four of us in the queue: me, Johnny, a security guard with egg or something on the front of his shirt and this oulfella who handed the cashier a newspaper that was as thick as the Book of Kells.
I reached past the security guard and tapped Johnny on the shoulder. ‘Tom!’ He seemed really glad to see me. Overly glad. All the colour was gone from his face except for these little pink blotches here and there. There was a scratch under his right eye. He looked shook. Guilty. It made me wonder what he’d been at the night before.
Most of the night I couldn’t recall myself. It had started off well enough. I remembered the first pub, Happy’s, and the second. I thought I’d check out that new place, the Sarah Jane. I remembered sitting next to a crowd of yacht owners who all seemed to be enjoying themselves, remembered sneaking glances at the good-looking women in their company.
The evening ticked through the emerald and gold numerals on the big Guinness clock above the bar, through the matchstick-thin seconds, the quarter-inch minutes, the half-inch hours. The sense of promise I’d felt earlier ebbed away. I thought people were eyeing me, hunched there on my own in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I took to drinking faster. In the end I left the pub to go searching for Johnny. I hadn’t seen him in weeks but all of a sudden I wanted to tie one on with my little brother.
‘Where were you last night?’
‘Everywhere,’ Johnny said, as the cashier wiggled his bottle of Coke over the scanner. ‘I don’t know where I was.’
‘I was looking all over for you.’
‘I tried The Anchor and all.’
‘I was in there for a little while all right.’
‘So the barman said. We musta just missed each other.’
‘Fancy a stroll?’ I asked when we got outside the Spar. The phrase seemed so archaic that I grinned and added, ‘old boy.’ We headed towards the beach.
We uncapped our bottles and sipped as we walked. We packed in trying to talk after a while and just walked and sipped. Johnny kept lagging behind, stopping to lean against a wall or a lamppost, gasping and heaving like a stooped, pallid fish out of water. The nausea would pass and he’d catch up with me again.
Coming down the hill that leads to the harbour, the sea was suddenly there in front of us. It swelled up over that part of the town, so big and blue and clean. The ochre buildings, the red and green boats, looked mean and grimy and irregular against the broad even bay.
‘Wait,’ Johnny mumbled as we made the beach and I turned in time to see him lurch for the sea wall. He gripped onto two stones that jutted from the top. His head dropped, his shoulders hunched and he puked. I looked away as he shuddered and gasped. The sand which stormier days had packed against the wall covered the soles of my boots. It was almost white. Silver grains sparkled up from it here and there. Tufts of dark pointy grass poked through the sand all along the wall. The washed-salt smell of the sea was in the air all around us. Words like ‘immense’ and ‘endless’ drifted into my thoughts and I found myself wondering about other places.
‘All right?’ I asked when Johnny straightened up. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and shuddered once more. ‘Jesus.’
I lit a cigarette as we turned onto the beach. I fixed it between my lips and took a pull. The smoke scratched the back of my throat. It smouldered down into my chest and twisted in my guts. I flicked the cigarette at the water. It landed on the wet sand a couple of feet away. ‘I’m gonna give these fuckers up,’ I said. Johnny only nodded. He looked too sick to talk. I remembered an argument from the night before. At least I remembered bits of it. Outside some club. A white shirt, a dicky bow, and then the flashback was gone. I imagined myself lunging off down some poorly-lit street.
Clots of dark kelp had been left along the beach by the tide. They put me in mind of tangled eight-track tape, of those mad old yokes our father and mother used to play, those big, thick, rectangular cassettes. I remembered the music: Don Williams, Kris Kristopherson, Roger Miller. God didn’t make the little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime. I thought about saying something about it to Johnny but he’d been so young then, he probably wouldn’t remember it.
A pair of gulls wheeled and screamed way out. I caught the flashes of white as we walked, soaring, dropping, circling one another. Out there the water was grey and striped with long low waves. Rising and falling, rising and falling, the waves made the same sound as sand poured over glass. I couldn’t shake the notion that the sea was watching us.
The Pepsi was working now, forcing me to burp the sick feeling from my stomach. Tiny bubbles popped in my mouth, prickling my tongue. We crunched over a Milky Way of smooth stones, our feet slipping on some, pushing others deeper into the sand. Surf rushed onto the beach in big frothy peaks before slipping back into the sea, hissing and tinkling between the pebbles and stones.
I sucked the cold air into my lungs. I imagined it working on the cigarette tar. I began to feel a bit better. Not just in my body either. I began to think that maybe I’d go easier on the drink from now on. I promised myself then that I would—I would go easier on it.
I’d help Johnny with it too. I’d start looking out for him the way an older brother is supposed to do. I watched him walk, a little ways ahead of me now, and for a second it was as if we were boys again. As if our parents were still around, somewhere close.
‘I think I’ll knock it on the head,’ I said. ‘For a while anyway.’
‘Me and all.’
There was another flashback. ‘Tuam,’ said a face I couldn’t recall—I must’ve asked the face where it came from. I remembered the darkening evening in the big frosted window behind the face. I remembered, after I was told where, nodding and saying, ‘Galway.’
‘Tuam,’ the face said, ‘used to be a good town to claim you were from. Now I’m ashamed to say I come from there.’
‘Ever heard of the Saw Doctors?’
I started to laugh.
‘What?’ Johnny asked.
And you know when you’re feeling as bad we were feeling right then? Kind of hoping, kind of searching for something to lift you? Well, that’s the way he asked me. I mean you could hear that hope in his voice when he asked.
I was about to let him in on it when we spotted the fish. We thought it was a plastic bag at first, before we realised it was something dead. Reluctantly we made our way over to it.
‘The poor fish,’ Johnny muttered as we stood staring at it.
‘I think it’s a dogfish,’ I said to force down the rush of depression his words had released in me. Johnny grinned weakly, ‘He musta run into a rottweiler-fish then.’ I grinned weakly in reply. It was a pretty stupid joke, I know, but we needed it.
I touched the belly with the toe of my boot. The whole body wobbled. Shivered. Slimy green stuff oozed out of this little slit near its tail. ‘Ugh!’ Johnny made a face and turned his head.
‘Probably got caught in a propeller,’ I said.
‘Poor bastard,’ said Johnny, shaking his head slowly and I started to feel lousy all over again. Behind us was the steady, scraping, hiss-hush of the sea.
The gulls screamed again. They were closer now. They’d find the fish soon. Then more gulls would come.
‘Will we head back?’ Johnny nodded.
We turned around and began to walk back towards the harbour.
‘I never seen a dogfish before,’ Johnny said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘They’re some sort of shark, aren’t they?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘I’d like to have seen it with its head on.’
I didn’t say anything. I was thinking about this tourist place I knew up in the harbour. I got on well with the owner. I was pretty sure he’d let us in if we knocked on the side door.