I saw a picture of you in the paper last week, same smile. They were giving you an award for saving a kid from the sea, and I wondered as you were swimming out, if you remembered that night in Wicklow and that other boy, and the cruel blood coming out of him. Sometimes we get a second chance.
You weren’t my first choice for the job but your mother was so insistent. Said she’d been watching my little pickup coming and going through the estate and that you could really do with the money, and you just stood there as she went on, hiding your student’s hands in your pockets, opening your stance like you knew how the world turned. And I found myself saying okay, Monday, if you’re not here by seven I’ll be gone.
It was a tough week. By Wednesday your hands were blistered but coming round.
We make ourselves into what we have to be.
I was late going down on the Friday. I remember rattling south on the N81, the hedgerows lit up by the low sun and the fields becalmed and I felt all right about things, but then I always do, driving with a little music playing and a job on. Through Blessington and on past the reservoir at Poulaphouca, I could have stopped for a dip in the heat but I wasn’t going to mess up. The last builder in Ireland I felt like, all the big guys are gone and me happy just to be extending the world.
I was going through Baltinglass when Mikey’s number came up. I turned the
—It’s Mikey, he said, like I wouldn’t know.
I told him I wasn’t far away.
—You bringing me that extra bit?
—Extra what, Mikey?
—Cash. Said you’d give me something off next week’s.
I told him, yeah, I had it, and he said something I didn’t get and then the line went dead. You never knew with Mikey if it was his battery or if he’d just finished talking. He could lay blocks though, and plaster and when I’d called him he’d seemed a good bit calmer. Maybe all that hard man stuff was behind him since he got married. Wife worked in a bakery and up at four and him left to sit around the house like a dog. I’ve always lived alone, just how things turned out. I got three ice creams in the village and turned east, the last of the Wicklow hills on my left and was soon pulling in to the site. You, hot and red and wiping your brow, were tidying up at side of the cottage. I usually don’t talk much to new fellas in case I have to let them go. I nodded and went around the back. Mikey hadn’t heard me coming over the screeching of the power saw. He was holding it in one hand like a six-shooter, the ladder tight in against the beams. I shouted up and the noise stopped.
—Got you an ice cream, Mikey.
—I don’t know. A cone.
He came down and stood in front of me. Sawdust on his eyebrows like light rain.
—I don’t eat nuts. They give me a rash, nuts.
He bit off the top of the cone and spit it out.
—How’s the young fella doing?
Mikey shrugged, chewed and looked up the raw beams. He went through helpers like running water.
—There was a man in Meath said I couldn’t build rooves.
Here comes another story, I thought, and I was just moving away when you came around the corner. Your shirt was open, your blond hair wet with sweat.
—Here he is now, Mikey said. Must have smelled the fucking cones.
I gave you the ice cream and you launched into it. I too know the hunger of youth. The three of us stood there, eating the melting ice creams. It was all over our hands.
Then Mikey stepped away, uncomfortable at me watching you.
—I got a good bit done, he said, and I agreed and turned away too.
I walked through the extension opening and into the old cottage, glass crackling under foot, the smell of plaster and past lives hanging in the air like spent cartridges. Why do we keep patching things up and letting them go and starting all over again? So we can climb the stairs at night alone? I looked out the small window at the field and the hill beyond. Time to be moving on.
I told you to put all the tools into the pickup, I wasn’t leaving them lying around an open site, and found Mikey.
—Five hundred, Mikey. And two hundred off next week’s.
He nodded, put it into the top pocket of his denim jacket.
—It’s the wife. Said she’d leave me if I didn’t get her a new washing machine this weekend.
—So you’ll be back on Monday all dazzling white? I said.
Mikey didn’t really do jokes.
—And you’re all right with Roy for next week?
—The young fella, Mikey. That’s his name.
—He’s all right, I suppose. For a student.
—Get a cover on that roof before you leave, I said.
You were standing by the truck, picking at a splinter in your hand. I gave you your wages and told you it’d be three fifty next week if you did well, and you gave me one of your smiles.
—You coming back with me or him?
We got in and Mikey passed with a tarpaulin over his shoulder.
—See you Monday, I shouted, and we were off into the green world.
The sun was fighting low between the trees and we drove in silence, tired now, turning with the road, Dublin little more than an hour away.
—What’s it you’re studying again?
You lifted your head.
I looked over at you.
—Yeah… Behaviour. You can use it in loads of jobs.
I nodded, slowed for a bend.
—And the people on the course, I’d say are a bit different to our Mikey.
—Well, half of them are girls.
Then you leaned forward, touching your forehead, touching a small welt over your eye.
—He did that to me. I was passing up some wood and he got annoyed.
—Wood’s what you get in trees. Timber’s…
You looked away and I was sorry for correcting you.
—Maybe it was an accident.
—A psychological accident. You know about people.
—Right, people, you can’t beat them.
I smiled and opened up the engine a little, the truck rattling like an old song. I found myself telling you about what I was doing at your age, the years spent travelling, the drift back to Ireland and working with my hands again. When I looked over your eyes seemed to be saying, What do you want from me telling me this? and I said something about it being a big world out there and you said yeah, it was.
We passed through Baltinglass and on to the N81. The man on the radio was singing about my baby, my baby’s gone and left me, and your head was dropping with sleep, coming up and dropping. My baby’s gone and left me.
I stopped at a filling station. You didn’t wake as I pumped the diesel in and went in to pay. I asked if there was a toilet. It was dark and smelly inside. I could hear the cars passing and a radio from the other side of the thin, block wall. I could have murdered a pint.
When I came around to the forecourt, the first thing I thought is why would you want to move the pickup? There was no reason for you to do that. Then I saw you coming out of the shop and we looked at each other and we both knew it at the same time.
—I was just…
—Fucking gone, Roy. Did you not take the keys?
You held up the crisps and coke and said nothing and I turned away and I knew the truck was insured, but the tools…
—I’m sorry, Dave.
I was shaking my head, trying to think straight.
—You could ring the police.
—And tell them what?
—That, that your truck…
—Give me your mobile.
I called Mikey.
We waited by the side of the road, the ugly noise of the passing cars doing my head in. I calmed down a bit and said it wasn’t your fault and you opened the crisps quietly and offered me some coke.
Mikey made it in less than ten minutes. He was furious. Here, for him, was another example of the malevolence of the world, of how it’s always trying to put you down.
—I’d fucking rip their throats out if I got hold of them!
I didn’t know what to do. Go home and think about it? Tell the cops and sit around a station all night? Then Mikey grabbed my arm.
—So, where’s your mobile?
—In the pickup. Half my life and the tools…
—Make them an offer. Tell them you’ll give them a grand for everything back.
—I don’t have a grand on me.
Mikey took his wages out and turned to you.
—Did you get paid?
—Call them, Dave!
—What about your washing…?
—No tools, no job, he shouted over a lorry passing. I’ll get it off you again.
He pushed his mobile into my hand. Strange names on it, Bif, Joker and Dav, no e . I turned away, lining up the words.
—Who’s this?… I’m the fella that owns that pickup.
I told him I’d give him a grand, no questions asked. Everyone walks away.
Mikey nodded, listening.
—He’s talking to someone, I said.
—I don’t have fifteen hundred. I’ve a grand here…
Mikey gave me a thumbs up, his eyes bright and steady.
—What?… It’s a white Toyota, yeah… I’ll be there.
Do you remember how we waited for them to call back in Baltinglass? The three of us in Mikey’s car, and you had to take a piss and went up a lane and Mikey rose up on you for taking so long? I shouldn’t have let him talk to you like that. You were quiet, edgy quiet, in the back, I wasn’t paying attention to anything other than the thought of meeting those fellas.
It was dark save for a thin line of pink and orange out to the west of the town. There weren’t many around for a Friday night, a few people heading off to the bars, a group of kids messing outside the chipper. It’s hard staying buzzed up when you have to wait and wait.
I looked over at Mikey.
—You think they’ll do it here?
—No. Somewhere out of the way.
He lit another cigarette, flicking the match out the window.
—What were their accents?
—Dublin. Probably halfway home now.
—No, they’ll come. What time‘s it?
Mikey jumped as his mobile beeped.
—Go to the abbey. There’s six of us. Like fuck there’s six of them.
He started the car.
—Where’s the abbey?
—Out that road. It’s not far.
We headed north, leaving the streetlights of the town behind and you were saying something about it being the abbey, the place that MacMurrough built and called the Valley of Salvation, and I thought how far from salvation it was any of us were going. The headlights swept over the hedges as Mikey’s old car turned off the road.
We stopped. Mikey killed the engine and the dark stared back at us.
—There it is, I said.
We could just make out the pickup parked below the shape of the ruin. Its lights silently sprang on.
—Right, I said. Just stand behind me and say nothing. Okay?
I got out slowly and Mikey got out and you came up behind. It was hard to see the bumpy road with the lights in our eyes and I stumbled for a second.
—That’ll do you, a voice called out.
Same fella I’d been talking to. We stood there trying to see him and then he walked into silhouette, stopped, legs spread wide. I could feel my heart banging.
—You have the money?
—Yeah. I have it here.
—Put it down on the ground and step away.
—No way, he whispered.
Another silhouette appeared. He took up position by the first man.
—Lads, I said as calmly as I could, I need to see all the gear’s there.
I stared into the lights, listening to their voices as they talked together.
—Send the boy forward, the voice said. He can check it for you.
I looked back at you and you were locked to the ground.
—I’ll come up myself, I called out.
—Send the boy forward or we’re out of here.
The pickup’s engine started, raced for a moment, then settled, waiting. Mikey turned to you in a sort of slow motion, and lowered his head.
—Go on then, he said quietly.
You started moving forward. When you got to the men, one of them took your arm and brought you behind the lights.
—Just three of them, Mikey said. Fuckers can’t count.
I ignored him, worrying what was going through his head.
—Roy, I shouted. Are all the tools there?
A beat, a clank.
—I think so.
—Back here, Roy.
You came back into the lights and the fella pushed you, he was only small, and another swung a punch at you as you went past.
You stuttered past me, brushing my arm.
—Right, you’ve seen them now. Drop the fucking money on the ground.
I put the thousand down on the rubble road slowly and stepped back. The fella
was moving forward, and it was all over, all done and dusted, and then I saw Mikey’s eyes. He turned from me to face them.
—You fuckers know what you’re doing? he shouted, proud and filling in size.
The wheel brace coming out of his jacket and he launched forward smashing the nearest fella on the head and while he was screaming, he‘d hit the next one before he could get out of the way, a dull twanging noise, then another and another. He tried fighting back but he couldn’t match Mikey’s violence, and two of them were running away as Mikey moved in on the youngest. Bang!
—Leave him, Mikey!
But Mikey wasn’t for stopping. The young fella reeled, found a foot, staggered forward and was caught full on the face.
—You want a bit of this, Roy? Mikey said. This is the fucker that hit you.
He went back to the boy. He was on the ground in a ball but the kicks and the wheel brace kept coming down on him. I was shouting for Mikey to stop and you went past me and you were trying to grab hold of his arm.
—What the fuck’s wrong with you? Mikey screamed.
He held the wheel brace high. I thought he was going to start on you, and afraid, you stood back.
—Move away, Mikey, I said.
Mikey picked up the money and strode away. The boy, for he was younger than you, was groaning. Blood all over his face.
I could hear Mikey’s car starting and you bent down to him. He couldn’t move, didn’t dare move.
—You’re fuckin’ dead! a voice called from the dark.
Mikey was revving his engine hard and all that mattered now was to get out of there.
—Come on, I said, and I had to haul you up. You shrugged my arm away as we lurched towards the lights of the pickup.
The drive back wasn’t easy. At least Mikey had gone on ahead, leaving us theempty road to ourselves. Past Baltinglass and the filling station, its coloured lights giving way to the black and the singing of the engine.
—I swear I didn’t know he was going to do it, I said.
—He’ll be all right, the boy.
—How can you say that?
—It was just blood. He’ll be fine. I’ve seen it before.
You sniffed, counting me amongst the guilty, and wiped your nose carefully.
—Let me see that.
I turned the cab light on, and glanced over.
—It’s not broken.
You looked away. I switched the light off and we continued north, the engine making do for words. I knew the reservoir was out there, and behind it the crouching mountains, and behind them, the east, the place where the sun would come up.
You never came back on the Monday. I knew not to wait too long. I finished the cottage on my own, working strange hours, the radio for company. Mikey, I heard, left for Canada.
The newspaper says it was a brave thing you did, Roy, saving that boy from the sea.
It comes up and brightens each day, the sun, whether we’re ready for it or not.