[This story was published in October 2009 in Issue 14 Volume Two of The Stinging Fly. It is set in Dunvale, another fictional County Mayo town—the town of Glanbeigh having not yet come into existence (although both places do share the Mule river and Carmichael’s school). The story was not included in Young Skins, it is offered here as a bonus track.]
Attempting to light a wet cigarette can bring a man to the verge of tears. My last Marlboro had been struck by a flake of snow as I went to tuck it into the corner of my mouth, soaking it through. I’d spent the following five minutes applying the flame of my disposable lighter to its sodden end, to little effect, and my gloveless hands were beginning to turn a bright, raw pink. It was below zero, and the snow was still coming down, in heavy, wet, moth-sized plumes. I checked my watch but there was no watch attached to my wrist. I brushed my hands through my hair, and remembered I was a person.
I was standing at the rear of the Pearl Hotel bus shelter in the empty heart of Dunvale town on a dead Friday night. End of December, end of the year. Plexiglass enclosed me on three sides; a fluorescent bar embedded in the shelter’s ceiling jittered above my wet head. My battered duffel bag was propped in one corner, freighted with a semester’s worth of dog-eared notepads, a three month accretion of foul smelling clothes, and the latest, exorbitantly annotated translation of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, on which I had a paper due at some point in the new year.
I didn’t notice the car until it was nearly on top of me. I heard it approaching that last, ponderous bend before the road straightened out through Dunvale village. The street was empty in both directions and glittering with a fresh layer of frost. The car, a compact, spearmint green Pinto, came out of the bend very quickly, and veered suddenly out into the opposite lane. The driver attempted to correct, but it was too late; what had probably seemed a fractional and entirely proportionate adjustment in the moment it was made brought the Pinto straight into the redbrick wall of The Pearl’s car park, directly across the road from where I was standing.
By this point I’d aborted the ignition of my cigarette (though it still clung, like a scrap of bunting, to my lips) and was rubbing my hands together and shifting from foot to foot in an effort to get my circulation going. Maybe ten minutes had elapsed since I’d limped from the submarine humidity of a packed Dublin bus into Dunvale’s chill air. I was home for Christmas.
The dogs of nearby households, jolted from their canine slumbers, sent a chorus of barks into the ensuing silence. I could make out footsteps in the distance, and somewhere nearby, the rush of the Mule river. I remembered the stories I’d heard as a child, about the old Dunvale farmers; how they were reputed to bring their clapped out donkeys—the ones that could no longer hack their daily allotment of donkeywork—to the shore of the river; how they beat their haunches with rods or willow-switches and drove the poor creatures into the water.
The wreckage steamed and hissed in the snow. I picked up my duffel bag—long habit meant I never left it unattended—and crossed the road. Snowflakes splatted against my jacket, leaving dark stains like the photonegatives of stars. The car was a mess. The front axle had jarred loose and chewed its way partially free of the chassis; the wheel on the far side had punched through the Pinto’s frame and buried itself in the innards of the engine compartment. I could smell smoke in the air.
As I approached, the passenger door screeched on its hinge. A figure clambered out, took two unsteady steps toward me, then stopped. He just stood there, and it took me a moment to realise that he was looking at me. We were probably both trying to figure out who was whose apparition.
Of course, was my first thought, of course it would be someone you know.
Back in secondary school, at the start of every lunchtime hour, myself and my friends—D, Brian Brennan and Sean Timlin—would rendezvous across the road from the school’s front gates, by the Mule bridge, and head uptown together. This was in fourth year, when we still permitted Matty Crollis to hang out with us. He was the joke, the butt, of our gang; the short-breathed, pudgy kid you could dependably pick on with no fear of reprisal, and he was always somehow the last to arrive. When I saw him approaching—slouching down St Carmichael’s oak-lined drive—I’d jab whoever was standing closest to me and nod in his direction.
‘Shite. Here he comes. Quick: before he gets here. Let’s go kill ourselves!’
And with a big smile on my face I’d mime jumping into the Mule.
It was a few weeks before the end of term, and the five of us were standing outside Luther’s, a bar with a pool hall attached and a favoured haunt of ours. D had just dispatched the rest of us in a best-of-three-frames snooker tournament (save for Crollis, whose ineptitude with a cue was such that we no longer allowed him to participate in our knockout games). We’d squandered our lunch money and were digging through our back pockets, hoping to dredge up enough loose change between us for a bag of chips.
A raggedy, brown and white springer spaniel was cruising the pavement for scraps. It wandered over to our group and began to snuffle excitedly at our hands and pockets. Its coat was matted with stalactites of dirt and its tongue hung from its jaws like a sodden pink sock. It stank like a heap of used bath towels, and was clearly a stray. Timlin snatched playfully at its glistening black nose. He leaned in low to the side of its head and said ‘Fuck off,’ but said it very softly and evenly, like an endearment. The dog went to lick his face and he gently cuffed its jaw. D finished counting the change we’d poured into his hands. ‘We’re 20p short of a large curry cheese. Feck sake.’
Crollis had been watching D futilely count up the coinage.
‘Look, lads, me Mam gives us a fiver on Fridays. I’ve enough money to buy us all a bag of chips,’ he interjected, ‘I mean ye can get me back next week or whenever.’
We turned to him, and crowed ‘Fuck off!!’ in unison.
‘I just beat everyone’s arses at pool, I’ll buy me own fucking chips!’ D jabbed Crollis’s shoulder, indignant. Crollis went pale. ‘I just thought—’
The spaniel had circled back behind Crollis, and just then began nosing at his trouser pocket; Crollis took a step back, screamed ‘Fuck off!’ and brought his foot right up into the dog’s midriff. It lifted off the ground a little bit, then scrambled yelping down the street.
‘You prick!’ Timlin snarled, shoving Crollis.
‘What!?’ he screamed. Tears were welling in his eyes, and his cheeks were beginning to go purple.
‘You… apologise to that fucking dog!’ Timlin roared. Timlin was a sweet, generally temperate guy, but big, with a big guy’s predilection for the physical stuff when he thought it was called for. With a languid sweep of his arm he grabbed a fistful of Crollis’s oversized duffel coat and spun him into Luther’s blacked-out window front. Crollis’s glasses clattered to the pavement.
‘Apologise for what to the dog! It’s a dog! I just wanted to buy yez chips!’ Crollis pleaded. He was crying now. Timlin kept his arm held out, at the end of which Crollis’s purple face squirmed and writhed like a snagged balloon, his glassless eyes reduced and scrunched, Chinese with distress. Brennan put his hand on Timlin’s shoulder.
‘Leave it, Sean.’
Timlin let Crollis go.
Crollis bent over and picked up his glasses. He kept his head bowed as he rearranged them on his face. Hacking and spluttering, he pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to compose himself. Timlin spun on his heels.
‘C’mon, let’s go.’
The four of us went to walk away. From behind us a sob was stifled, and a small voice said, ‘Wait up a sec, lads.’
I turned back first. I’d never done anything like it before, but Crollis had opened himself up in a way none of us were equipped to resist or bear. I made a fist and aimed for his bloated, tear-streaked cheek.
After that, Crollis stopped hanging around with us. He started taking increasingly circuitous routes to and from the chipper, in part to avoid us, in part to simply kill off the hour. On the rare occasion he encountered us coming the other way along Dunvale’s main street or crossing the Mule bridge, he would look straight on and through us, the wind blowing into his round stoical face, a parcel of soggy chips tucked under his elbow, like a jilted lover with his bouquet of wilted flowers.
I hadn’t seen Crollis in half a decade, since our grad ball I’d guess, but he looked the same, more or less, standing before me alive and apparently intact. He was still short, more stocky now than pudgy, with the same sandy brown hair maintained in a severe part which, even after the crash, was only marginally disarranged. The lenses of his glasses were fractured, the frames hanging at an angle from his face. His cheeks were purple. ‘How are you?’ was all I could manage after a pause. ‘I mean, are you okay? Matty—’
‘…Tweedy,’ Crollis smiled, then looked back dreamily at the car he’d just extricated himself from. The snow was still coming down.
‘I think Duckie’s dead,’ he sighed. ‘I think Duckie may very well be dead.’
Duckie, it turned out, was Duckie Reape, a low-level drug dealer from ‘back the park,’ ‘the park’ being the bad side of town, ‘back the park’ being the baddest part of that prenominate patch. Duckie wasn’t dead, but he had shattered his collarbone, cracked three ribs and lacerated his liver, and was strewn, unconscious, over the Pinto’s steering wheel, his shaven scalp studded with shards of glass from the cracked windshield.
A member of staff up at The Pearl had had the wherewithal to make the emergency call. A firetruck, ambulance and a couple of squad cars duly arrived. Crollis and Duckie were strapped to orange stretchers and carted off to the county hospital. One of the guards took a brief statement from me as another three improvised a cordon. My mother, who was late to the bus stop because my youngest brother had vomited up his dinner just as she was about to come collect me, slowed the Corolla to a crawl as I recounted what happened. In the kitchen I inched through two beers and related the event for a second time, to my da. I went to bed on a mattress on the floor of my childhood bedroom—commandeered in my absence by the next eldest—fighting off a curious sense of elation.
I bumped into Crollis a week later in Luther’s, the night before I was due to head back to Dublin. I was hunched in a corner by the pool tables, out in the renovated and expanded back room. Nobody was playing, and the rows of unblemished green baize shone like miniature municipal parks. An AC/DC Best Of clanged and chugged at a low volume from the jukebox. D was propped on a stool beside me, another of the seasonally returned college diaspora. We were watching the regulars our age come in, trying to figure out who we knew, feigning vagueness. I sipped my pint and danced around an admission of my patent relief at how far and how easily we had drifted from these poor, landlocked, time locked fuckers. D, I’m sure, was thinking the exact same.
‘These boys never change. Although they’ve got fatter, some of them,’ D said finally.
Crollis just appeared at my elbow. He had a pint in one hand, a bird gathered up in the other.
‘Well, lads. This is Imelda—Imelda, Scott, D. Scott here was at the crash. He saw poor Duckie fuck his mam’s ninety-six into that brick wall.’
‘Yez were lucky. You were lucky,’ I corrected myself. As far as I knew, Duckie was still in traction in Castlebar General, but rumours had already begun to circulate regarding his level of sobriety the night of the crash. This wasn’t something I was going to ask Crollis about, nor how he had ended up becoming affiliated with such a character. He said nothing to my remark, just looked from me to D, sucking with steady vehemence at the head of his Guinness, like it was a wound filled with venom.
‘You don’t look too bad anyway,’ D said.
‘Ah, I’m walking y’know. I learned my lesson though.’
‘He has,’ Imelda leaned in queasily. Her breath was weathered and tangy, perfumed with nicotine, vodka and lime. Two slabs of sapphire had been painted in the hollows above her hazel eyes. I was trying to place her, and with a twinge of erotic nostalgia recalled her (or someone very much like her) at fifteen or sixteen, in braces and pigtails, one of the many convent girls that took my bus home, on whom I might once have nursed a crush.
A moment passed, but neither she nor Crollis felt the need to elaborate on the nature of the lesson evidently learned. ‘Well,’ Crollis said finally, looking out over our heads towards the front lounge. The light caught his cheek, the faded burgundy of a bruise. I realised he wasn’t wearing his glasses. We ceremonially clinked our pints and Crollis, Imelda in tow, sauntered off.
Later the barman shooed a fresh one in my direction, and when I asked him who bought it, he cocked a thumb towards Crollis. He was standing in a circle of people out by the front of the bar, enmeshed in conversation. When I bought him one back (the barman easing its trembling breadth along the burnished bartop, through a forest of planted and leaning elbows), Crollis, after a polite interval, had another beer dispatched my way. We went at it like that for a while, engaging the barman with those terse nods only bar staff can properly perceive and decode, shuttling drinks back and forth, as if each one were an apology or a refutation, perhaps even a kind of exhortation to the other to stop, to stop, to simply and finally stop existing.