There is nothing remarkable about the fact that Ciara is late. When they agreed on half past ten, Brendan supposed that she would arrive closer to twelve, not because she was any less punctual than the rest of them, but because in Leitrim you just added an hour or so to the agreed time.
In the end, she arrives at eleven forty just as Brendan is lighting another fag, and has a fresh pot of coffee bubbling on the electric plate.
‘Feck’s sake, I thought you were never coming,’ he says, not out of genuine frustration but because that is what you are meant to say. And Ciara runs her hands through her hair.
‘I know!’ she says, as though Leitrim’s hold on her is hard to suffer, and no other explanation is necessary. ‘Here give us a drag of that, will you?’
They sit for twenty minutes smoking and drinking coffee, before Ciara decides it’s time to hit the road.
‘The car’s a bit full,’ she says, as they are stepping out on to the main street. Brendan catches sight of the boxes stuffed in at all angles and mountains of loose paraphernalia.
‘Jesus!’ he says, pulling the front door closed with a bang.
Ciara lets the handbrake off and the car rolls gently forward. When they are at the top of the hill, she checks her mirror and steers out, knocking it into second and letting it gather momentum before taking her foot off the clutch.
‘Don’t you think it’s time to get a new car?’ Brendan says. ‘Can’t afford it.’
‘A new gearbox then?’
‘Sure may as well get a new car with the amount that would cost.’ ‘Hmmm.’
‘Anyway, as long as it’s always parked on a hill, it’s grand.’
‘Are there many hills in Galway?’
‘Or we can gather a few lads… push it a bit to get it going.’ ‘Last time we did that it rained.’
‘Yeah, that was funny.’
‘I don’t remember laughing.’
Brendan winds down the window, which is tight and moves with a squeal. There is a tiny edging of moss along the rubber seals that the pane of glass rises out of. He lights a cigarette and holds it by the gap. The sky is a dirty colour, like mashed offal. It throws an erratic spittle over the windscreen, which is not enough for the wipers to clear without leaving smudges. In spite of the rain, Ciara squints in the uncertain glare.
‘Pass out me sunnies, will ya?’ she says pointing at the glove box. Brendan pulls out a pair of white-framed heart-shaped glasses.
‘Those are so gay,’ he says.
They are out on the coast road with the radio on. Ciara drives with a certain caution, but doesn’t hang about either. Brendan would love to sleep, since he was up into the early hours smoking weed, but he knows it’s not cool to leave Ciara devoid of company for the trip.
‘How come she’s got so much stuff anyways?’ He says, jabbing a finger in the direction of the boot, where Helen’s things are coiled and stuffed and twisted and shoved.
‘I dunno. I guess she likes collecting things.’ ‘A kleptomaniac.’
‘Oh. I thought it was hoarding.’ ‘No.’
He stares past Ciara at the sea, which can be glimpsed in flashes as they head towards Sligo. The water is dishwater grey. Disappointing, he thinks, since they’re on a road trip and you always want to be dazzled on a road trip.
‘It’s like necrophilia,’ he says. ‘What is?’ asks Ciara, frowning.
‘I always mix it up with narcolepsy. Keep thinking it’s that falling-asleep thing.’
Ciara laughs, a four-stage rising sequence: Ah-he-he-he. ‘There’s a bit of a feckin difference,’ she says.
‘Yeah. I know,’ says Brendan, wistfully. ‘You could get into some trouble with that.’
Out past Collooney, they take a right at the second roundabout, which no one can ever remember the name of, and onto the N17.
‘I wish I was on the EN-SEVENTEEN… stone walls and the grass is green!’
They bellow out two lines before realising they don’t know the rest of the words and letting the song trail into a rambling murmur and then a windless hum. Ciara leans forward; rallies herself for the next tranche of the journey, which will seem long and will involve countless dips in velocity as they lag behind auld lads with straw bales in the boot, trailing twine, who Brendan will verbally assault and call ‘culchie cunts’ even though he is one himself; or Cork registrations with all the heads inside facing left and right, looking for a turning or some landmark in the expansive boggy void; or livestock trucks which Ciara will whine at as she passes them out, staring at the poor bovine bulk, their sorry fate turning her maudlin.
‘The world is cruel,’ Brendan will say unhelpfully, as if that’s all there is to it.
‘It’s dog eat dog.’
‘And you know all about the world!’
‘I know enough. I know that we’re never gonna change it. So suck it up.’
Halfway to Tubbercurry, they see the sun. It doesn’t come out so much as drill through little cracks in the cloud and fire darts of light at any windows and metal surfaces that populate the roadside. They can smell the heavy steam that rises instantly from the damp bog. Ciara breathes deeply with satisfaction.
‘I love the smell of the bog,’ she says.
‘Same as that. We used to go stacking the turf in Clare when I was a kid,’ Brendan says. ‘Nothing like it. And the tea in the flask. Why does it always taste better from a flask?’
‘Dunno. Maybe cause it was steeping. Maybe you were just thirstier.’ A moment of silence.
‘Speaking of thirst,’ Brendan says.
‘No way!’ Ciara changes gear. ‘We’re not stopping.’
But at the other side of Tubbercurry they spot a hitcher, a young lad with a baseball cap and a rucksack hoisted high on one shoulder. He smiles hopefully, his thumb waggling with enthusiasm. He looks happy. He looks young.
‘What’ll I do?’ says Ciara.
‘Give the poor fella a lift,’ says Brendan. ‘There’s a good dip in the road here to get off again.’
‘But the back is full of stuff.’
‘We’ll make some space.’ Ciara pulls over.
Brendan twists around, reaches to open the back door, re-angles a pot plant and a long-base lamp, shoves a couple of boxes into the footwell behind Ciara’s seat.
‘Hello,’ says the lad, gamely clambering in, legs bending under him as he settles in the hole Brendan has opened up in the middle. He looms between them, leaning forward.
‘Hi.’ Ciara smiles. ‘Where are you headed?’
‘Uh, Galway?’ he says. He pronounces the ‘a’ as in ‘salad’.
‘G-a-lway, Ciara,’ Brendan says, facetiously.
‘That’s where we’re going!’
The lad is clearly European, and has learned from an American teacher. ‘Where do you hail from yourself?’
‘What? Where I’m from?’
‘Cool,’ says Ciara.
‘I’m just travelling. Shooting the breeze.’
‘Good for you.’
‘You’ve got the lingo.’
‘He sure has, Brendan.’
‘He’s got it down pat.’
‘You’ve got it down pat,’ Ciara says, feeling playful. The lad looks inquisitive, still smiling.
‘Don’t worry about it. It’s a stupid saying.’
‘Yeah, like shooting the breeze.’
Silence. He is processing.
She has been crawling, sliding down the hill on the hard shoulder. She pulls out. A lorry cab with no container beeps its horn. It blares over them. The Swiss boy cowers momentarily. It speeds around them with another little blast.
‘Christ!’ says Brendan. ‘Feckin watch it.’
‘Sorry. I was distracted.’
A pause. Ciara winks at Brendan.
‘Far too young for you,’ Brendan says.
‘Still cute though. God love him.’
The lad leans forward between them. ‘It was loud. That claxon.’
Brendan laughs, and enjoys the sound of his own laughter. He howls. ‘It’s funny?’
‘It’s a horn,’ Ciara says.
Brendan wipes the tears from his eyes. ‘It wasn’t that funny,’ Ciara says.
Brendan giggles again.
‘He’s breaking his shite laughing,’ she says over her shoulder.
Brendan goes again, his head between his knees, ‘A-ha-ha-ha-ha…’
At the petrol station, they introduce themselves properly. Brendan proffers an awkward hand and shakes the boy’s formally. The boy’s name is Ralph and Brendan tries it a few times, dutifully attempting the correct pronunciation of the soft ‘r’ which is an open-mouthed glottal rasp that seems to emanate from the back of the throat, rather than the goofy Anglo front-of-palette pout. Then he offers Ralph a cigarette and they smoke while Ciara seeks out a toilet. When she comes back, she looks at the lad carefully and smiles. He is tall and thin, with a neat squared jaw and fine cheekbones. Effeminate almost.
‘How old are you?’ she asks.
‘Twenty,’ Ralph replies with a shrug, as if to say, who cares?
‘Holy fuck,’ says Brendan, genuinely stunned by the extreme youth, and the energy and character required for such journeying. He himself has never exhibited such purpose, although he did spend six months in Amsterdam in his early thirties. Purpose couldn’t exactly be credited as the driving force of that adventure. Now, Brendan does not consider the future or think of it in good terms or bad. He knows there are days spent with friends that can be chalked up as good ones, and days that fall into a drain of ennui and hopelessness which are best forgotten as soon as have they ended. Ciara is a little younger than him, a little more excited by the world in general, but she has suffered knocks too, and shares the same debilitating fear to hope for things that must be striven for, or to follow ambitions that might be eternally doomed to fail.
‘Good on you,’ is all Brendan can think to say.
They watch the same lorry driver who beeped them on the road emerge from the petrol station and step up into his cab. He takes a swig of his coffee and sets it somewhere on his dashboard, unwraps a breakfast bap from an endless roll of paper and sticks one side of it in his mouth. He starts the engine and steers one-handed from the forecourt.
‘Asshole,’ Brendan says.
Ralph laughs. ‘He is a dick, no?’
Brendan and Ciara exchange an amused glance. ‘A gobshite,’ Ciara says.
‘Total cunt,’ Brendan says, slowly, in an instructive manner, hoping the Swiss will copy.
‘Jesus, that’s awful language altogether,’ Ciara says.
‘In fairness, you did pull out in front of him,’ Brendan says.
They bundle back into the car, Ralph in the back as before. His head sits neatly into the shade of Helen’s lamp and the others laugh.
‘Will you be all right back there?’ Ciara asks.
‘I’m grand,’ he says.
‘Grand! Where d’you pick that up?’
Brendan has his door open and one foot out on the tarmac. He puts a shoulder to the frame of the door and heaves the car forward. Ciara has parked facing the back where the yard dips just slightly into a workshop and car wash. They get enough momentum to rumble into second gear with just enough room to steer round before hitting the wall on the far side.
Ralph says nothing.
They pass Knock, first the airport and then the signs to the holy shrine. ‘Want to stop and say a few Hail Marys?’ Brendan asks.
‘You’re joking, right?’
He points down the road, in the direction of the town.
‘It’s a holy place,’ he says to Ralph, slow enough so the lad will understand. ‘A shrine. People go there to say prayers and get healed. Like Lourdes.’
‘Ah,’ Ralph says.
‘Yes, okay, yeah, I know.’
‘Want to stop?’
Ralph’s eyebrows go up, his mouth forms a comic-dour pout of consideration, his brow comes down again, he tilts his head from side to side. He can’t assess whether Brendan is serious, and then he sees the glint in Brendan’s eye. He smiles a broad gleaming smile. Fuck, Brendan thinks, admiring the whiteness and straightness of his teeth. Ralph’s laugh is a girlish giggle that unfolds with familiarity, devoid of inhibition.
‘Nah, is okay,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel like to pray right now.’
‘Me neither,’ says Brendan. ‘I could do with a bit of holy water though.’
‘You’re not a religious fella?’ Ciara says, catching Ralph’s eye in the rear-view mirror.
‘Am I religious?’
‘Yeah. That’s what I’m asking.’
‘Not religious, no,’ Ralph says. ‘Spiritual, more like, you know?’
‘Yeah, is nice, I suppose. It’s like… I believe, you know… but not in God or Jesus… just… I don’t know… maybe I believe in the universe or something.’
‘He believes in the universe! Did you hear that, Brendo?’
‘I heard it,’ Brendan says.
Ciara looks like she might cry. ‘He’s so sweet,’ she says.
‘Turn the radio up,’ Brendan says.
When they pass the lorry cab, Ciara gives an audacious little toot and waves her hand out the window.
‘Don’t provoke him!’ Brendan says.
‘It’s like Thelma and Louise,’ Ciara says.
Brendan can’t be bothered to point out the notable differences. Instead he turns to Ralph.
‘Have you sampled the Guinness yet?’
‘Yeah. Black stuff. Creamy head on top.’
‘No I don’t like.’
Brendan and Ciara hit a spontaneously synchronised groan.
‘It’s very heavy, very strong,’ Ralph says.
‘What a pussy!’ Brendan says, disgusted.
‘The poor boy only weighs about eight stone. What *do *you drink then?’
‘I prefer the Swiss beer. The lager.’
‘Sure.’ Under her breath Ciara says, ‘we’ll soon knock that out of him. He’ll be a Guinness swigging alco by the time he leaves this place.’
‘What do you think of our food?’ Brendan asks. ‘It’s shit isn’t it?’
‘Food is nice,’ Ralph says.
‘Breakfast is really cool.’
‘I love this eggs, sausage—how you call it—rasher?’
‘Ah, now you’re talking. Are you hungry now?’
‘Angry? No, I’m not angry.’
‘Hungry. Food. Now?’
‘Sorry, sorry. For me, these two words are confused always.’
‘Easy mistake to make,’ Ciara says drily. ‘Not like narcolepsy and necrophilia.’
‘Don’t embarrass me in front of the lad,’ Brendan says.
‘What?’ says Ralph leaning forward.
‘Never mind,’ they say.
They continue on towards Claregalway, Ralph straining to get a look at the view through Helen’s jumbled possessions. The road is narrow and the landscape is flat with only lock-ups and abandoned petrol stations and ugly bungalows and sweeping fields that are flat and forlorn. The famous stonewalls begin to appear like perforations on a page; tantalising boundaries that demarcate field upon field, their purpose negligible, but their arrangement quaint. Ciara points them out for Ralph who looks, and shows a surprising amount of interest. Ciara has noticed that the cab driver is tailing her closely now, seemingly intent on finding his way past her again; his disdain for her one-litre engine evident in the way he sways across her back bumper, his headlights sitting high and close in her rear-view mirror.
‘So he is a cunt after all,’ Brendan says, lighting up another fag.
‘He was driving much slower earlier,’ Ciara says.
‘Was probably texting his girlfriend or something. Now he wants to get you back for your cheek.’
‘I was only teasing. Having a bit of fun,’ she says.
‘On the road there is no such thing as a bit of fun. People become other creatures behind the wheel, haven’t you noticed that?’
‘I dunno,’ she says. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna fecking let him pass when I get a chance to pull in.’
‘Fuck him. Let him wait. He shouldn’t be intimidating you.’
Ralph remains silent. He is tired of the view and has reverted to his phone, messaging and scrolling, probably updating somebody on the progress of his trip.
‘What’re you gonna do when you get to Galway?’ Brendan asks idly, blowing smoke with less concern for its escape out of the window. Ciara lets out a dry cough in the tobaccoed fog.
‘I have friends,’ Ralph says. ‘Two guys I met in Bolivia.’
‘Fuck me,’ says Brendan. ‘You were in Bolivia?’
‘Yeah, it was pretty cool.’
‘Are the people nice?’
‘Oh for sure,’ says Ralph.
Brendan’s primary concern on visiting any new place is for the candour of its people, above everything else: scenery, food, drink, nightlife, cost…
‘One day I would like to return,’
‘Yeah? Don’t you have other places on your bucket list? I bet you do.’
‘Yeah, you know… things you want to do, places you want to see, before you die.’
In days, months and years to come, Brendan, who has never been superstitious, will wonder whether, with these few words, he somehow determined Ralph’s fate; whether he had not, in fact, precipitated his untimely death by the very movement of his lips, the very utterance of the word die *at the exact moment that the kitten appeared on the road. He has heard subsequently of the *Butterfly Effect, in which the world is determined and altered, its course changed in every instant, by every fragile pulse, by every breeze that blows, by every beat of wings; every blink, nudge, sigh, breath. He hears repeated in his head his own voice, saying before you die, over and over, and with this audio recording, which is like a tape spooling through his brain, he has burnished on his retina the visual sequence that starts and restarts like a stop-motion animation, and which is triggered each time by the words that preceded it. Before you die.
He didn’t see the kitten that Ciara braked so hard to save, because he was turned in the passenger’s direction, staring him straight in the eye, and the image of that eye has stayed intact, although the body in one fraction of a second was gone—untethered by any belt—and in its place was the illogical, impossible headlight of the lorry. The sound, while it must have been thunderous, other- worldly, apocalyptic, left no trace; nothing he can remember at all. He only hears the perpetual echo of the words: Before you die. And he turns his head to see Ciara on the road already, but standing, her mouth open. And Ralph on the ground at her feet. His intestine—so unbelievably long—is coiled around the base of the tall lamp and seems indistinguishable from the flex, which is dangling over the bonnet of the car, its three-pinned plug facing up like a baby’s hand.
It is he who should be to blame, he will tell Ciara later, although she cannot, and never will, accept this. Or the cab driver… But no. And while they each wrangle with this dilemma, he asks himself: What if we had left at half-past ten as planned? What if we had never picked up the Swiss boy? What if we had told Helen to collect her own fucking things? What if she had never moved to Galway at all?