Engine roaring, I rode the bike hard into the sun, towards the bay, jolting across uneven stubbled earth, wind in my face. The summer was focused and peaked in this pure vision; fields beneath enormous sky, a brimming glassy bay, the sand dunes lying like a jagged mountain chain along the horizon.
I was seventeen years old.
I turned tight, almost losing the wheels from under me, tasted my own exhaust smoke, then came upright again, bike in too high a gear, shuddering till it caught speed, and aimed for the open gate to the upper field. The ruts from tractor wheels were parched canyons in the gateway. Rocks poked through the gouged dusty earth. I needed to slow for it. I accelerated.
Passing through the gateway, the world shook me loose. And then I was staring at the blue empty sky.
I lay there in perfect silence and stillness. I was completely aware of where I was, and all that had happened in the days and weeks preceding that moment. I was aware of my life and my troubles. But my troubles no longer belonged to me. They were clamouring little objects I watched from above, blessedly free of them, just as I observed the desperation of my body as my throat made foul funny noises, begging for breath. I had heard of the soul, of course—I had kneeled in the gloom of the church—but now I could feel it, knocked loose there inside my ribcage, ready to detach itself and rise and dissolve itself in the blue. And I wondered if my back was broken.
I heard a groan as the breath entered me, and I panicked, feeling the body clutching at me again, pulling me down. The blue was gone, because my eyes were squeezed shut. Now the thought that my back was broken was horror. It was the fear of the flesh, pinned to the earth. I had to move. Someone slapped my leg. My head jerked up and my eyes opened. I was alone.
The motorcycle was on its side, a wheel still spinning. I sat up and watched it.
I had left my body and returned to it. It had happened between two breaths. I sat there in the dust. The wheel slowed and stopped.
Time was not what I had previously believed it to be. I had just stepped out of it.
I got up, looking around, glad my legs worked. I was still slightly deaf. I was still inhabiting the vision, and wanted to hold on to it a little longer, but breath by breath, I could feel it slipping away. I looked at the countryside, at the world I was returning to. The bales of straw were arranged in eights, here and there about the field, where I had stooked them. The grain was in the silo, the straw would soon be in the barn. And then we would raze the stubble, trailing burning plastic fertilizer bags across the ground. The bushes and trees and sky would tremble in the heat-haze and drifting smoke as the fire caught and moved in a line across the land.
A couple of weeks before this happened, before I was hurled like a rag doll to the hard earth—and discovered that I was a soul, and that time was just an obsession, a condition, of the body, and that thought itself, compulsive and time-bound, was the fault of the body—I had become a man. She was a couple of years older than me. I was remembering her naked when I accelerated at that wrong moment.
Her family was away that afternoon, and I’d ridden the bike in to town. In the kitchen she gave me beer and offered me a cigarette. I looked at it and shook my head. I’d never smoked. She smoked a lot. I liked that about her. I liked everything about her. I wanted to kiss her. I’d kissed girls before, but never sober.
—Say something, Space.
They called me Space. It had been Spaceman once. I moved under another gravity, like a moonwalker.
I shrugged and drank some beer.
I tried hard to think of something to say, but nothing happened. It was like the thing with the chickens; someone had done an experiment, putting food on the other side of their wire. They crowded together, squawking like crazy, looking at the food. It was discovered that really hungry chickens would starve to death even if the gate to the run was left open—they couldn’t tear their eyes from the food. Less hungry chickens would go for a stroll and eventually stumble across their dinner. Which drove the starving chickens on the other side mad.
I couldn’t relax and talk properly. I wanted too much to kiss her.
—I never know what you’re thinking about, she said.
I told her about the chicken experiment. She listened patiently, nodding from time to time, smoking, and said:
—You’re great company, Space.
She walked out of the kitchen. I felt ashamed. I looked at her cigarettes on the table. Maybe it was time to try one. I could hear her in the other room. I followed her. She was looking out the window at the back garden, smoking. I stood beside her. I wondered if she wanted me to leave. She extinguished her cigarette and said:
—What do you want to do? I shrugged and said:
—Drink some beers. Whatever you want to do is fine.
She turned and walked away, down the hall. I watched her go, beautiful and severe, long black hair swaying. She went into a room. I could hear her doing something.
I went back into the kitchen. She’d left her cigarettes on the table. I looked at them. I finished the beer. I took another from the fridge and opened that and took a drink. I brought it with me down the hall, quietly, and looked into the room she’d entered. I couldn’t see her. It was dim. The curtains were pulled. I took several small steps into the room. She was in bed, under the covers, looking at me.
—What’s wrong? I whispered. Are you sick or something?
—Take your clothes off.
I put my beer on the dresser and took my clothes off and got in beside her.
It was different, kissing someone and our naked bodies touching and hands moving all over. Many things were happening at once. No wonder, I thought, this is so popular.
—Your cock is very big.
—No, I mean, compared to other men.
I’d never been called a man before. It didn’t bother me about all the other cocks she was familiar with. Their owners were away in other places—working in petrol stations and farms and warehouses, or sitting in bars and kitchens— and it was mine she was gripping now.
—Is it a problem?
—We’ll soon find out.
—I don’t have a condom.
It wasn’t strictly necessary, she said. She explained how it worked. It sounded easy. But still, what if…
—You want to do it or not? she demanded
Afterwards, we sat in the kitchen again. She offered me a cigarette. I shook my head. She lit up and smoked.
—Why are you looking at me like that? she asked.
—Can we do it again?
—Sometime. She laughed
—You’re great company, Space.
She finished her cigarette. I finished my third beer.
—Well, you’d better get out of here, or they’ll be carrying you out.
Indeed, I seemed to be melting, slumping down into the chair. I did as I was told, getting to my feet. I felt pretty good. Relaxed but light.
She walked me to the front door and opened it. I went out and got on the bike. I didn’t have a helmet. But I didn’t have tax or insurance either. Or a licence. She was at the edge of town. It was open country through to where I lived.
I rode homewards, sun on my face.
I stood up and looked around. The sky was cloudless. The bay was still brimming, the tide on the point of turning. I was unhurt. I was in no hurry to get back to the world of doing and thinking and feeling. I pulled the bike upright and examined it. It seemed fine. I got on and kick-started it. It turned first time and I rode it gently up to the house.
It was an old house, two storeys, painted white, built in the nineteenth century. There was a giant fireplace in the living room, big enough that you could stand in it. My father had been born in that house. I rode the bike into the courtyard and parked it. There were stables and outhouses, plastered and painted white also. In places the plaster had fallen off, revealing red brick. Nobody was home. And in the silence when the engine died I looked at the house and I understood what was going to happen. I had never envisaged the future before except in the vaguest terms, in daydreams and longings, but now it presented itself as a fact, another aspect of my sudden lucid vision, another thing I would be able to tell no one, except when it had already come to pass: that this house would one day be a ruin. My parents would be gone from it, my brothers and sisters would be gone, the old trees would be cut down, the roof would fall in, a tree would grow from the floorboards in the room where my parents had slept. Everything before me now that was whole would be undone, and I would live to see it.
It was Sunday and it was silent and still because they were away at the moving statues. Statues of the Blessed Virgin had begun to move, to gesture to the faithful. It had started down the coast from us, in Ballinspittle, and now statues in townlands all over the country were moving. The believers would congregate to kneel and pray, day and night, in every weather, staring, awaiting her next sign. News and talk shows brought the latest reports; a group of maidens in Donegal, walking home from an evening of set dancing, had seen a light in the sky above a hedgerow, the face of Our Lady appeared and told them to prepare themselves for the coming message. The land trembled on the brink of revelation.
So I entered the living house that day seeing that it would one day be a ruin, alone with my vision, because the folks were away, expecting bigger news.
I went up to my room. It was dim and ghostly after the brightness of the open country. Through the window I could see the flat-topped Comeraghs out to the west. I wished I was walking on their heights, from where you could see half the world. A slowly growing crack of anxiety had appeared in the perfection of my earlier mood. I sat down on the bed and rubbed my eyes. Then I picked up the book lying open on the bed. I had been reading it that morning but could remember nothing of it. I looked at the page and the lines jumped out at me:
Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole Countryside is flooded, the illumined man
Has little need of scriptures, seeing as he does Divinity in everything around him.
I heard an engine I recognised and I stood up, dropping the book to the floor. I went down. Joe was standing in the yard by the bike in his test-fighter pilot pose, helmet under one arm, feet planted apart, long curly hair already springing back. Around his neck he wore a red and white Palestinian headscarf.
He was a year older than me.
—Howya, Space. Quiet round here. Isn’t it?
—They’re away at the statues. Down at Mount Mellory. The Ma says she feels something is going to happen.
He took out his cigarettes, put one in his mouth, and lit a match, looking at me:
—You know? I fucken wish it would.
He leaned into the flame, then looked at me again and said, smoke spilling from his mouth:
—What’s the matter with you?
I shook my head. I couldn’t tell him anything. It didn’t seem possible.
—You look like you’ve been sniffing solvents. I shrugged.
—Well. I won’t beat about. S’pose you heard already.
—No, I lied.
I said nothing. He took a couple of puffs in short succession, looking at me, maybe trying to figure me out.
—It’s like this. It happened and I’m more surprised than anyone. Well. There you have it.
I nodded. He didn’t need to say her name. It was there already.
—I wanted to tell you, to your face. Because I know you used to like her.
—I still do like her, Joe.
—Sure why wouldn’t you, she’s a good one.
At this point the crows in the trees around got off on one of their panics and I looked up at them and thought something would happen. And Joe looked up but already they were starting to settle and he thought less of it and it was over soon, except for some squawking.
—I know you had a thing for her, so. Out of respect. No hard feelings. I shook my head.
—Well, Space, you’re alright. It’s a load off, to talk to you. I suppose you want to know how it happened.
—We were drinking, the gang of us, down at the sand dunes, and I walked off and lay down and was looking at the sky. I just seemed to wake up and she was on top of me. There I was, looking up at the stars and getting my hole. And drunk as I was, boy, I remembered you were into her. I thought of you. But it was too late anyway.
—It was a good ride. Very natural, finding a young one on top of your knob like that. Pure fucken poetry. The firelight and the stars in the open air and all. But the thing is.
He looked at me meaningfully.
—I mean it’s not just getting the ride and all. I really like the girl.
—That’s good, Joe.
—Yeah, well, we’ll see how it goes. You never can tell.
I nodded. Joe dropped what was left of his cigarette and ground it under his boot.
—Give us a smoke there.
He tapped out a Camel and I took it. I put it in my shirt pocket. He didn’t comment, though he knew I never smoked.
—You’re fucken all right, Space, so you are.
I couldn’t argue. It was his film. I was a supporting actor.
—Can I have the matches too?
He handed them over. He put on his helmet and got on and kick-started the bike. It was a powerful machine, unlike mine. I had a big cock, though. Then again, I’d only really used it once and it hadn’t brought me luck. We waved goodbye and Joe took off. I watched him go. Then I stood there, listening to him accelerating down the road, ripping the gentle countryside apart with his noise. I wandered over to the chicken run and gripped the wire and stared in at the hens.
It got dark and late and still I was on my own. Something must have been going on at the statues, perhaps the Second Coming, and I was the last soul in the country to hear about it. They were living pages from the Book of Revelation, while I was tormented by images of firelight orgies at the sand dunes, naked bodies leaping and dancing and copulating among the flames. I wandered from silent room to silent room, still with the vision in my mind of the house as a ruin. I opened a cabinet and drank from a bottle of my father’s whiskey. He didn’t mind me doing that. I don’t mind you getting drunk, he told me once, as long as you’re not smoking marijuana. People smoked it, he explained, and jumped off buildings, thinking they could fly. I started to feel like the last human being alive on earth. What if they had all ascended on a pillar of light, clutching their rosary beads? I couldn’t stay still. There was nothing left of the peace I felt when I came off the bike.
I went out to the yard and paced about in the dark. What I had to do was walk.
I went around the house and through the front gate and down the road, between the dark hedgerows. I emptied the bottle and sent it sailing into the night. It landed with a soft clunk. The stars were out and a sliver of a moon. I walked fast, trying to think of nothing. Then I heard a car engine from very* *far away. Finally the light from its headlights became visible, then the bright headlights themselves as it rounded a curve and came towards me.
It pulled up beside me. A police car.
The garda at the wheel rolled his window down. There was another guard in the passenger seat and another in the back.
—Howya. Late in the evening to be out for a walk?
—What time is it?
—Late. Where are you going?
He frowned. He asked my name and address. I told him.
—Don’t believe you. I don’t believe you’re from round here at all. Who’s your neighbours?
I gave them Dalys, Hanleys, Mulcahys and Doyles. Walshes, Powers, Chasteys and Phelans. Meades, Quinlans and Quirkes. I gave them half the county.
—That’s enough, you blaggard. Who’s your parish priest?
I gripped the car door and leaned towards the cop and told him, loudly, to his face:
—JUST AS THERE IS LITTLE NEED OF A RESERVOIR WHEN THE ENTIRE COUNTRYSIDE IS FLOODED, THE ILLUMINED MAN HAS LITTLE NEED OF PRIESTS, SEEING AS HE DOES THE LORD IN ALL AROUND HIM!
The clicking of three car doors opening together, a rumble of bogman curses, and I was already leaping the iron gate into the field behind me. I sprinted into the darkness, tripping and falling and rolling and laughing and getting up again and running again. I heard sheep bleating somewhere and the pounding of all the little hoofs and it sounded so funny I found it hard to run with the laughter. I could see the shadows of the trees in the hedgerows against the relative brightness of the sky, dusted with stars, and I made for that, knowing the field was bordered with deep drainage trenches. I looked back and could see the torch beams flailing about as the cops hauled themselves over the gate. I slid down the steep side of the drainage trench, coming to a splashing stop in ankle-deep water, boots sinking in weeds and silt on the bottom. The frogs went wild, a chain reaction of frog-hysteria. I held my sides to stop laughing. Snot was hanging out my nose. I looked up at the stars and wanted to howl— the frogs were going jabba-wabba, and the cops were in hot pursuit, shouting hilarious stuff about ‘coming in quietly’, their thrashing torch beams detonating the branches of the trees above me in joyous flashes—and the sheep weren’t bleating any more, they were squealing, having heart attacks, sure their throats would be cut.
I experienced that breakneck urge I’d had that afternoon on the bike, the temptation to call out to the cops to come and get me. I imagined scrambling through the hedgerows and into the next field and taking them cross-country. But I thought better of it. The hedgerow was probably too dense to penetrate. They’d seize me the drainage ditch and we’d splash about like overexcited pigs, their flailing arms making a mudwrestling light show, then they’d haul me out and give me a good kicking.
So I hugged my sides and held in my laughter. Finally the lights stopped flashing about and I heard the clanging of them clambering over the metal gate, muttering to each other. I heard the engine starting, and the car driving away, the noise very clear in the night air, an enormous sound, even as it changed and became distant. I held onto it until I could hear it no more and still I stood there. The frogs were settling down again. It would be as well to stay there with them for a while, and when returning along the road to take shelter at the sound of any vehicle. I was an outlaw now.
It became very quiet. My feet in the water, I gazed up at the unblinking stars. I could feel the cold water, but I was hardly a body anymore. Ever since coming off the motorbike, I hadn’t quite settled back into it. I was no longer something solid, I was dissolved in that vast blackness, and I felt my breathing and my heartbeat and the tingling of my skin as a vibration, a faint tremor, just like the trickling of the water in the drainage ditch and the whisper of the leaves in the air above me.
I was crying then. I wonder why my body is crying, I thought, because I feel fine here in the drainage ditch. Those were tears, and my chest was shuddering. But that had happened too when I was laughing, moments before. Shortly, I couldn’t tell whether I was laughing or crying. I had been so wound up over the past weeks, wound up in my trouble, and I was exhausted. I had waited so long for my life to begin, and now suddenly this thing with the girl I couldn’t understand, and standing in the drainage ditch with the frogs. Observe this helpless shaking of the body, I told myself, wiping the snot and tears with my sleeve.
I patted my pocket. The cigarette was there, and the matches. I took out the cigarette and struck a match and illuminated the little world in front of me, and lit the cigarette. I inhaled. I tossed the match and it hissed. I was in darkness again. I stood in the ditch, the water trickling by my feet, and exhaled, looking upwards to the trembling stars.