I pulled the yellow curtain behind me and never even noticed the lack of a swish.
‘Alright, Da,’ I whispered, soft, cause I was kinda afraid to disturb things. For one, I was on the bounce and didn’t want to alert anyone to my presence, and two, the place felt like a library.
‘Yer looking good, Da, yeah,’ I said, easing my schoolbag to the ground and lifting the plastic grey chair around to face the side of the bed. I scraped myself in, knees up against the mattress and took a breath. Got myself together, like.
I found my da’s hand—the one not bruised and hooked up to tubes—down by his side and rested my wrist on the cold metal rail. I lifted his fingers, just held them while I rested my thumb on his palm. I was always surprised by the warmth and feel of my da’s hand. There was a roughness there like the hard texture of a stray dog’s paw.
I had no memory of ever holding my da’s hand before. I was what, fifteen. I’d no memory of holding anyone’s hand. Other than Holly’s when I had to bring her to school. But that didn’t count. She had to or I’d bate her.
I quit inspecting his fingers and looked at his face.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said, ‘it’s not my… I had to go to class.’
It seemed with every visit I was discovering something new. Today it was his stubble. Normally he was freshly shaved. I remembered his line from a few weeks before the accident, mumbled while he was checking his foamy face above the bathroom sink, the razor about to draw down on his cheek, his eyes all bloodshot and dark, staring hard at his reflection, ‘If you’re feeling rough as fuck, son, never let them bastards know.’
A distant trumpet of daytime television played over the ward. A slight breeze from somewhere swayed the curtains, but couldn’t budge the heat.
‘Ma says she’s been getting calls and shit.’ I paused. I was trying to stay all upbeat like they said I should. Keep things positive. But it wasn’t easy. ‘She’s telling me I haveta go in or the courts will be on and, like, then there’ll be more trouble.’
A trolley and its rinky contents stopped outside our yellow enclosure. A voice—the nurse’s muffled instructions—filled the gap in a big thick country accent.
The hair on me da’s face was growing high on the cheekbones. Like something out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He wouldn’t have been impressed.
‘So, yeah, Da, I went to a class.’
I gave his fingers a gentle squeeze and withdrew my hand and leaned down for my bag. I took out my only book and some cold toast I’d fleeced from Breakfast Club leftovers nearly two hours before. I settled the book on my lap and said, ‘Where were we, Da?’
But I couldn’t concentrate. I was drained. Absolutely bollixed. So instead, I said, ‘I met a girl off the train yesterday, Da.’
And so, to fill the silence, I went on and told him about how the earphones were in and I was lost dealing with the awful bang of hunger when I heard Taylor call after me. I just strolled on, head down, trying to adjust my walk to stop the instep on my converse from wearing through to the socks.
‘Hey Rory, Rory!’ she shouted and suddenly she was there with her big giddy face beaming beside me, her cheeks pinched pink like one of Holly’s old dolls we’d left abandoned in her bedroom.
‘Hiya,’ she mouthed.
I took out the earphones. She smelled fresh and clean, like Hubba Bubba.
‘Hi,’ I said, returning my eyes to the path, trying hard not to pull a redner.
She stood too close, but. My school shirt smelled like shit after Ma hand-washed it in the sink and dried it on the radiator in the bathroom in one of her manic fits.
‘Ye need to turn yer music down,’ Taylor gushed. ‘I was calling ye for ages. I saw ye get off the train and followed ye over the wall. I had no ticket either so ye saved me. Were you on the mitch too?’
She was almost skipping with the excitement of it all. We were surrounded by suits and hands pocketing weekly tickets and cars reversing out of spaces. The train sounded so loud and sluggish pulling away from the platform.
She giggled and nudged me.
‘Where’d ye go?’
‘Eh, I, the usual place.’
‘Usual place? Oh yeah, you do this a lot, don’t you.’
She stopped walking. The crowd had thinned out.
‘I used to think you were, like, a nerd.’
I shrugged it off, but still felt the sting.
‘You going home?’ she said, a glint in her eyes, the final word a little too rushed. The earphones clicked softly in the palm of my hand and I looked to the blue sky for an answer. She was exhausting.
‘I’ll walk with you then.’
And she waited for me to lead the way.
‘I nearly missed the train,’ she went on, her face lit by the horror of such a possibility. ‘My ma would’ve been ringing the school if I wasn’t back by five.’
I just nodded, watching our shadows ripple like ghosts before us over the path.
‘She’s mad like that. Stupid bitch. Though me da wouldn’t give a shit if he found out. He’s grand. What’s yours like?’
I looked up to read her face. There was nothing only her wide eyes and stupid smile. ‘Me ma’s strict but me da is…’
I trailed off and Taylor giggled nervously and blurted, ‘They’re all the same. Do you know Shauna Boylan’s da? She lives a few doors up from you. Like, directly behind my house. I can see into her back garden from my bedroom and everything, like. Her da does be out there naked. The state of him. Freak.’
And so it went for the next five minutes of walking, me nodding along to Taylor’s shite talk until we reached the estate. It was still bright and sunny and there were kids out on their bikes pulling wheelies and circling lazily in the middle of the road. Taylor stopped at the corner beside the ‘Drive Slowly Children Playing’ sign and stretched up on her tippy-toes and peered down the row of houses.
‘Looks like you’re in the clear. Your da’s van isn’t there.’
She was nibbling at her bottom lip eager for something. I gave her nothing. So she said, ‘See ye around then, and maybe the next time ye go on the mitch ye can give us a shout, yeah? What’s your Snapchat?’
I went, ‘Eh, I’m…’
‘Mine’s Taylorbyrne56. Add me.’
And she giggled and hunched over her phone and started typing while she walked away.
I watched her go and then craned to look where she’d just looked. See what she had seen. I lingered on the empty driveway a while. Thinking about the fading patch of oil near the porch from his work van. When I was sure she was gone I put my earphones in and felt myself disappear. I turned away from the road, the driveway, the kids’ laughter, and started back towards town, to the empty hours ahead.
‘Member we used go the cinema, Da?’ The memory pushed forward a giggle cause right under it a sob was waiting to burst through. My da’s chins were doubled up like Jabba the Hutt’s, his eyes closed, his face frozen like Han Solo’s in The Empire Strikes Back.
The nurses had said it was good for him to hear our voices. And since I was in no mood to read, I just kept talking shite.
I told my da the film had been cat and right at the end, when the lights had come on and I’d looked up from fixing my runners, the cleaner lad with the brush and pan was sweeping behind me.
‘Excuse me, our…’ the lad called. The dull soundproofing of the theatre, mixed with the earphones, dampened the young lad’s voice and I didn’t turn round.
I’d a good head start and so got into the lobby before the pan and brush appeared from behind the screen door down the hall. A girl in a red shirt was at the counter sifting through a thin set of twenty-euro notes for Wednesday night’s takings.
‘How many for Screen 3?’ the young lad called, slightly out of breath.
I scarpered through the neon colours and echoing movie trailers on the HD screens, feeling an awful bang of hunger from the warm smell of popcorn. The girl looked up from her count, confused, and strained into the computer screen, ‘Eh, three.’ She tapped the screen. ‘No, four. Four. Why?’
I didn’t hang around for his answer.
I laughed when I told my da. I’m sure he would’ve laughed too. After he gave me a bollicking about not paying for the ticket.
Still the book lay heavy on my lap, and still my da lay there, the rhythm of his breathing the only constant in my life. And still I couldn’t bring myself to read to him so I said, ‘It was one of those days yesterday. Non. Stop. All I wanted to do was keep my earphones in and my head down.’
I looked around for a sup of water. My mouth was so dry.
‘So I have yer one wrecking my head, and then your man from the cinema running me outta the place, and then, guess what, Da? I had me first pint.’
Once I’d got around the corner from the cinema I slowed down to pull my jumper over my head. The earphones managed to stay in and I kept my head straight, my stride consistent as if walking to a steady beat. My shadow stretched out and disappeared when I moved away from the streetlight, only to be replaced by two more mumbling and cursing silhouettes from behind.
I kept walking up Main Street, head down, until I got to the heavy oak door just up from The Front Bar. I shifted my bag on my shoulder and waited for the shadows to pass. The polished lustre on the gold handle had faded since morning. Once I thought the voices were gone, I went to open the door but my feeble attempt at a pull saw an arm stretch over my shoulder. I followed the arm and saw Martin Maughan smiling down on me. His cracked lips and freckly nose were nearly touching my face. The earphones were taken out and the hiss of Main Street and the whoosh of passing traffic filled the silence and I said, ‘Thanks,’ and Martin nodded for me to go ahead.
And so we stepped into the claustrophobic hush of reception—the plush red carpets and polished oak cases, trophies and black-and-white pictures of Gaelic and hurling and football teams from the town. No one was at the desk—thank fuck—and Martin leaned down to whisper in my ear.
‘They serve you in here too?’
It was only then I saw what must’ve been Martin’s da standing behind him, concern digging at his brow.
‘I’ve never tried before,’ I said.
‘Are ye meeting someone then, lad?’ Martin’s da asked, stepping forward, tucking his shirt into his jeans, the question thinning his lips.
Martin and the da exchanged a look, as if I’d just confirmed something, and the da’s face immediately opened up and he threw his head back and blew out a small, surprised laugh. ‘Well, you’re here now, lad, so ye may as well go for a pint.’
I said nothing, did nothing.
‘Come on inside,’ the da said, clapping his hands together. ‘I’ll get ye a pint.’
The stairs past the front desk to the first floor were lit in a low yellow. I had no money on me. I never had any money.
We sat in a corner, hidden from the bar by a stained-glass harp with honey strings and a red shamrock on its body. Martin scrolled through his phone.
‘You on Facebook?’ he said.
I just shook my head as the da arrived back with a Guinness and two golden pints held tight in the triangle of his hands.
And so I took a timid sup, testing the weight of the beer on my tongue. It was rank, but I managed not to gag.
‘Do you drink here much?’ I said, just to say something.
Martin nodded, ‘Now and then. They do know me from the boxing up in the function room.’
‘This lad brings in the crowds so he does,’ the da announced, licking the froth off his top lip. Martin nodded proudly.
‘Wait’ll I tell ye about this lad here, Da,’ Martin said, ‘real quiet lad, but always on the bounce.’
Up until that day I’d been convinced no one had noticed.
‘It’s the quiet ones ye haveta watch,’ the da said.
‘What class are we in together?’
‘Can’t remember,’ I whispered and we chuckled.
‘French,’ Martin responded, smiling at his recall.
‘Par-ley-voo fuck off,’ I said.
The heads of the pints rippled with laughter. I felt satisfied with their approval. Cheap too, but, like I had to perform for my drink.
Their glasses were raised again. I wasn’t sure how much to swallow at each lift, and how quickly, so I followed Martin’s lead. Only a few gulps in and my stomach was feeling hollow and my head a bit dizzy.
‘Don’t suppose you’ll be here again tomorrow morning?’ Martin said.
It was like I’d been sucker punched. They had me cornered. I didn’t know where to look. ‘Tomorrow morning?’
Their beermats stuck to the bottom of their glasses. They both took a long, long gulp of their pints. I didn’t follow.
‘The school awards, Rory. They’re on upstairs in the function room.’
The da held out his Guinness. ‘This lad here’ll be getting sportsman of the year. Won’t ye son?’
They clinked glasses.
‘Oh,’ I said, trying to keep my head steady. ‘No. No award for me.’ And I took a quick sup to catch up with Martin and hide the relief.
The harp darkened and the woman from reception appeared over our table.
‘Out,’ she snapped and to make things as painless as possible, I just ducked for my bag and mumbled, ‘See ye,’ and legged it.
‘The lad deserves a break,’ was the last I heard from Martin before I went through the door into reception.
‘What ye make of that, Da? Me first pint,’ I whispered.
The memory embarrassed me and after a while of just sitting there in silence I ducked out and found a small plastic glass and filled it with lukewarm water from a jug at the bottom of the ward. Got myself together, like.
I went back in after a while and moved the chair close to the bed again and took my da’s hand. The book was resting on my lap. I’d nothing more to say. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that morning. He certainly didn’t need to hear it.
Ma and Holly were gone and I’d slept in again and even though I was rushing to get to school for period two, I’d stalled it at our front door with its silver 201 until I’d felt the earphones in my bag. But it was only after the door had clunked shut that I realised I’d left my keycard and coke bottle filled with water beside the bed. The light above the handle clicked from green to red and I knew I’d be parched for the day.
The lift was in use so I went down the hall towards the stairs to reception and there, like something from a nightmare, at the function room double doors, was one of the new teachers and a row of maybe twenty students all lined up in twos against the wall, going from the function room back to the stairs. All the conversations stopped and the faces went blank. If I’d had time to think I probably would’ve taken an almighty redner, but I just put my earphones in and forced myself to keep walking.
The teacher started tapping the toe of her high heel when she saw me approach.
‘And where do you think you’re going?’ she said
I powered on past her.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘are you helping with the awards? The function room is here.’
I gave her a glance—that’s all she deserved—but didn’t stop.
Her voice went up a notch. ‘I’m talking to you. Where do you think you’re coming from?’
All the eyes looked to their crests, their school shoes, intimidated and awed. I walked by and made the stairs before anyone had a chance to say anything.
The worn hardback trembled on my lap. The corners of the glossy cover were dented and curled, the cheap cardboard lurking under the golden title marked by my da’s work stained hands.
The book was all I took with me. Ma had put everything, absolutely everything we had of worth up on Gumtree to cover the rent. And when that month was up and we got no deposit back, anything unsold that we couldn’t fit in suitcases was left behind. Left behind like we’d evacuated our lives without warning—posters still on walls, jackets still on hooks, soggy tissues still under pillows, dolls still on beds, books still on shelves.
The ward was unusually quiet. I’d been silent for too long, so I pulled on the silk strip of cloth just like my da used to, and opened the book at the end of our last story. I took a breath and got ready to read.
Her voice shocked me with, ‘I’m sorry, love, no phones or electronic appliances so close to the equipment,’ and I slammed the book shut, freaked. I copped where the nurse was looking and put my hand to my ear and realised I hadn’t taken the earphones out.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I said, like a little kid, and since I’d been caught off guard, I pulled the empty jack out of my pocket and held it up and said, ‘I don’t have anything to plug them into.’
There, the truth was out and I was exposed. All she did was press her lips together and nod as if to say, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ and finished what she had to finish and left me there feeling the familiar burn on my cheeks.
The earphones clicked around in my hand like painkillers. The new noises of the ward started to press in. The curtains looked real flimsy all of a sudden.
‘Who’m I kidding, Da?’ I said, a defeated laugh escaping into the high ceiling. The earphones had helped me ignore them, but as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, people’s words were getting through. The reality of it all was getting through. It was constant. Day after day after day. Ignoring them had me shattered. Taylor didn’t need words, she was obvious. The girl in the cinema had asked the lad with the brush and pan who I was and he’d told her what I’d become. Martin and his da had talked about me before I got to the hotel entrance, and a girl’s voice that morning at the function room—just as I ran down the stairs—had explained to the teacher they’d had a special assembly about me.
My da’s stubble was dark, his face was pale. I thought of his eyes looking at me through the mirror while he’d shaved before work. They had been exhausted. He had been exhausted.
I opened the book and said, ‘Where were we, Da?’ wishing, really, really, really wishing today would be the day he’d answer back.