Jean’s grandkid announced his presence from the cot on the other side of the wall. I tried to tune out his manic chirping by replaying the night before. The DJ had brought us up, then dropped us, then brought us back up again. I’d bounced from side to side, splayed my fingers high, the bass filling my body, until I had gone through the silhouettes in the strobe lights. 

But the whispered snarls, the whirling in my head that had been building all week took over. Mark reached over to stroke my belly and nuzzle into my shoulder. I didn’t respond, so he blew out and turned away. I immediately relented, rolled to my side, and traced the outline of the tattoo on his spine, a green scaled snake with red eyes that twisted upwards from his tailbone to his neck, its forked tongue flicking his hairline. He shrugged me off.

‘Get some sleep,’ he said, ‘it’s a long drive back to Galway.’

Mark didn’t believe in abortion. Stealing, dealing, joyriding and pawning off stolen cheques were all fine, sex with your cousins, just not abortion. He said that’s what she had done, his ex, the third time she got pregnant, before she’d left with his two kids. He said that’s why he’d gone off the rails, ended up inside for a few years. I met him when he’d just got out. He’d moved to Galway to stay with his brother, Gerry, to get away from it all, but then he’d met me and, by extension, Claire. I’d been hanging around with Claire since I arrived in Galway; she taught me how to survive on the dole, but Mark showed us how to live on it.

I’d gone to the doctor’s surgery on Christmas Eve morning but chickened out. The receptionist had softened at my face and encouraged me to stay but really I didn’t want to know, at least not during Christmas. I considered ringing one of those helpline numbers. The ones stuck on the back of toilet doors in pubs and clubs, the ones that arranged the trip.

We’d eaten Christmas dinner with his sister, Jean, and the grandkid. There was a small roast chicken instead of turkey, and sparkling yellowy-white wine. After the third bottle, Jean told me about an older brother Mark had never mentioned. She said that when the brother died, he left a house full of money behind, cash beneath the floorboards, bank statements inside sofa cushions, post office account books under plants. She didn’t say who got the money and I didn’t ask. 

Jean’s grandkid didn’t talk much except for swearing. Mark told him off when he swore but laughed at the same time, so encouraged him to do it again, then played boxing with him until he cried. I fancied Mark but I didn’t want to have a kid with him. I imagined a life far ahead in the future where I’d get it together and have some rough-and-tumble country kids, up home, with some guy I’d gone to school with. 

Jean cried as we were pulling out of the drive, the kid waving from her hip. We were in Gerry’s red Skoda. I made Mark stop at the off-licence around the corner, said I needed to pick up a few cans for the journey back. I’d had a mad craving for peanuts for days. The guy behind the counter asked me for ID. I laughed and showed him my dole card. I told him I’d never been asked for ID before, even though I’d been drinking since I was twelve, but he didn’t make eye contact, he just slid the cans into a brown paper bag. I tipped my head back, poured the peanuts into my mouth and chewed them, swallowing them all in one go. The salt was good.

Mark had parked in the empty car park behind a row of shops. When I got back into the car he pressed hard on the accelerator, turned the steering wheel right around and yanked the handbrake up again so the back wheels spun. The Skoda screeched around the icy car park between the bare trees. The more I screamed, the more he laughed and the tighter he gripped the handbrake. I fixed on the clenched shut of my eyelids. 

We drove up the Wicklow Mountains and stopped in a lay-by. I looked down over the long hanging clouds obscuring the city while Mark rooted in the bushes for the gear. He’d handed over the cash the day before in the one-storey pub in Jean’s estate and agreed the pick-up place. It was the rent money that made up the part payment. I wasn’t usually into that, I’d been down that road before and knew where it got you. Galway was dry and Mark had convinced me that we couldn’t lose. I had talked Claire around. 

He sat back in, handed me the jar. I half-expected a squadron of Garda cars to surround us with blue flashing lights at any second but Mark just started up the car, indicated out, driving off slowly, as if we were sightseers. 

I twisted off the black lid off the jar, the kind displayed high on counters of old sweet shops. The peanuts rushed back up my throat. I swallowed hard and put my nose down, sniffed again to be sure; the hash was laced with diesel, every bar of brown that we’d staked the rent money on. 

Mark stared ahead for the hours back, his eyes narrowing on the winding roads. Until the outskirts of Dublin I begged him to go to his friend and demand our money back, or get a reduction on the amount owed. He drove at the speed limit but wouldn’t pull over when I asked. I threw up in the brown paper bag from the off licence and fired it out the window around Kinnegad. I put the cans in the glove compartment. 

I ran up the stairs and straight into the toilet. The flat was freezing. The radio blared the top forty countdown from Claire’s bedroom as I peed in stops and starts. I ran, shivering, into her room and jumped into bed beside her. I handed her the cans. 

‘The hash is cut with diesel,’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders. ‘Everyone’s desperate. . . ’ 

Mark came in and took a can out of her hand and went back into the sitting room in silence. 

‘Charming,’ she said. ‘His kids were as bad, were they?’

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. He had told his sister to mind her own business when she suggested visiting them. I suspected he hadn’t got over his ex, so I hadn’t encouraged him to go around there. 

‘Do you’ve any money?’ she asked.

I shook my head. She got up and started scrounging up whatever change she had lying around her room. We went to Londis for a roll of tin foil and a six pack of Dutch Gold. On the way there and back I told Claire about the rave and about his sister’s swearing grandkid. I told her about the story of the dead brother with the hidden money and we laughed.

Mark had lit the fire and was sitting on the sofa in the kitchen watching the six o’clock news when we got back. He took the two cans I held out sideways without looking at me. I took a bar of hash from the jar and the bread knife from the drawer and went into Claire’s bedroom. We chopped it up into five, ten and twenty spots on the dressing table and double wrapped them in tin foil to hide the smell. She rolled a one skinner with the end of her tobacco. 

‘Not too bad,’ she said, after a few drags. 

But from the first toke, a dull headache crept up the back of my skull. Mark opened the door of the bedroom and held out his hand. I passed it to him, he took a deep pull, shook his head and passed it back. The EastEnders music came on. We didn’t follow him in. His mood wafted through the walls like fumes. Goodbye we shouted, before we slammed the front door behind us. 

‘Let’s split up,’ she said on the way across the bridge. ‘I’ll do Eyre Square, if you do the college and back west.’

I went up along the river to the college. The Christmas tree in the quadrangle was already drooping. I sorted out the students who were back studying for the exams. They all went for twenty spots with their crisp Christmas money. I tried to peel the helpline sticker from the back of a cubicle door in the basement toilets but it wouldn’t come off. I memorised the number, repeating it as I walked back towards town but when I went into the phone box I couldn’t lift the receiver. 

I meandered between the bars down the west. The barmen went back to polishing glasses or smoking fags at their hatches once I’d slid them a shiny offering. I lingered by the coal fires, had a few half lagers, and made conversation with the usual customers. I walked up by the canal and doubled back around the streets a few times before I went back to the flat. The red Skoda was gone from outside the door but Mark was on the couch waiting. I pulled out the roll of notes and held them up, grinning. He looked out both windows from the side of the curtains, then kissed me. 

‘I’m going to buy us a proper telly in the sales,’ he said, walking me backwards towards the bedroom.

Claire came back an hour later. She’d gone up to the pubs beyond Eyre Square and said it was easy pickings. Mark checked outside again, even out the back, though it was just an enclosed concrete yard overgrown with weeds. Claire and I rolled our eyes at each other.

When I woke up the next morning, I put my hands up around my boobs and squeezed, wincing. They felt bigger. The whirling descended from behind the closed velvet curtains and whispered the facts as it knew them. I tried to convince myself I was just tender. I had taken the padding out of my bra and stuffed the deals into the empty pockets that were left, reaching into them again and again for the little parcels and replacing them with crumpled notes. Mark and I had had sex again before we fell asleep, buoyant from the windfall. He’d twisted both my nipples as I came. I’d whimpered softly in pleasure and pain above him but when I reached down to cover his groans, he’d grabbed my wrist to stop me and bent it back up as he came. He’d rolled out from under me then, leaving me by the cold wall, knowing Claire was on the other side listening. 

She was up when I went into the kitchen. 

‘Get dressed,’ she said, ‘we’re going shopping.’ 

We took a twenty from the kitchen table. Mark had hidden the jar and the bulk of the money somewhere. He said it was better for us if we didn’t know where. 

The security guard followed us around Londis as Claire made a great show of pretending to place things from the shelf into our bags, then putting them in our loaded basket instead. We took the hot chicken from the foil lined bag and started eating. When the guard protested, Claire waved the twenty at him, then complained to the spotty teenage girl with the yellow sticker gun that the selection boxes hadn’t been reduced yet. We treated ourselves to a twenty box of John Player Blues at the till. Swinging our plastic bags at each other’s legs, we walked home in the cold, sparse rain. 

Mark was up when we got back, watching Home and Away and sipping tea. ‘Do my lovely girls fancy a cuppa?’ he asked. 

I handed him the saved drumstick and set to chopping. Claire did the wrapping, and we drank our tea. Mark went out so we turned up the radio full blast. 

When twilight fell, I headed to Salthill and Claire went towards Westside. I weaved in and out of the pubs, the Christmas lights still twinkling among the bottles behind the bars. Claire was there on her own when I got back. She pulled a prescription bottle out of her hoodie pocket and shook it at me.

‘Duck eggs,’ she smiled, ‘swapped a bottle for a twenty spot off an ole fellow in Bransky’s.’ 

We took two each and fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV.

The next morning I woke nauseous. Last night’s money was gone from the table and the smell of diesel resin was everywhere. Mark was snoring. I slid off the sofa quickly. I barely made it to the toilet on time, flushing as I retched to cover the noise. I brushed my teeth while I waited for the cistern to fill, though the toothbrush made me retch again. The yellow bile mixed with white foam swirled down the sink under the running tap. I flushed the toilet for the second time.

Claire was sitting up on the couch when I came into the kitchen, wrapped up in her single quilt. I squashed myself under it with her and we sat waiting for the water in the saucepan to boil, side by side, feet up, knees high, like the days before Mark. The black tea was bitter but I took tiny sips, scalding my throat. Warm tears pushed up behind my cheekbones. 

When he got up, Mark went out to scrounge around the abandoned building sites for off-cuts of wood for the fire. 

‘You pregnant or something?’ Claire asked.

‘Nah, just the smell of the diesel everywhere. It’s making me sick.’

 ‘We can go to Cura after the holidays? Get the test, it’s free. At least then you’d know. And they could help you with the baby if you are. . . ’

‘I said, I’m fine.’

‘You need to tell him,’ she said.

I rolled my eyes.

‘He’s the father—he has rights, you know.’

We heard the downstairs door open and fell silent. Mark climbed the stairs, then stood looking at us with armful of dry sticks.

‘What’re you two plotting?’ he asked, as he spilled the sticks beside the hearth. 

On New Year’s Eve I fried up jumbo sausages from Loughnane’s and served them with oven chips and mushy peas laced with ketchup. We had made enough to pay Mark’s contact the money we owed and the rest was profit. Claire had got a bag of Es in the Hibernian so we could celebrate in style. 

When we heard the crash, Mark jumped up and switched off the TV. Claire went to turn out the lights but he shook his head and put his fingers on his lips. He tiptoed into the hall. We heard the sticky squelch of his trainers go into the front bedroom. 

He came back laughing. ‘It was only Gerry. He’s just pissed off with me, he says I wrecked his handbrake. Cheeky fucker. Stupid red tin can of a car. I’m gonna have to get the fucking bus up to Dublin with the money tomorrow.’

I went downstairs to inspect the damage. The brick had come through the side panel of the door. I knew it’d set off the girls in the flat downstairs when they got back from the holidays. They’d be on to the landlord again and we’d probably get our marching orders this time. The whirling came and sat me down on the stairs. It told me it didn’t believe that it was Mark’s brother. It said that it was a disgruntled customer or a warning from Big Johnsie about dealing at the college. Someone must have found out where we lived, even though we’d done what Mark said and taken different routes home every time. 

When I came back upstairs, Mark and Claire had finished their dinner, the scraped plates still on their knees. I put the rest of mine straight into the pile in the sink. The film was back on and Mark’s head leaned forward intently. Claire brought out her stained wash bag and the bathroom mirror, then sat down on the kitchen chair. I rubbed the foundation on to her face with my thumbs, curled her lashes with the tongs, dusted her eyes with brown, rolled red lipstick over her grimace. I finished it off with gold glitter on her cheeks. She inspected each side of her face in the propped-up mirror while Mark wolf whistled. She was blushing when she stood up and nodded me into the chair.

‘No need. She’s staying in to mind the flat,’ Mark said.Claire turned her head to the TV and I knew then that she had told him. I went into the bedroom and lay down in the dark listening, until the front door slammed. I watched them as they disappeared around the curve of Whitestrand Road in the orange streetlights, tight together against the sleet under her flimsy umbrella. I went to the toilet and lifted the lid of the cistern and fished for the bag. I took one of the benzos out and went into the sitting room to lie on the sofa. The coal fire was still glowing. I thought about the two of them, probably out in Salthill by now, in The Castle or The Warwick, nursing pints and watching where people were leaving their coats and bags, just like me and Claire used to. When my breathing slowed down, I got up and took the suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe. I emptied my two drawers of clothes into it, then went into Claire’s room and took her wash bag of makeup. I added Mark’s shaving foam along with my toothbrush and shampoo from the bathroom. It didn’t take me long to find the money taped up underneath the chest of drawers. I stuffed it into my bra, zipped up the suitcase and headed for the bus station.

Aoibheann McCann

Aoibheann McCann ‘s writing has been published in literary journals in Ireland, UK, Italy & USA. Her short stories and poems have been anthologised by New Binary Press, Arlen House, Doire and Prospero (Italy), among others. Her short stories have been listed/placed in Colm Toibin, Words on Waves, Sunday Business Post/ Penguin Ireland, Cúirt New Writing, Maria Edgeworth, Dalkey Creates and Wild Atlantic Words competitions. Her first novel ‘Marina’ was published in 2018. Aoibheann is currently working on an audio comedy called ‘Retreat’.

About Fumes: On a two-week bursary to Tyrone Guthrie last January I was looking through my large collection of scribblings, and there it was- a concise paragraph on a scrap of yellow foolscap. It was the scene in ‘Fumes’ set in the car park outside the off-licence. In 2016 I had written a story called ‘The Blow In’s Guide to Galway’ (now published in Doire Press’ Galway Stories 2020) where the narrator of Fumes and her friend Claire first appeared. The same narrator was now sitting in the paragraph, in a car park in Dublin with a new character. So I started wondering…what would happen if ‘Mark’ drove her back to Galway and, of course, Claire? How would they all get on? After that, ’Fumes’ pretty much wrote itself. The song I listened to on repeat while writing it was ‘Sweet Milk Pop’ by A Tribe called Red which probably influenced the pace. So it even has its own soundtrack!


This is the second of five stories we are publishing online this week to coincide with the publication of our Galway 2020 edition. The five stories have been selected by the issue’s guest editor, Lisa McInerney. Publication of the stories and the issue is in association with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. You’ll find the first story in this series – ‘Black and White-head’ by David Tierney – right here.