Love returned with all its deadly sweetness
Tears on the train and terms of endearment
in languages I couldn’t understand.
Love returned with an email, a text message
a brain fart. Everything held inside
forced out, to be mulled over and decided upon
Love returned with talk of film scenes
hip hop, dancehall. A taste for hot curries
pilgrimage and poetry.
Love returned like an unwelcome guest
who ransacks your house, broadcasts
all your secrets, and leaves behind the mess
‘Young Skins’ is the debut collection of short stories from young Mayo man, Colin Barrett
At 32, Barratt is young, but no novice, his work having previously been published in notable magazines and anthologies.
The collection centres on the lives of various characters in the fictional town of Glanbeigh, Co Mayo.
Characters who display varying degrees of; loneliness, addiction, power, sexual confidence and violence.
Readers of Kevin Barry’s two short story collections, ‘There are Little Kingdoms’ and ‘Dark Lies the Island’, will recognise some stylistic similarities here, Barrett evokes the same sinister fringe of small town Ireland, revelling in the psychotic undercurrent that flows through this little country.
The stories are well ordered,they run well from one to the next and in some cases – especially between the last two stories, ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Kindly Forget My Existence’, we arrive in similar terrain to which we left off in the previous story.
Some of the character names are fantastic. We have a reclusive character named Bat in ‘Stand Your Skin’ and a hypochondriac, shit head of a petrol garage boss named Dungan in the same story. Arm, short for Armstrong in ‘Calm with Horses’ is used as a piece of muscle in an ill fated, small time criminal empire. The aforementioned story is the longest in the collection, and while not the best of the bunch is good enough to serve as proof that Barrett could put together an interesting novel.
The collection is rich in metaphor. In ‘Stand your Skin’ Bat has a dream in which an older, even more useless him is wearing a mustard seed suit. This is like some backwards version of the parable of the mustard seed, where instead of something big and grand growing from our toil, our lives instead become more and more shit as we grow older. In ‘Moon’ there is another rich and well placed metaphor in the form of a vagrant from Groningen nicknamed Father Time. The alternative to growing old and insignificant in Glanbeigh is to live fast and die young, as many of the characters do – or to leave, which again many of the characters do, in one way or another. Leaving is no guarantee of greener pastures though as we see city life eating up some of characters who make a run for it, any bit as viciously as Glanbeigh ever could.
Barrett is a writer with a gift for language and an eye for detail. There is the feeling of being in the hands of a master craftsman. There is little fluff or filler in these stories, each sentence placed delicately upon the last, like a tower of playing cards. There are some great uses of repetitive tropes or what a stand up comedian might term ‘call back’ – a centre piece on which the cards are stacked. The ‘boot in the face’ in ‘Stand your Skin’, (which brings to mind Orwell’s future of a boot constantly stamping down on a human face) and the cats in ‘Diamonds’. Both work tremendously well as recurring references to victim-hood and guilt in their respective stories.
On first read ‘The Moon’ was my favourite story. It is the least gritty of all the stories, but no less powerful. A beautiful tale of a lothario wounded unexpectedly by love. All its components add up wonderfully and the ending hits the sweet spot. On 2nd and 3rd readings the stories reveal intricate details, which lends them more depth and sheds light on why they work. There is good use of first and third person narratives in the collection, with some excellent point of view shifts in the stories that use the latter. This is a fantastic body of words that pack of punch to the gut that will still hurt long after you’ve put the book down. Well deserving of the plaudits it has been receiving.
It’s a quiet morning in Muck’s local supermarket and despite there being relatively few customers, the checkout ‘girls’, who are all at least in their fifties, manage to create a backlog of customers at the tills due to their general dutteriness. Mary Doherty begins biting the nails on her one free hand as the lady on the till manages to overcharge a bearded gentleman for a bunch of bananas; she has punched in that single bananas cost £2, instead of 20p and is therefore charging the gentleman £10 for the bunch. The man condescendingly rubs his beard and says, Don’t you think that’s a bit steep? Who do you think I am, Mary Doherty? The lady on the till goes red with the sheer awkwardness of the situation and gives a furtive glance towards Mary, who if indeed did hear the remark, appears to be in no mood to acknowledge it.
I’m sorry sir, I’m only training, says the lady, as she frantically signals for a more senior colleague to come and help her out.
A second lady arrives and rather impatiently corrects the pricing issue. Her name tag says Catrina.
It’s a new name tag, as today is her first day back working at ‘CrazyValue’ after several months off.
Mary diverts her eyes towards the floor and tenses her right hand around the one object that’s in it.
Please don’t let that bitch talk to me, she thinks, and screws her eyes tight shut as if will power alone could stop Catrina from opening her mouth.
On the vodka are we Mary? Catrina says smugly, Sure that’ll do you and your paranoia the world of good won’t it?
Mary raises her eyes from the floor and glares at her former friend for a few seconds, without saying anything. The two ladies stare each other down for what seems like an eternity; Mary hands the vodka to the lady on the checkout, without taking her eyes off Catrina. The poor checkout lady, caught in the middle of these two duelling cowboys, nervously scans the bottle of drink and places it in a plastic bag. Mary grabs it aggressively and struts towards the exit in her new red Christian Louboutin shoes. As she passes through the automatic doors the wail of the alarm pierces her ears and her face goes as red as her shoes. The inept checkout lady has forgotten to take the security tag off the bottle of vodka and has gifted the town of Muck with a new tale to gossip about.
Mary screws the cap off the bottle and pours herself a large measure into a half pint glass.
Through the living room blinds she can see the steady stream of traffic passing through the town.
She imagines that of the cars that pass, 90% of the occupants have probably gossiped about her in the last six months. She could be in Spain now, enjoying a siesta, she could be in Kenya in her new role as a wildlife conservationist, or she could be a madam in a Thai Brothel. Instead, she is in her newly bought town centre house, in Muck, the place she was born and grew up in.
Before the big win, she lived on the edge of town; voiceless, anonymous, blending into the background of quiet desperation. She drank in those days too, was in and out of work, done the lottery every Saturday like everybody else. Everyone in Muck dreams of the big win. The men scribble frantically on dockets in the bookies, the women dab their markers down the bingo. The dream of the big win unites us all. Long after life has rendered all our talents as ordinary and our characters as commonplace; it is all that’s left. Mary was ordinary before the win, which turned her into some complicated morality test. She and the town are tied together by an invisible umbilical cord. She is a child of the town of Muck and it has nurtured her poorly enough, just like all its children. The town is a cold and unforgiving place that douses notions of romance in alcohol, and whispers quiet words of negativity into the ears of its people. Like all small towns the people are bound together by the similarity of their life experiences. There is friendship, camaraderie and hours of small talk on Main Street. There is a support network available as long as people can empathise with your problem. No one has ever had to deal with a problem like Mary and everybody is powerless to stop her becoming a one person soap opera. Mary should leave Muck, but she won’t. Deep down she really wants to make a difference.
The bottle of vodka is nearly empty now and the ashtray is full of cigarette butts. The air in Mary’s living room is thick with the lingering scent of fags. Mary rubs her temples and stokes her slightly greasy black hair behind her ears. Her head is full of negative thoughts, exacerbated by the intoxicating liquor. Thoughts of family that started visiting more, friends who suddenly appeared mysteriously like slugs after rain. Thoughts of the gifts she gave and then rather rashly demanded back. Thoughts of Catrina who was so hurt by accusations of disloyalty, that she kept nothing she was given. Truth was, Mary didn’t want any of it back; she just wanted them to understand how difficult it was. How change disturbs the equilibrium and sends everything into flux; this is what Mary would say if she could. The vodka eventually deadens all thought and she falls asleep on the living room floor.
Catrina has just finished her first shift back at the supermarket. She walks home under an umbrella that protects her from the driving rain. She carries a bag of groceries with her, ingredients for a humble family dinner around the table, whenever she gets home. She’s tired and just wants to get in and put her feet up, but feels duty bound to make one last stop before home. She goes to the house of Muck’s most infamous resident, takes out a spare key she had cut months before. In the living room she finds Mary on the floor where we left her, she sighs and feels the tears come to her eyes. She bends down to check for a pulse and having found one, she leaves her where she lies.
A short story from the town of Muck
It’s a cold, wet Saturday night in Muck and the late night revellers are taking solace from the cold and their own sorry state by basking in the heat of the chipper van. They’re drawn to it like head lice to a six year old child. All sorts of ridiculous orders are being barked out from amongst the rabble –five battered sausages and a chicken burger, shouts one. A spicy chilly beef with two hot dogs and a can of coke, says another. Among the drunks is our virginal protagonist, young Richard Short, trying desperately to get a scoop of chips for the journey home. It’s a fruitless or rather chipless task – the chipper staff are running back and forth like actors in the world’s unfunniest Benny Hill sketch. Richard, being small in stature, is swallowed up by the crowd; he is a dingy in a great wave, being…
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It’s a cold, wet Saturday night in Muck and the late night revellers are taking solace from the cold and their own sorry state by basking in the heat of the chipper van. They’re drawn to it like head lice to a six year old child. All sorts of ridiculous orders are being barked out from amongst the rabble –five battered sausages and a chicken burger, shouts one. A spicy chilly beef with two hot dogs and a can of coke, says another. Among the drunks is our virginal protagonist, young Richard Short, trying desperately to get a scoop of chips for the journey home. It’s a fruitless or rather chipless task – the chipper staff are running back and forth like actors in the world’s unfunniest Benny Hill sketch. Richard, being small in stature, is swallowed up by the crowd; he is a dingy in a great wave, being buffeted back and forth, unable to move either forward or back. He’s had about three litres of cider and being a reluctant member of the Saturday night chipper wave is beginning to make him feel a little sea sick – the cider feels like it is going round and round in his stomach, as if it were in a washing machine. The colour starts to drain from his spotty face and his eyes droop in a defeatist manner, as the first bits of boke begin to spew from his heaving throat. The puke gushes like a fountain over the jeans of some brick shit house standing next to Richard – A huge fist lands plum on his jaw before young Richard even has time to apologise.
When he comes to, he finds himself sat on the damp ground, his back against a graffiti strewn shop shutter – the taste of vomit burning at the back of his throat.
Are you alright?
A great big moon of a face leans right up against his own. He blinks a couple of times which clears his vision and brings the girl’s rather ugly face into focus. It’s like a close encounter with Rocky Dennis; She has ginger curls and a nose that can’t make up its mind which way to bend. Her face is as spotty as Richard’s and she has what one might call double dentures – basically two rows of teeth instead of one, but at least she’s offering a helping hand.
The shame associated with Richard’s virginity has recently grown to monstrous proportions. He can feel it clinging to his throat, riding around on his back. He can feel it licking at his face in a grotesque manner, squeezing his balls and sniggering, calling him names at every opportunity. His friend and former virginal ally recently declared to the world that he rode Karen Moore, and in doing so had completely cut Richard adrift. The only virgin in his group of friends. A freak. A complete fucking leper. It was only a matter of time before he was ostracised completely, he thought. His pals had recently taken to calling him ‘Dick Short’ or ‘Short Dick’ or even sometimes the full and very grand title of ‘Dick Short – Last of the Virgins.’ They seemed to be taking great pleasure in bringing these names up at every opportunity. Richard suspected that at least a couple of them were lying about having had sex, but his one attempt at joining them in lying had ended in disaster. The girl he pretended to have done the dirty deed with was informed of his boasts and gave him a very public dressing down at the Halloween bonfire. Richard just stood there slack jawed as her finger wagged in his face, her pretty blonde head full of attitude, jerking from side to side like a caricature of a sassy black lady he’d seen in the movies. Everyone around him was in convulsions of laughter as the words, Last person on earth, and, You lying little virgin, were amongst those aired. Richard stood with a can of lager in his hand, standing still and stunned like a man that had just been slapped; his face bright red, burning with shame, illuminated by the light of the bonfire. As he looked into the fire he felt jealous of the pallets and tyres that burned within it. He thought it might just be easier to join them, being burned up until there was nothing left. Richard Short –Virgin martyr.
If any of his friends were lying they had yet to be found out, and all of them seemed comfortable in the new territory that they occupied. They seemed to bring up fannies at every opportunity. They attached a sexual status to every girl their age in the neighbourhood. Rachael Adams – Riding, Morgan O’Hare- Riding, Michelle West-fingering, Melanie Campbell- frigid as fuck! They guffawed at the poor girl and her ridiculous moral fortitude, while high fiving one another and vowing to, “Break her in”, sooner or later.
Richard had begun to wish that he had made no attempts to get rid of the damn thing, all his efforts just seemed to make things worse. He was now convinced that there wasn’t a single person his age that hadn’t heard about his shamefully adhesive virginity. Everyone got a great laugh out of the story regarding him and the village bike, Charmaine Cooke. How he had her up the alley and stood snogging her for half an hour, his hands never moving from her hips, the poor girl practically urging him to slip the hand before giving up and walking away out of boredom. He thought he must be the only poor unfortunate bastard that ever had a girl spread it all around school that he tried NOTHING on her. Why couldn’t it be as easy as it was in the pornography he was now watching avidly? On there, guys came round to fix some broken kitchen appliance and were greeted by a naked lady at the door, or called round for a friend only to be practically forced into sex by a ravenous MILF. Richard thought the latter would be a perfect scenario for him; losing his virginity while simultaneously getting back at the friends who teased him so consistently. Two of his best friends had particularly good looking mothers, and he had taken to calling for them when he knew they weren’t in, on the off chance there MILFY mothers might just decide to help him out. The more he called, the more curt these MILFS became, leaving Richard lingering on the doorstep long after the door had been closed in his face.
All these failures seemed far behind him now, as he was being led by the hand by the ginger stranger. The two of them walking across the Muck bridge hand in hand, the moon full and orange, the river almost fit to burst its banks. She was telling him that she lived just at the other side of the bridge and that he would have to come inside so that she could attend to his bloody nose. Richard was thinking of a motif he saw on a T-Shirt once – It was drunk and I was dark, it said. He sniggered to himself at the thought of it. Sure, the ginger stranger wasn’t good looking, but he wasn’t about to stop and inspect her under the glare of a streetlight. He was like a horse with blinkers on, concentrating only on what lay ahead, glancing at the girl out of the corner of his eye as she garbled on and on about how out of order that bastard at the chipper van was, and how he was not to worry, because she was going to get him sorted out as soon as they got to her house. Richard ignored everything else that came out of her mouth, all he held on to were the words sorted out. They shone like a neon sign from Las Vegas. The letters tumbled around and then re-arranged themselves in their original order. SORTED OUT. Each letter grew little arms that waved at him. Legs that danced on the spot. Each grew a crown and reclined on a golden pillow like a post-coital king. SORTED OUT.
The ginger stranger futtered in her leopard print handbag before pulling out a bunch of keys with about twenty key rings attached. Amongst them, Richard spotted one in the shape of a little erect penis and his eyes lit up. Dirty bitch, he thought, as she led him through the front door and ushered him into the living room. Take off your coat and make yourself comfortable, she said, I’ll go and get some tissue for your nose.
Richard sat taking in his new surroundings. The room was what interior decorators might call minimalist, but Richard just saw that there was fuck all in it. No pictures on the wall, no ornaments on the mantelpiece. Just the black, leather three seater sofa that he sat on and a lamp with a red bulb that burned from the coffee table in the far corner of the room. Richard was sober now, unsure if he wanted to go through with his half chosen course of action. After all he was only young, this lady was probably at least ten years older than him, and he didn’t even fancy her. You only have one first time, he thought. He was all set to leave when the ginger stranger arrived at the foot of the living room door. She had no tissue for his nose, instead in her hand she had three leads, which were attached to three dog collars, which were in turn attached to the necks of three balding, fat men. Richard looked at the four of them in all their ridiculousness and they gazed back at him full of intent. It was then that Richard knew for certain that he was truly cursed.
Each evening there is a mad sweat as I punch the five digit alarm code in and wait for the wailing to stop. I believe that there will come an evening when it will just carry on wailing and then the jig will be up. Each evening is a blessing now, a twilight communion between me and my maker. I curse him for making me the way I am. I call him every dirty name I can think of, until I can think of no more, then I cry; I cry for everyone that is behind me now, for all the beautiful people that I can no longer touch or look upon – It is just me and my maker now and I pray that he either takes me to him completely or leaves me go to live a new life. This is a kind of purgatory I guess; a place between life and death.
On the evenings that I don’t bring any food with me I go straight to the fridge. Its light illuminates my ragged face. Confusingly the fridge is a warm place now – a friend I can rely on. The best thing I have ever found in there was a leftover meatball marinara from Subway. I was overjoyed when I found it, unwrapping it eagerly like a child at Christmas. I know it’s ridiculous but I worry that someone might spot the shine of the fridge light from outside and inside the light will be my image making it instantly clear that I’m holed up in here, as if the light was like Batman’s bat signal.
Occasionally I check the freezer to see if there are any frozen meals that might conveniently find their way into the microwave. The three or four minutes of light from the microwave, as the food goes round and round inside, is another one of my friends now. I gaze into it as if it was a crystal ball and I see things. I see everything that has gone before and as the clock ticks down I’m full of regrets and sorrows. As soon as it dings the regrets are gone and I’m focused on the luxury of a hot meal. I don’t even mind that my fingers get burned every time I peel back the plastic lid. Pain is reassuring. Pain means I am still alive and can still feel. I could bring food back with me every night, but I like to steal the occasional thing – it gives me a sense of power over the situation. God bless the vagrant that still observes the law, but I’m not him. I routinely check the drawers of the office fatties and steal a little something from their abundant stashes of candy. These are the very people who used to beat me into submission with all their tales of diets and how well they were doing. Juice diets, vegetable diets, wheat free diets, diets where you only eat things that are orange. These are the very people who insisted on food group posters on the kitchen wall – information on the benefits of water and bananas magnetically attached to the fridge, and all the while we had to ignore their hypocrisy, all the while they kept this shit heap of chocolate hiding in their drawers. In the office all problems are hidden, any indication that we’re actual human beings must be hidden. Do you know that during my time at this company two co-workers died? They had both given about twenty years of service each and we mourned them for all of ten minutes. We kept our sad faces on until someone asked, ‘who wants tea?’ And we all shouted back ‘me’ in the eagerness to move on. After all, there was work to be done. Any notions you had that your workmates matter are false, any notion you had that they would mourn your passing are also false. You’re gone by 10am on the day that the news is announced. So I take the odd bar of chocolate now and then, who cares? I’m not killing anybody. On the contrary I’m doing some of them a favour – one less thing for them to kill themselves with. Every time I steal something I imagine the sense of suspicion covering the office like a wave and all my ex-workmates bobbing around like flood victims, uncertain of who to blame –by now productivity must be down by at least 10%. It occurs to me however, that I know exactly who they’ll blame, especially if they listen to that fat, racist bitch Karen Feeney – they will blame the new cleaner from Eastern Europe – whoever she is. Or perhaps they’ve sacked so many by now that they’ve given up on the Eastern Europeans and have hired an Irish cleaner. Whoever the new cleaner is I bet they’re nowhere near as lovely as Anna.
Anna who was so very beautiful – perhaps even more so than my wife at her age. Anna with her black black hair and contrasting pale skin, Anna with the tiny waist and bee sting boobs, Anna who looked so good pushing a broom, Anna with the adorable Polish/Irish hybrid accent, Anna who let me know she wanted me in a million little ways, Anna who got wet at the sight of me in a suit and tie, Anna who made me feel so powerful, Anna who lay across my boss’s desk night after night with her legs wide apart, until one night Feeney swung by to pick something up and caught us tense handed at the point of orgasm. Being such a twisted bitch and a massive racist to boot she was never likely to take it easy on us. I’m sure the whole of Dublin has heard the story of our ‘disgusting’ antics by now. Yes, I accept that I was wrong, but Feeney could’ve kept it to herself, I could’ve assured her that it wouldn’t happen again, but it wasn’t just the act that angered her ,it was the fact that there was her walking around like an elephant with a headache, bits of her slipping and sliding everywhere and she had to walk in on and bear witness to a beautiful female body in the throes of passion, and that body belonged to a fucking foreigner – a foreigner taking a break from her menial tasks and enjoying herself on Irish soil, that fucked Feeney off as much as anything else, I know it.
My wife has always been a very understanding woman, I don’t really blame her for throwing me out. I didn’t have to go to pieces like I did. It’s just that when I noticed they hadn’t taken the office keys off me I took it as some kind of sign. It was more than likely just a bit of an oversight, but it’s too late now. This is where my head’s at. I spend my days at the ha’penny bridge, head down and huddled up in a parka coat, begging for change. Then at eight o’clock when I know everyone will be gone I let myself into the office. I repeat my little thievery routine or sometimes leave little post-it notes on desks to flirt with the idea of being caught. I move things around just so they will not be where they were left. I’m more faery than man now; both here and not here, a mischievous little being busying myself with inconsequential things. I wonder if rumours of an office ghost have begun to circulate. I swear this place is haunted – that’s just the kind of stupid thing people say in offices. Well this one really is haunted. Maybe there are others out there just like me; haunting the office, unable to let go of their mistakes, unable to move on with their lives. What are we office ghosts to do with ourselves? All notions of life, love and romance are lost to me now. I read through every Mills & Boon in the office, some thirty titles in total. The sheik and his reluctant mistress, The lottery winner and the bankrupt socialite, The dictator and the debutante – I read through them all emotionless, like a man reading a manual on how to fix a toaster. I’ve begun to think that I’m a little dead, if it wasn’t for the change that I collect on the ha’penny bridge I could easily become convinced that I’m completely dead.
Sometimes I log on to the office computers and visit Facebook. I follow the lives of all my former friends. I know everything that they’ve been up to in the last few months. Should I meet them tomorrow I would be completely up to date with all the latest goings on. But what would they know of me? Nothing! Would they even recognise me at all? I doubt it. I have written out a hundred messages to Anna, telling her how much I miss her and maybe we could be together etc.., etc.., but I always delete them half way through. What’s the point? I can do no good for her; all I can do is disrupt the life she has. It’s the same with my wife; she and Anna see-saw through my thoughts. I’ve written out my regrets, I’ve said sorry a hundred times, but again every time I delete them. I wouldn’t really mean it. Even if she took me back I’d probably do something similar again. The monotony of married life used to kill me; it wasn’t that much better than the life I’m living now. I do miss the kids though – their innocence, their enthusiasm, their endless supply of energy, their unconditional love. At night I take all the coats and cardigans off the pegs in the cloakroom and I make myself a little bed on the office floor. I set my alarm for seven each morning – I don’t know why I bother as I rarely sleep. I toss and turn all night, alert to every noise (it’s surprising how noisy an empty office can be) I lay there on the floor that I once strode so confidently across, the floor on which my feet stood as I thrust myself into Anna. It used to be all so exciting. Now the nights are like years. Every thought is so vivid that I could easily tell you my whole life story in one evening, but I’ve bored you enough already. I have literally made my bed and now I’m lying in it. I know Feeney will catch me eventually and they will escort me from here, bedraggled beard and all, stinking of my own juices. They might even put my picture in the newspaper – Former highflyer Joseph Sweeney found sleeping on office floor. Maybe then my humiliation will be complete, maybe then I’ll be able to move on.
A sort of mouth to mouth resuscitation
Checking for life by bringing out the ‘o’ of the petit mort
In periods where it goes too long, my house fills up
with quartered oranges, peaches, sweet plums
the occasional nectarine; anything remotely fleshy
The benefit is purely dietary, they aid a fantasy
a momentary daydream, but come with no ecstasy
No hand turning the bed sheets into stormy oceans
or mountain ranges – just a collection of orange rinds
and my own glum face reflected in sharp knives
Arriving in Ireland with no English
his smile become the antidote to everything.
Luca’s smile makes hearts large enough to nest in
Nobody could ever yell, ‘Go back home!’
The dinner ladies all want to take him home
make a fuss over him and raise him as their own
For a year Luca would only eat baby boiled potatoes
Pointing and repeating ‘Boil…boil’
like a little hiccupping frog
Braver now, he chances an Irish stew
Gives the ladies a thumbs up, with a ring
of gravy around his smiling mouth
He enunciates more clearly
‘Po-tat-o’, he says carefully
‘Zem-neck’, the ladies repeat clumsily
and Luca falls about laughing
with his hands folded across his full belly
How long before he trundles home
throws his schoolbag on the hallway
floor and asks his ma for spuds?
Some people think the archetypal rebel is a teenage girl with a nose ring, standing outside McDonald’s. Some of the biggest rebels in the country are old men in corduroy jackets sitting quietly on worn out sofas. Rebels like Bobby,who has recently stopped paying his TV licence – this may be the last act in a long line of rebellious acts. When Bobby played the country boy he was all go. As a teenager, he was so fit and strong. He used to swing from tree to tree like Johnny Weissmuller in ‘Tarzan’. Back then it was all robbing apple orchards and hunting for rabbits with his Uncle Davy. Bobby drew cowboys and Indians on his exam papers, but he could turn his hand to things when he needed to – he’s the type you’d want on your side if you found yourself waking up in some post-apocalyptic world. He’d find some way to survive. There will always be a flicker of light as long as Bobby’s in the world. Him and his friend Toby built a raft once and floated down the River Foyle like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, looking for treasure, but finding nothing except two angry mothers and a tree branch across the backside. The Foyle is no Mississippi, but Bobby played an excellent Huckleberry Finn. He learned all about the river as a boy. How the moon affects the tides, the best time to fish and the best ways to avoid the bailiffs. He saw otters, eels, salmon and seals – all slippery things like himself. Bobby was a chameleon of sorts, one minute he was a reed, the next a blade of grass and in the blink of an eye he was an upturned boat, or rather underneath one holding his breath. As a young man he probably swam half the rivers of Ireland. The back garden of his old house was full of tangled nets and lumps of lead to weigh them down. Have you ever held a lump of lead? It has a strange otherness to it. A small, insignificant piece can weigh so heavy in your hand, and it’s so malleable that you can shape it in your fist. Bobby is like a lump of lead – a real heavyweight, but equally not liable to snap when the pressure gets applied. His old battered wetsuit still hangs out in his shed, looking for all the world like Christ upon the cross. A symbol of a man’s will to do what he has to do, regardless of the law. Even in his fifties Bobby was still at the swimming, pulling the net across behind him in Ireland’s ice cold waters in order to tie it to the other side of the river bank. Weeks afterwards the hacks in his knuckles, opened up the cold water would still be visible -If you rooted around in his shed you’d probably still find the liniment he used for his wounds. The same stuff he used on the greyhounds when they picked up a little hurt from careering around bends at breakleg speeds.
Bobby was a doggy man. In his later years he gave them names like Retired Poacher or Dennet Hobo. Cheeky pokes at the establishment and indicative of himself as a man who operated between the lines. He could train a dog just as well as Burgess Meredith trained ‘Rocky’. Although he never sent them chasing after chickens as that would just be stupid. Look in the shed again and you’ll find the evidence. The leads and muzzles, the old coats, the wellys and the water proof trousers. There’s a stack of old form cards that record his triumphs and his losses, his thoughts on potential rivals; Good early pace, finished well, not chasing the hare! None of Bobby’s dogs could ever be accused of the latter; they were all as game as the man himself. Except of course when he had them stopped – slowed them down for a few races until the grader relented and put his dog in with some three legged hounds. When this happened it was time to put the money down. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. There’s no perfect formula, things can still go wrong. Once, when things were all set up for a big bet, his dog turned in the traps while the hare was on the spin. You could see the dog’s tail poking through the front of the traps and when the lids rose he was still facing the wrong way. By the time the dog had moon-walked out of the box the race was nearly over. You can’t legislate for times like that. You just have to take your medicine and get ready for the next battle. Bobby has taken his fair share of medicine; you can see it on his face – the creased forehead, the slight slump of his mouth, but his spirit is intact and that’s the main thing.
You could never depict a gambling man as perfect. That would be dishonest. Bobby married young and quickly afterwards had a little boy. He and his wife stopped at the one child. A rare thing for a married couple in 1970’s Ireland. But even with only the one child there were times when Bobby’s gambling would go astray and the presses would go bare. His wife might have resented the instability, but his son like all little boys adored his dad. Often they would play fight on the sofa and inevitably Bobby would be too strong for his young son. He’d get the young lad in a playful full nelson and then whisper, “you’re just not ready for me yet boy” like Steve McQueen in ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. Or if the boy boasted that one day he’d be big enough to beat him up, Bobby would sneer “that’ll be the day,” like John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’. These are the movie stars that Bobby and his boy sat down to watch on the tele, sitting together on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon. To the boy, Bobby was just like those guys; strong, brave, always ready with a one liner. A real hero.
These days Bobby’s physical strength is deteriorating. The top of his head is bald, with some hair around the sides and back. When it grows too long, his son comes with an electric razor and shaves the unkempt border and afterwards he also does his eyebrows, which in recent years have begun to grow wild and bushy like a previously inhabited island that has long since been deserted. The haircut visit from his son is one of the few that Bobby gets these days. He is seventy-four-years old and his wife is long since dead. Steve McQueen and John Wayne are also long since dead. The house is a lot quieter, except for the constant ticking of an abundance of clocks. There are at least five of them in the living room – collected over the years or given to him as presents. One depicts two greyhounds racing, another is in the shape of a ships steering wheel and yet another in the shape of a golf bag with some clubs poking out of the top. The clocks tick and tock, all slightly out of time with each other. Bobby mostly keeps the tele off as he has given up on seeing anything new. These days it serves more use as a reflective surface than as an electrical device. In a way Bobby is always on the box; faintly reflected by its blackness as he sits on the sofa, drinking coffee and doing the crossword puzzle. His wild days are long behind him. Now he sits patiently and plays the waiting game – the only game there is left for him to play. He is waiting for a visitor whose arrival is inevitable.
On the day that the visitor knocks on his door, Bobby is ready for him. He rises from the seat in stages, holding in his normal groan and walks slowly to the front door. He opens it to find a young man stood loosening the knot of his tie. The old man looks him up and down, sees the clipboard in his hand, but immediately establishes that this young buck is no match for him. The young man holds out his BBC name badge for Bobby to inspect.
“Excuse me sir,” he begins. “According to our records there is no TV licence at this address. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, that would be correct,” replies the old man in a matter of fact fashion.
“Well sir, if I can just come in and get you to fill out an application form, that’ll save you any further hassle.”
Bobby gives the young man his best Clint Eastwood stare and delivers his killer one liner
“I love hassle,” he says, then slowly closes the door in the young man’s face.
Bobby knows this is a fight he can win. He becomes exempt from needing a licence at seventy-five. He sits back down on the sofa and stares at himself in the blank tele. Just one more year, he thinks. Just one more year.
*The following story was published in a recent issue of ‘The Incubator’ journal – a journal of reviews, interviews and new work from Irish writers. Check it out on this link http://issuu.com/incubatorjournal/docs/the_incubator._issue_2?e=11038014%2F9016375
I don’t have to educate you on the geographical position of Ireland, I’m sure. But it’s my personal belief that geography played a big role in the happenings of this story. Ireland drifting off the west coast of Europe like a parentless child at the swimming pool and England the bigger boy from school holding our head under water and generally acting the bully. That kind of geography can cause people to go a bit funny. Too much isolation, resentment and boredom, it can be a lethal cocktail – as it most certainly is in my village in County Donegal. A train track was never laid anywhere near my village and the buses only run by special request. The men folk of our village sit all day leering out at the vast Atlantic Ocean, the imagined bright lights of America and its steady stream of easy lays and no consequences just out of reach. All the while the wind is blowing salt into our squinty, red, anvil jawed exteriors. How could you blame us for being stark raving mad? The only people that could match us for isolation are those crazy bastards in Iceland; there is a lot of strange goings on in that place too. Just one consonant of separation you see. We have plenty of bored morons who have always been intent on making trouble right here in our village. It might be better if the English came back – if we had an actual enemy we wouldn’t be so inclined to making them up. You see, the bullied very often become bullies themselves. They know they’re quite far down the food chain, but there is always someone a little further down that you can vent on. My village is full of freaks, but there is always someone who is a bigger freak than everyone else. Something must always be done about the biggest freak and when something is done, something then must be done about the new biggest freak who has emerged to take the old freak’s place.
When I was a child the biggest freak by far was Ignatius Sweeny. Ignatius was a bizarre looking fella all right. If you were to imagine your garden variety paedophile, Ignatius would fit the profile. He would’ve been a tall man if he ever stood up straight, but as it was he was always walking all stooped over, like a man that was trying not to be noticed. If that was what he was looking for then he had no hope. How could you not notice a man whose hair and moustache was dyed yellow with cigarette smoke, and who devoted a bedroom in his two room bungalow purely to the collection of broken TV sets? I’ll never forget seeing that room for the first time, broken TVs piled from floor to ceiling; it was like coming across the sight of a massacre. When I imagine those broken TVs now I can so easily transpose them for dead bodies. A graveyard for electrical equipment -no decent burial provided, each one just tossed in on top of the pile. Ignatius, odd job man and village dump! You would’ve thought the villagers would’ve cut him some slack for the services he provided, but they were eternally ungrateful. They only ever paid him in cigarettes for any jobs he did, that’s what accounted for his stained hair and moustache. Perhaps they were right to pay him that way. Nothing he fixed ever stayed fixed. If he repaired a puncture on your bike tyre, it was sure to blow within a few days again. And obviously the TV cemetery indicated that not many he received were ever restored to working order. Something my da said always sticks in my head. It was the day we got a new TV because Ignatius couldn’t fix our old one. He was watching ‘CrimeCall’ at the time. There was a photo fit of a man on the screen who was wanted for a string of rapes around the country. My da said it looked like Ignatius, but it didn’t really, it looked more like Paddy O’Neill, the landlord of the local pub. I think my da just said it looked like Ignatius because he wanted to talk about him.
“I don’t know why I gave that fucking tele over to him,” he said “I’ve never known him to actually fix one the whole time he’s lived in this village, and he only half fixes the kids’ bikes so that they have to keep coming back to his door.” He was on a roll now. “And how the fuck did he get that bungalow? Half the village was on the list for that wee house, including your sister who was pregnant at the time and that bastard walks into it from out of nowhere. For all we know the cunt floated in from the middle of the Atlantic on a piece of driftwood.”
That was the main problem with Ignatius, the fact that nobody knew where he came from, nobody could tell you a tale about his great grandfather and how he’d once been a mad bastard on the drink, or how his father was once a very promising footballer before he broke his leg falling down an open manhole. Everyone in our village needs a back story like that and Ignatius didn’t have one. Like my da says he just blew in from nowhere. The fact that he looked and acted funny wouldn’t have set him apart had he been a fourth generation villager. Sure most of us looked and acted funny. It was the fact that he just blew in. That was the problem.
As you have probably already surmised, I’m a good one for pointing the fingers. I think however, that overall that would be a harsh assessment of me. Having never left, I’ve just had a long time to think about the nature of my village and the people in it. I may point the finger, but I accept that I am complicit in any badness that may be present in this village, and in fact the crux of this story centres on me and the badness of my own actions. As teenagers, my friends and I spent an inordinate amount of time feeling bored and restless. There was very little for us to do, except stare out at the ocean and wait until we reached drinking age. We did our best to make up games. One of my favourites was ‘Castlereagh’, named after an RUC interrogation centre in East Belfast. If you had four people in your team, each one would get a letter and the four letters together made up a word. All team members would run off and hide in different places. The opposing team would have to find the members of the other team and extract their letter from them by any means necessary. Whenever I was caught I generally didn’t hold out that long, a few kicks to the groin and I gave my letter right up. Once the opposing team had all the letters, they had to try and work out what the word was. This generally wasn’t that hard, we tended to fluctuate between either ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’. Vocabulary and imagination where not the strong suit of our village’s children. ‘Castlereagh’ might have been violent, but where I’m from violence reaps rewards. If we had more players perhaps we could’ve thought of longer words and the game would’ve taken on a more intellectual tone, but there are not that many kids in our village. Our games ended quicker than we wanted them to and we would be back to being bored again. We would resolve this by running through people’s gardens, or throwing pebbles at their windows and running away. It just so happened that Ignatius’ bungalow was one of very few detached properties in our village, so he was even more of a prime target for abuse. One summer we tortured him every day for a fortnight. We threw bricks at the side of his house, shone laser pens in his windows, ordered takeaways to his door, all the usual nonsense. In between times, if the chain happened to come off my BMX, I would take it straight to Ignatius and he would fix it without so much as a bad word against me. Later on I would tell my dad that Ignatius fixed my bike and he would grumble “let’s hope it stays fixed this time,” and send me over with a packet of fags as payment. It was Ignatius’ role as bike fixer that gave me the idea for a big prank.
My idea was not overly intelligent, but then again neither was I. It didn’t take long to relate the plan to four of my friends. “I’m going to pretend to take my BMX to Ignatius,” I declared proudly. They looked at me like it was the craziest thing they’d ever heard in their life. The plan however, was very simple; I would knock on Ignatius’ door and stand there like I was leaning on my bike. When he answered I would ask him if he could fix my bike and when he asked where it was I would make out it was right in front of him. So that was exactly what I did. I remember he didn’t come to the door for ages and I was left staring through his bare windows. He had three TVs hooked up in the living room in addition to the TV graveyard in his spare room. The house was a complete mess, the furniture so old and worn. All the windows were bare except for one, which had a simple net curtain on it. It was so stained it looked like he had used it to wipe his arse. I was in the middle of feeling sorry for him when he answered the door. He stood there all stooped over, looking at me with his head tilted to the side, right cheek leaning on right shoulder. Fag in his right hand, with a grotesque amount of ash hanging from it, like some burnt up version of the leaning tower of Pisa. I was nervous now and could hear my friends giggling from behind Ignatius’ wall. “wwwould you fix my bike for me?” I stuttered, hands held out in front of me like I was holding on to a pair of handlebars. “The bloody chain’s come off again,” I lied while pointing in the direction of where the chain would be. Ignatius stood there puzzled, scratching his yellow head, bottom lip protruding over his top one. “I’ll fix it surely” he said “but where is it?” “It’s right here,” I said and flipped my middle finger in his face. Flipped him the bird as they say in America. This was the cue for all my friends to jump up from behind the wall and pelt him with eggs. The first two hit him around the torso and the third smashed directly into his face. I stood there looking at the bits of shell on his cheek, gloppy egg white hanging from his chin. From that egg a monster was born. Ignatius reached for me and pulled me to him and the last thing I remember is his horrible stench wafting up my nostrils and his face, right up against mine, contorted in anger. Ignatius choked me until I passed out before he let me go and went back into the house. My friends tentatively crept into his garden to retrieve me and carried me across the street to my own home.
Ignatius was even more hated in our village after the choking incident. He wasn’t seen out of his front door for weeks, but everywhere I’d go people would see me and say “I heard what that bastard did to you and it’s just not right,” I would just nod and say as little as possible. Everyone had heard about what I was doing at the time of the incident, but that was just harmless horseplay according to them, and I certainly didn’t deserve to be choked for it. Once I was sent to John O’Neill’s pub to tell my da to come home for his dinner, and as soon as I walked in the pub door I could hear the name Ignatius being spat back and forth between the landlord and my da, who was nursing a nearly empty pint of Smithwick’s at the bar. I hated how eager they all were to pounce on him. I wanted to put them all straight and tell them that I deserved what I got, but I never did. I even wanted to knock on Ignatius’ door and apologise, but I never got the chance. There was a fire at his bungalow about three weeks after the choking incident. They found his charred remains on the armchair in the sitting room. The guards never investigated that much, Ignatius had no family calling for an enquiry, and without that pressure it’s easy to just shut the case before it even gets opened. The house fire was the talk of the village and everybody agreed that there were only two possibilities as to what had happened; either he had fallen asleep on the armchair with a lit cigarette in his hand or there had been an electrical fire from all that crap he had plugged in around the house. The village newspaper went for the former version of events and that was the official end to the story of Ignatius Sweeney.