Jack goes to meet Monty Carthy to get some smoke but Monty’s forgotten it, or says he’s forgotten it, and obliges Jack to return with him to his grandfather’s caravan, parked up in the front driveway of his mother’s house. Sit down there now, he says, and Jack finds himself across from the grandfather—
Paddy, says Monty, Paddy, this is Jack Hegarty, from Mallow the one time, he’s in Hawthorn Drive now.
Oh, will you give him my blood type while you’re at it? Jack thinks, and watches the floor.
Monty’s real name is Martin but he’s called Monty because he’s hook-nosed and gaunt and threadbare, like spite’s worn him hungry; he’s the twentysomething-year-old bulb off Mr Burns. This is not a nickname Jack nor any of Jack’s buddies came up with: Monty’s place in the world precedes them, and Jack feels very green around him; Jack feels scared. But the task has fallen to him, and now he’s got an arrangement with Monty that’s threatening to become comfortable. He’s wedged in with him. Jack never wanted to be his friends’ drug-runner.
Paddy takes up nearly the whole couch opposite. His nose is red raw. He’s balding and what’s left he’s shaved down; stubble clings to the back of his head in a fat grey crescent, rising at the bottom over folds of neck flab. His belly heaves in a snug black T-shirt. Monty roots in a cupboard four feet away.
Sorry now for coming in on top of you like this, Jack says, and Paddy goes sure it’s no skin off my nose, and Jack thinks this is because his nose was flayed long ago by the looks of it.
Right, says Monty, and presses a zippy bag, folded over, into Jack’s hand, and Jack tries to tuck it into the waistband of his jeans politely, if this is ever a thing that can be done politely, and wonders if he’s becoming good at this or sensitive about the palms, because the weight of the bag seems unsubstantial. How would you know? he asks himself, you’re hardly an expert, and across from him the mass of the grandfather says, And don’t be telling no one where you got that, to which Monty laughs, How is that any way to be doing business?
He can come back here, says Paddy, so long as he doesn’t tell anyone else the way.
Jack feels the leaving of the caravan as an escape and he is, despite himself, ashamed of feeling this, because it’s not the transaction that bothered him but the company.
Eddy decides to go in via the back door because there is a girl, already, outside the front, bawling and hiccupping, bow-legged on the step. Eddy thinks fuck her, it’s too early for that kind of carry-on. That’s the conduct of someone who’s been drinking since noon. That’s the collapse of a binge. No thanks, can’t be dealing. There is something about Eddy that compels drunk people to cling to her. Some manner, some affable tic, some blush of feeling. It’s illusory, or it’s oversoon, a harbinger of eventual softening – the day will come when she’s rounded out and maternal, flabby-waisted and calm. But now she’s late. Everyone’s saturated and she’s sober, the fault of last-minute plans and a bad, bad mood, a text from a boy she thought might have liked her, a boy she’d read wrong . . . a dark pique in her bedroom, the boy and the mood.
Austin meets Jack in the front room. It’s heaving here, Jack grunts. It’s jointed, Austin says, and they laugh, because speaking of joints, you know? Austin says, We won’t skin up here, and looks around with benevolent misgivings; he likes crowds and he likes parties but he can’t perform miracles with quantities-for-personal-use. Jack leads the way out of the front room but pauses in the hallway. Jack always moves like a man afraid he has only sporadic control of his legs. Austin takes point. There is a window halfway up the stairs on a small landing, before the steps continue at ninety degrees to a first-floor hall congested with doors. This house is like a lot of the houses along this road. It was built as a family home and remade into compartments. The communal areas downstairs are dingy. They are bordered by a repurposed garage, split into two bedrooms, with four more upstairs, austere and efficient, under-decorated but modern. This contrasts with the puckered corners of taupe carpet in the front room; the low, solid-wood banister; the olive-green bathroom suite.
Austin has been in two of the bedrooms here and they’re barely cells. You could open the door and immediately knock your shins off the bed and fall over and bash your head off the plasterboard. They’re like pods around a nexus, he thinks, and the words flare briefly, aspects of sci-fi; he thinks of a spaceship. It fades. He thinks instead of little holes in irregular patterns, crowded together, proliferations of tiny craters, black dimples.
Austin stops at the little landing and presses his first finger against the sill and wipes rapidly. It’s fine, he says, and gestures, and Jack uses the surface as directed and begins to roll out. Good man, says Austin. Below them the party bulges. Someone has set up a laptop and has launched a playlist of shout-alongs. There is cigarette smoke and there are goose pimples. There are bare-legged girls. Getaway sticks on yer wan, Austin says, longingly, watching a girl in holographic cerulean drinking from a naggin and laughing at fuck all.
Are we gonna get the ride? he says, leaning in to Jack’s ear. Are we, Jacky buh? Are we?
Not with each other like, Jack replies; he has the same conviction in his jokes as in his legs; his is a watery kind of humour.
No, says Austin, but c’mere, what if a young wan was after it, but the only available space is one of them rooms up there, and I was in the same room with another young wan, like up against the wall – he thrusts his hips and squeaks and rolls his eyes – and I wasn’t watching you but you had to look at my arse the whole time? Like, could you?
Jack frowns at the weed and the Rizla. Why wouldn’t I just bring her home, he says, when we only live around the corner?
Ah you’re zero craic, Austin says. He looks down again at the laughing girl in her reflective dress.
It’s not like Jack is guaranteed a girl anyway. The lad is ginger and has a soft and meagre beard. He thinks he’s Domhnall Gleeson, Austin has said to third parties, ah but he’s tatty, aren’t you tatty, Jack, God bless yeh?
Eddy thinks, How is everyone so bloody dressed-up for a house party? I mean what the fuck like? I mean it’s stupid.
She is wearing a black-and-white polo shirt. It’s short and it’s tight and it’s not enough. I look like the pre-makeover girl in a teen movie, she grumps, I look like a dope. She stands in the front room and sees herself diminished by sensible dressing. She pushes between two trinities of ornate girls and goes back out to the kitchen. Siobhán is there, in a red bustier into which she’s stuffing two satsumas from a net on the worktop. Everyone is in knots. Siobhán you’re a riot, girl. Siobhán is flat-chested but severely beautiful. She is a profligate flirt.
Ah, is this a costume party or something, Eddy asks her?
State a you, Siobhán marvels. She pulls the satsumas from her top; Eddy catches sight of one rigid, square nipple. Is it so big because her breasts are so small? she wonders. Or does she have a citrus fetish? Siobhán puts the satsumas back on the worktop. A boy picks one up and holds it close to his lips and pretends to swoon.
They go into the utility room. Did you just come from work? Siobhán asks.
No, Eddy spits, jerking her neck and pushing her jaw forwards.
Why are you so late then? Siobhán asks.
I’m not late, Eddy says, it’s only eleven.
She is wearing a black cotton vest underneath her polo shirt, which is simple but at least not modest. She removes the polo shirt and bunches it in her hand. I’m hardly going to carry this around for the night, she says. She doesn’t want to leave it where it will be found, there’d be comments made. Siobhán opens the washing machine but it’s half-full of damp towels. Eddy grunts impatiently. She stuffs the polo shirt behind the washing machine. There, she says.
There! echoes Siobhán. I’ve got some whiskey, do you want some whiskey?
Eddy pulls a face. I don’t like whiskey.
Jack tells himself, this is not the right atmosphere in which to get stoned. This place is too severe. The air is heavy, and smells of sweat. There are bursts of girls’ laughter and the occasional tremoring burr of boys’ voices. Words are hard. The boys reel the girls in instead with thumbs hooked at waists, the overconfident seizing of floor space, reckless ingesting. Jack doesn’t know yet if he wants to be here and he feels very strongly that the feeling is a communal thing, that nervousness is catching and then, not for the first time, that he is contagious, that his nature is one that spoils the humours of those around him, as a ripe banana in a fruit bowl. And then, though he does not want to, he thinks of home, of a fruit bowl as a centrepiece filled and rotting in cycles, a mother’s kindness taken for granted, a hint not taken, fruit going brown, going to mush . . . No, this is not a good place for getting stoned.
Removed from Austin, whose burr mingles below – successfully, maybe even the only one that is successful in that cacophony – Jack takes a lurching trip through the house, held up here and there by people oblivious to him, people too drunk to care about his course, and once, literally, by a girl who chirps Pew Pew! at him with an index finger cocked on each hand. She is wearing an orange bralet. Look, she says, and relaxes her pistols, and reaches serenely for his forehead. We match.
She means that her top is the same colour as his hair. He goes red. Oh wow, your face now too, she says. Aw, you’re sweet.
Austin is in the kitchen. He has inserted himself into a group in situ, as he does, as he knows he can. He is tall and slim. His beard’s shadow presents him well, a young man of contours and sharp edges, roguish and untamed. His family keep horses; he was going to be a jockey, then he grew. You should see me at home, he’s saying now to those gathered, I’m like Gandalf amongst the hobbits.
Maybe you’re adopted, teases the girl in the red bustier.
Something went wrong, anyway, Austin agrees.
Beside the girl in the bustier stands a girl in a black cotton vest who would at least have done that bustier some justice. He notes the scalloped edges of her bra straps. He follows the cartography of her shoulders and sternum, drifts along the neckline of the vest, the incline, the cleft. She is drinking whiskey from a mug that says Geek. Are you a geek? he asks.
Excuse me? she says.
Oh. She looks at it and laughs sharply. I guess this says I am.
Aw look, Austin says. He leans towards her. Her eyes are blue but there’s a slice of light brown on the outside of the left one. That’s unreal, he says. She’s gotten this before. She makes a brief sound of concession. She’s not displeased.
He is not displeased by how often she brings the mug to her mouth.
He spots Jack over the girl’s shoulder, coming through the kitchen door and looking, as Jack so often does, mildly panicked. Like butter wouldn’t melt though, Austin announces, even if no one present understands why he’s added a though. He turns again to the girl with the patchwork eyes. My mate, he points out. The girl looks over at Jack and her sardonic smile comes loose and slips off; Austin sees instantly that she thinks he’s directing her towards Jack so he can slide in beside the girl in the bustier, and he hurries to correct her. He’s my mate, he says, and he’s my dealer.
Him? says the girl in the bustier, crinkling her nose.
Always the ones you least suspect, says Austin. He moves between the two girls, takes the flat-chested one by the far shoulder, and points her at Jack, promising hidden depths, hinting at social degeneracy, telling tales. The other arm he stretches around the waist of the girl in the black vest. He rests his fingertips on her hips. He keeps his face turned towards the girl in the bustier.
Jack doesn’t fuck at parties and it’s not for lack of Austin’s philanthropic spirit. If the party is good he’ll be too stoned; if the party serves, as this one does, to intensify his neuroses, the girls identify that neurotic blossoming and occasionally try to fix it but more often than not they keep their distance. You mustn’t let yourself be friend-zoned, Austin will say. It’s not friend-zoning, Jack will stress.
Well, what is it then?
Girls need the reassurance of swagger, is all, and Jack is lacking. His presence does not inspire sexual abandon. He does not look like a lad who could put it right again if the steam of an impulsive encounter were to clear for any reason.
Jack has not been to a lecture in three weeks. To his student liaison and tutors he cites depression, but he is not depressed. I am catching up, he lies. Instead of catching up he spends most of his time in the coil of the smoke, watching box sets, watching porn, frightened of somethings and possibilities, shapes in the corners of the room, inconsistencies in the architecture, sudden changes in the vista. Austin joins him in his bedroom or in front of the TV on occasion but Austin doesn’t mind, doesn’t notice. You should meet my buddy Jack, he tells people, crafting legends from Jack’s lethargy. My buddy Jack is so laid-back, he’s so fucking droll, like.
My buddy Jack, Austin says now, to the girls stationed either side of him, is a revolutionary.
In what way is he a revolutionary? asks the girl in red, addressing Austin but watching Jack, not wholly friendly, on the border of it maybe.
He’s a pharmacy in trousers, says Austin, he’s an apothecary, he’s an alchemist.
Meaning? asks the girl in red.
He gets me grass, Austin says.
Jack looks at her like, Sorry, I know, he’s pushing hard, he’s overselling, there’s sleaze in this, I know, I know, and Austin says, He deals with knackers and everything.
The girl in red says, What does that mean, knackers?
Austin says, You know. Like Travellers.
The girl in red tuts. That’s offensive, she says, but in low tones; she is disappointed, she is careless with this disappointment; she invites no argument.
C’mere, don’t take me seriously, I’m only having the craic, Austin says, but she has turned away. She leaves Austin and Jack a sloping of her shoulders, a brief chill. Austin shrugs. He has the other girl to attend to.
Jack stands by them. Austin’s mouth moves closer to the ear of the girl in the black vest. Their laughter diminishes; they begin to speak in intimacies; in tandem they narrow their fields of vision. Jack shifts his weight. The scrim goes on being loose and lurid; the kitchen walls seem rickety, the mood precarious. Everyone inhales second-, third-, fourth-hand air. Acrid and hot. Things start to warp. Austin and the girl draw together as if sapped by airlessness. Jack moves away. On his way out of the kitchen he touches the wall and it is damp.
Eddy is whiskey-brave, is audacious and beautiful, is unstoppable, necessitates no rescue. She is kissing the tall boy, Austin. They are in a bedroom, in the dark, on the bed. The walls are close together but this is perfect, it feels now like a world that fits just them, like they’re themselves in miniature, in a doll’s house, to be peered at and admired, to act out the vagaries of youth and humanity, to be, just be. The text, earlier, from the boy she’d misread, has discoloured in memory. Its letters bleed into one another. Its specifics are lost. She feels very desirable, because the boy she’s with is handsome, and presumptuous in an intoxicating way; he has insistent fingers, and the slope of his spine is pronounced especially as he pushes against her and urges up her midriff the hem of her vest and beleaguers the buttons of her fly, but Wait, she says, Wait. Stop.
What’s wrong? Or does he say What’s wrong? Does he say, What’s up with yeh? They are muffled in this paucity of space, they are knotted and garbled.
Eddy starts to tell him that it’s just not a good time – she means physically, she is not stalled on memories of disappointing texts – and he cuts her off; I have a johnny, he says, into her neck.
There is the threat now of running cold, the disdain for that puerile term, johnny, clashing with the whiskey warmth; she would very much like to roll her eyes.
That’s not it, she says, and he pushes himself up on his palms and in the gloom corrugates his brow. She imagines him thinking Why then? Why, in this day and age, with the church in recession and the natural order unbound? What’s wrong with it? If you want it, we should go for it, that’s what sparks are for. She waits for him to say Listen, I’m not really looking for anything serious, but he spares her; he has at least that much cop on.
I’m on my period, she explains, and she hates that term too – as if she’s riding around on the thing, like it’s a literal cycle.
Oh, Austin says, I don’t mind.
Well I do, Eddy says.
Silence between them for a while as they lie together on their backs and feel the darkness dipping toward them, till at the same time they both reach out an arm as if to touch it, pull it down even further, hold each other under it. Eddy is spurred by this fluke. She places a flat palm on Austin’s belly; she is grazed by little hairs. He takes her wrist and moves her hand down and she curls a fist around him. And this action brings her to a kind of extremity, where he is certain to counter one way or another. Her handling him may not be close to enough; he may react insistently, petulantly, brutally. But the walls are thin, and he seems not that strong. Something flutters in her throat.
He breathes, Go down on me. His lips clip her earlobe.
Austin came home one day when he was fourteen and found his older brother with his wrists shredded, bleeding out in the bathroom. Which was kind of a girlish way to take a crack at cessation, he’s thought since. It was too quietly dramatic, a requiem by string section. His brother is better now. God, if Austin hadn’t come home when he did! This is the kind of thing his mother whispers. She blesses herself now compulsively; he can always tell when she’s thinking about the defects she passed to her boys. It’s there in paroxysms, hands slicing the air in front of her face.
Austin hides what frailties he can from her. He bounces and bellows. He leaves mud from football training in the shower. His aberrations are formless; he imagines his insanity as a sort of gaseous molecule, looking to react with bugs and glitches. Lately it’s been things in clusters, like barnacles, ticks, octopus suckers. Patterns come to him in the dark, when he closes his eyes; landscapes of circles, pustules or holes. And so now.
He sits on the bed with his boots on the floor and his jeans and jocks around his ankles as the girl in the black vest – Emmy? Kelly? – sucks him, her forehead pressing harder on his belly as she tires; there’s been a lot of whiskey; think of the whiskey, boy, think of her mouth; think in sensations or don’t think at all. Small and all as the room is, he can’t reach the light switch without dislodging her. If there was light, he thinks, she could distract him – the beautiful discolouration of her eyes, her mouth set in that O . . . wide O, aren’t you the man? But in the dark come constellations of disorder, orbs and tumours. Balls, he corrects himself. He says this under his breath. The girl hmms. She brings one hand from the floor to his crotch and caresses him doubtfully. Nah nah, he gasps, I didn’t mean to instruct you or nothin’ . . . Ah fuck it. He breaks off. He grits his teeth and pulls through them the whiskey-warmed air. She keeps going. He opens his eyes and still he sees the patterns, cankers flourishing in burnt maroon, so he looks down instead but what is she now, this girl, only rhythmic undertow? And he can’t decide whether thoughts of clusters and holes are distracting him from pleasure or becoming fortified with pleasure and he can’t come anyway, for fuck’s sake, and how long’s she been moving like that, what the fuck does she expect, did he expect?
So, Stoppit, he says, That’s grand, that’s grand, that’s beautiful, thanks, he says.
Really? she goes.
Nothing, she says. Sorry. I’m kinda tired.
You’re grand, he says.
He pulls his jeans back up and finds the light switch.
Jack wanders. He attempts, even, to go home, Austin being missing and there being little space left in which to wait for him, but he gets to the end of the road and shuffles a bit and thinks, Well, what am I going to do at home? and is it not surrender to draw a line under the evening? He has a thirst on him, built up over the course of the last few hours; at home waits a hangover, despair. He returns to the party. He tries to get into the bathroom and, finding it occupied, takes a piss against the inside of the back garden wall. He attempts to do as Austin would do, find a group of people onto whom he can attach himself, but it doesn’t work so easily for Jack, there are things he is not good at. Badinage. Eye contact. Sincerity comes out high-pitched, ill-timed and desperate.
He is drunk, of course. They are all drunk. Those left here bob and sway, grind against their neighbours on the furniture, expel a range of fluids in both gardens. Jack sits for a while on an end table until a compact and angry boy trips over his feet. Jack is driven to retreat by the boy’s insults; he raises an arm, he makes a dismissive gesture, and that is it.
He hears the resurfaced Austin in the kitchen and goes to stand with him, but Austin is up to it in some sports-related powwow, and though on this occasion Jack has the requisite education to get involved he doesn’t have strong feelings on the matter either way, but then he hasn’t had strong feelings in a while now, outside of a strong feeling that he’s corrosive. He retreats again. Here is the ebb and flow of the boy Jack Hegarty, carried on the waves of other people’s aversion.
He sits on the top step of the stairs. He gets up again and finds something to drink. He leans, can in hand, on the front room window sill. A limp wind steals two cigarette papers from his fingers by the back step. He sticks his head around a bedroom door left ajar.
He is in the bedroom by the time he sees the girl, Austin’s girl, the one in the black vest. She is sitting at the top of the bed, knees against the built-in desk under the window, her head on its surface, one hand stretched over, fingers resting on someone else’s textbooks.
Alright, he says – greeting, query, however she wants to take it.
Can I have some of that? she says, pointing at his can.
He hands the can over. He waits but she doesn’t give it back. He sits down.
They don’t talk, though he thinks he could ask What happened to Austin, I thought you were with Austin, no? But what good would it do, when obviously something went wrong – a question like that would seem like an application to let him fix things, and he is not a good confessor, though girls have tried him before, some of them left behind after one of Austin’s many raptures. What should I do, Jack? But Jack never knows. He only looks like he might know, like fate’s compensated him for his inferior features by making him a good listener and a fair judge.
I hate parties, the girl says, after a while, and that is common ground.
Jack shuffles until his back is to the wall, his knees straight, his shins sticking out over the edge of the bed. The girl sits up and conducts ten seconds of cheerless laughter under her breath. She sits back with him. She takes out her phone and starts a text and Jack can read this easily; she has her phone face up on her lap. Hello wjat ui, the text reads. The girl drops the phone onto the rumpled duvet. She leans her head on Jack’s shoulder. After maybe five minutes they start to kiss.
Austin is roaring with laughter. Austin is in fits. Jack tells him feebly, I thought you weren’t with her, since she was on her own, I thought you weren’t with her.
Well I was, says Austin. Conclusively as fuck I was with her, and she gave me a blow job and you shifted her afterwards, I can’t believe it.
They are in the sitting room of the house they share with three other lads, everyone’s there, and two other hangers-on too, who’ve come for a PS4 session. They’re all knotted now, laughter is a net, they are bumping into one another with glee, knocking each other’s shoulders. And poor Jack, ah poor Hegarty, their laughter’s a noose for Hegarty, he’s going purple.
Austin knows there’s not much of this jousting Jack’s able for, that he’s a funny fish, bold in unexpected aspects, like the lengths he goes to in procuring them dope or in how few fucks he seems to give for the demands of his college course, but doddering and sapless in other respects, mute in the company of women, boring around men, chaffed by the lightest wordplay. Austin thinks that Jack needs toughening up, that it’s all well and good having the balls for occasional drug deals and shrugging off on dissertation meetings but the everyday is where one’s mettle is tested. So maybe Austin is a little hard on Jack but maybe Jack fucking deserves it – what’s ever gone wrong for Jack, what? What’s his hereditary shortcoming? What madnesses run through his family?
Like could you still taste my cock in her mouth? Austin howls.
One of the other lads, sagging on the couch, tormented with laughter, rearranges himself and in so doing exposes a forearm patterned by a knobby fabric he’d been leaning hard on – a bundled cardigan in thick knit. Austin does not lose his roguish expression but his attention is now held by the markings on his friend’s skin, the ruck of pink weals. Instead of blinking he brings each forefinger to its corresponding eyebrow, each thumb to the bottom of the eye socket, and stretches his eyes as if trying to stay awake. He expels more glee. I’ve never sampled my own cum, he says. Jack, what’s it like?
Jack gets up and battles his way to the door and as he reaches it says, Y’know what? Fuck you, Austin, and Austin snaps after him, Fuck you back, boy, and sits down and reaches for the joypad and signs off on the communal convulsions with a shouted, Fucking pussy.
I forgot my top, Eddy tells Siobhán. Will I go back for it?
Could you be bothered, Siobhán asks. She is doing what she always does when she is hungover: lying on the couch, watching Netflix and picking at her scalp. She tends towards the scalp-picking even in the rudest of health; she once burst into Eddy’s bedroom with the panicked pronouncement that her bad habit had a name – excoriation disorder – that she was doomed to it, that she’d end up scarred and bald. This being something that keeps her up at night. She tries hard to control herself, to train herself out of whatever compels her to pull at her head. But hungover she appears not to care, or to be so troubled by stronger symptoms that she doesn’t notice what her fingers are at. Either or it’s a horrible habit. It makes Eddy nauseous.
Nauseous, and she nauseous enough already, getting gustatory flashbacks, retching episodically. I liked that top, she tells Siobhán.
Go get it then.
Do you think one of those boys lives there, though?
How would I know? Be awkward if you bumped into the both of them, though, wouldn’t it?
Eddy clutches her belly. She appraises the arrangement of the previous evening’s events. She knows where she went wrong – she’s not stupid. Trying to catch up with the merriment, hogging the whiskey. She spent a few minutes this morning looking for stains on her clothing, patches in her hair. She winces. She only kissed the second boy she thinks. She doesn’t want to see either of them again, ever; if she could pick them out of a line-up though, that’d be something. I hate myself, she thinks. I’m a clown. I was sad about one fella so I go messing around with two more. I can never drink again.
I want to rip my skin off.
You’re such a whore, Siobhán says, in dull approval.
Jack has called Monty to get some more dope because, yes, he has gone though what he purchased three days ago and, no, he still doesn’t give a fuck if he’s partaking too liberally or being too generous with those too timid to track down their own. This time Monty doesn’t even bother meeting him.
Come down and see me, he says. Sure, don’t you know where I am now?
And so Jack is compelled. He finds his way back easy enough, though he himself isn’t easy, he is riled and unstable, he is still upset with himself for being frightened on Monty’s turf.
Again he sits in the caravan across from Monty’s swollen grandfather Paddy, who stares at him as if the fault is Jack’s for sitting right in front of him, as if he is not a man who moves his neck if he can help it. Monty says, Hold on now, someone’s after taking the scales, stall on a bit. He leaves Jack with Paddy, whose eyes taper, from whose throat comes a wet and wretched sound as he attempts to straighten himself.
I hope you don’t be telling people where you get that shite, he says, because Martin has enough on his plate.
I do not, says Jack.
You’re a nervous boy, notes Paddy.
Jack doesn’t know what to say to that, because I know, God help me I know would be a little on the nose – his gaze fixes again on Paddy’s snout – and he’s been hard enough on himself these past few days, if one can be hard on oneself in the sweet, choking blur of cannabis smoke. He wishes he hadn’t kissed that girl. His cheeks flush as he thinks about her deep-throating that arrogant fucker Austin. His skin crawls, he almost wants to curl up and cry.
There’s a lot of your sort nervous, Paddy says.
What’s my sort? asks Jack.
Students, says Paddy. Because you don’t live in the real world at all anymore. C’mere and I tell you something.
Jack waits. He finds himself nodding before the words, nodding like a fool.
My own father was once on the way back from Mallow, Paddy says. His people were outside the forestry that time, at the foot of the hills but on the other side. Do you know?
I do know, says Jack.
And so he went over the top of the hill and down the other side because that was the quickest way. He was walking, d’you know, he wouldn’t have been making the journey longer for himself. And he was nearly home when he heard the most awful wailing. Oh the most awful sounds you ever could hear, screeching and wailing, not human sounds.
A fox, Jack guesses.
’Twas no fox, he knew that much, says Paddy. He said to himself it was the divil. Fierce powerful belief in the divil them times, people were closer to that kind of thing. And he was this close now – me father – to taking off, running like, and not looking behind him neither. But he himself was a big man, and a strong man, and much admired for it. So he said to himself ’twas only right that he face it, whatever was making them sounds. Oh hellish sounds. So he went towards them, a ways in off the road, oh the sweat out a-through him, until he found what was making the noise and d’you know what it was?
Jack says he doesn’t. He is sitting forward and his knuckles are white.
’Twas two goats chained together, Paddy says.
Jack waits for him to laugh so as to consent to his own laughter, but the big man does not laugh, only keeps staring out of his narrowed eyes.
Did that really happen? Jack asks.
It did and I’m telling you because it came into my head just now that my father said afterwards that if he hadn’t gone looking, feared and all as he was, he’d have been wondering about it for the rest of his days, and telling people he nearly met the divil when ’twas only a pair of goats tangled in a chain was making the noises.
Funny all the same, Jack says. Funny ould world.
Well it isn’t, says Paddy, and the trick is to know for sure what’s behind you, because you never know what’s ahead. ’Tis always easier to walk the road the second time.
Makes sense, Jack says.
And here you are, aren’t you proving it? says Paddy. We don’t see many students down here. Sure maybe I’m wrong and you’re not that nervous. Maybe there’s many worse than you.
I think you were right the first time, Jack says.
Paddy scratches his chin but he doesn’t look at Jack, no longer seems inclined to appraise him. Jack looks at his hands and at the floor. His skin is hot and prickling. He thinks of Austin and his guts and peacocking and he thinks of the pure neck of the girl who had them both. He thinks of dins begging his investigation, dangerous melodies just off his path. He thinks of heading home again, groping forwards, into the smoke, into the dark.
Photograph © rauter25