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Tony often bought drink for the youth of the village and only kind of understood that it wasn’t right – in the same way he only kind of understood most things. He watched the off-licence manager fetch the cheapest vodka they had down off the high, sagging shelf, staring at the silver piercing looped around the corner of her bottom lip, the brightly coloured concert bracelets that festooned her wrist – anywhere but her eyes. He paid with a rumpled twenty from the Pokémon wallet his neighbour, Lara Cotter had bought him for his thirtieth birthday. Lara had always been kind to him, and so, even though she was only sixteen, and the whole process un-nerved him, he never hesitated to buy her booze.
In a green hi-vis vest over a grey tracksuit, he was underdressed for the frosty air he stepped out into. It was darkening early; winter breathed through the village, the wind slapping the puffy skin of his cheeks. The pale grey sky swelled with the promise of snow. A pack of smoking teenagers crowded around the bus stop, locked in competition to see who could spit the furthest across the road, arching their backs and projecting white gobs out onto the frosted tarmac. One of them spat on the paving slab by Tony’s feet and his buddy kicked him in the shins for it. Tony was in the habit of pretending this kind of thing didn’t affect him. He bunched his shoulders against the cold and set off along the icy path, his face reddening from more than just the wind.
With the vodka bottle snug in the crook of his arm he trudged through plumes of his own breath, out beyond the village, where the river hugged one side of the narrow road. Bare green hills rose from the far bank with brown cattle ranged across the sloped fields. The throaty rumble of a modified engine echoed through the valley and he choked the neck of the bottle. To distract from the rising volume, he dug out his phone and scrolled through his Facebook feed, stopping on a picture that showed several of the lads he grew up with huddled over a table crowded with green bottles and tumblers of honey coloured booze. They had corralled a reluctant barmaid into the shot and Ryano had an arm draped around her, his hand resting on her hip. The post was tagged: Costello’s 30th day 2. #prague #dirtythirty
Tony’s own thirtieth birthday had been marked with a trip to a cinema in the city with his parents to watch the latest Pokémon movie. He’d been tormented with nervous excitement in the weeks leading up to it. His emotions had been amplified this way ever since the accident. The highs were barely tolerable, but the lows were a cruelty he wouldn’t wish on anyone. He lived with blinding headaches. The loudness of the engine that day echoed in his bones and the volume of the world put him on edge ever since. The constant turbulence of it was exhausting. Memories of the accident only came back to him sometimes in broken shards, hazy snapshots of himself laying in a hospital bed with his left arm and leg encased in rigid plaster cast and his scalp zipped together with a line of staples running from his left temple to behind his ear. Images of his parents standing with a young doctor who seemed to speak in riddles. The doctor used the word ‘unfortunately’ a lot. Tony remembered that about him. He remembered lying with his face to the wall, twisting the strands of peach fuzz that had sprouted on his upper lip over the course of his stay in the ICU. The world had the quality of those very first waking moments of morning, his thoughts seemed filtered through a heavy layer of gauze that kept them from coming out whole.
When the roar of the passing engine died and his breath settled in his chest, he pulled himself away from his Facebook feed and carried on along the river. Lara’s gang drank in church car parks, forest clearings, abandoned barns, among the husks of burnt-out cars at the back of the Clover Hill housing estate, but tonight Jay Nelligan’s parents had taken advantage of cheap January flights to sun themselves in Lanzarote, so they had a house to drink in. Tony could hear the pulse of the house from the bottom of the driveway, the rising thrum of a techno baseline punctuated with melodic saxophone stabs. The first rags of snow were falling now and they dusted the steep driveway where Jay’s Kawasaki stood. Tony’s breath caught in his throat when he saw it, reminded of a day when he was walking with his father to post a letter. Jay had eased alongside them on his bike and waited until he had Tony’s attention before revving the engine to its limits. Tony had gripped his father’s hand against the loud rasp of the engine and could see Jay’s bent smile through the clear visor of his helmet, the vicious little eyes on him. Tony had long ago outgrown his father, but he’d found comfort there in the calloused palm of the old man’s hand.
“He’s more afraid than you are,” his father had told him. “People like him are only that loud because they’re afraid it’s the only way they’ll be noticed. Do you understand?”
Tony had blinked his wet eyes and said he did, however true that was. His father had drawn him closer with a hand cupped to the back of Tony’s trembling neck. “He’s afraid to be as gentle as you are,” he’d said.
A kid with a mashed nose and gold rings on most of his fingers answered Jay’s front door. A joint hung between his thin lips and he’d one eye pinched shut against its smoke.
“Lara,” he roared, “Empty Head is here.”
Tony winced and the kid left him standing there in the cold doorway and climbed the stairs, trailing plumes of sweet blue smoke.
The house was brimming with the appetites of youth. A couple in the hallway were trying their best to swallow each other’s tongues. Underage kids were gulping down booze like it was a cure for some terminal aching – and in some cases, maybe it was. In the pokey yellow kitchen, two track-suited young lads circled each other with raised fists, bobbing their heads, jabbing loosely at each other’s faces while one of the watching group commentated on the action in his own approximation of an American accent. As the scuffle went to the ground Lara stepped out of a room to Tony’s right. She wore skinny jeans and a loose fitting black hoodie that almost reached her knees. Her make-up had been applied heavily to her narrow face.
“You’re a star, Tony,” she said, “Nobody else will buy us spirits.”
“You’ll go easy with it, won’t you?” he said, handing over the bottle.
She uncapped it and raised it halfway to her lips.
“Will we see how fast I can skull it?” she said, her braces glinting in the sixty-watt glow.
She stuffed a balled up twenty into his hand and Tony tucked it into the Pokémon wallet she had bought him.
“Thanks again,” he said, struggling to re-seal the Velcro strip with his numb fingers.
“Glad you like it. How did your birthday go? Was the film any good?”
He couldn’t help but smile and his voice climbed an octave as he spoke. “It was class. Way better than the last one. You’d love it.”
He didn’t tell her that he’d had to wear ear plugs to dull the volume to a tolerable level, that on three separate occasions his excitement had gotten the better of him and he’d found himself clapping and loudly answering the dialogue on screen. His enthusiasm was not shared and his outbursts were met with low murmurs and giggles from the dark. When the film ended, he was the only one who knew to stay for the post credit scene that seemed to suggest a sequel. He enjoyed it enough that he’d had his father drop him back to see it three more times that week, but he didn’t mention that either.
“I might check it out some time,” she said. Her smile was almost enough to thaw him out.
Under the stairs a toilet flushed and Jay Nelligan came out of the bathroom with a cider can pinched by its rim between his front teeth as he cinched his belt closed. He strode over, gulping from the can, the amber run-off spilling down his stubbled chin.
“You alright, boy, yeah?” he said, more as an accusation than a question.
“He’s alright,” said Lara. “He brought us vodka.”
“He doesn’t fuckin’ look alright.”
“Jay, be nice.”
“Me? I don’t know any other way to be. I’m the last of the fuckin’ gentlemen.”
He pressed himself against her, keeping his eyes locked on Tony as he kissed her hard on the lips, then he was gone. The song changed and the bass from the new tune rattled a family portrait on the hallway wall. Tony blew into his hands and sealed the Velcro of the hi-vis vest.
“You must be freezing,’ Lara said. ‘Why don’t you come in for a can?”
Tony’s bones ached standing there in that cold doorway and if he attached himself to her for a couple of hours, he might blunt the sting of another lonesome night. That was, if he could ignore the boom of the speakers. The nights could be a cruel slog for him. His headaches kept him from sleep. He walked sometimes in the fields behind his parents’ house until the quiet openness of the land soothed him. He would look up and follow whichever star caught his eye, trudging along towards it over the sloped ground of the valley. One night his star of choice plummeted from the sky, burning itself out into nothing. Then they were everywhere, arrows of brilliant white light racing towards the Earth; the galaxy raining down on him like a phosphorescent dream. He smiled and held his arms aloft like a supplicant to some force he couldn’t begin to understand, waiting on each and every star to fall from the sky, for the entire firmament to collapse in on itself, for the ultimate silence. But within a minute the shower fizzled out and he noticed that his headache too had died down and he started back across the furrows of tilled earth towards home.
Lara led him through the living room where a lanky, sparrow-boned young lad in a Liverpool jersey was passed out on the couch with his head lolling onto his shoulder. The cider can in his hand tilted dangerously towards a white throw pillow. Jay hunched over him, disposable razor in hand, stripping him of a thick black eyebrow while his buddies shushed each other and laughed into their hands. Tony recognised the one in the jersey as Pearse Flynn’s brother. Pearse and Tony had been inseparable in school, but he hadn’t heard from him in years now. He’d a job in California doing something with computers and the last time Tony called him Pearse had raised his voice, reminding him again about the time difference and the sleeping baby.
Lara dipped into the kitchen and returned with a can for Tony. He sank into an empty armchair. The first mouthful put him off the cider. It was too sweet, too warm. Lara perched on the arm of his chair, stirring her vodka and Coke with a twisty straw. She soon fell into conversation with a blonde girl with half of her head shaved. Tony sat with his arms folded across the shelf of his belly, nursing his can as the evening gathered volume around him. Clusters of tipsy teenagers spread throughout the room. He tried to follow their chatter, but they had their own slang, their own references, which shook him off the scent of the conversation. The whole group were so attuned to one another that they could disguise anything not meant for Tony’s ears. There were missing scraps of information, sentences left to hang in the air to be gathered by everyone but him. Just as he’d catch onto a thread the talk would swerve away from him again. Things often seemed just out of reach for him in this way. It seemed he was forever grasping for the threads of the world and coming up wanting.
He retreated to his Facebook feed again. There was an update from Prague. The lads were standing knee deep in the pool of an ornate fountain in a dusky plaza. Four of them in a line with wide boozy grins held Ryano cradled horizontally across their waists, displayed like a prize swordfish. He had the biggest smile of all. At the sight of those sharp yellow teeth Tony’s hands began to sweat.
He knew that he’d once been rooted in this group of friends, but couldn’t call up specific days, parties, the football matches they must have played. Rather, he felt the group as something he had lost – a void he was unable to reach back into. His memory faltered like this often. He remembered the car though. It was one of many that Ryano had shown up with from Big John’s scrapyard across the river. The cars often coughed black smoke and died on the way home from Big John’s, but half the village had learned to drive in the ones that survived. Ryano took payment for spins in these wrecks with cigarettes or cans, worn out copies of Penthouse or Playboy. He showed up one day in a Turbo Toyota Celica that must have been older than himself. All the Prague gang plus Tony were there and it was by far the fastest car any of them had ever sat into. They took turns tearing around a disused farmyard, whipping brown dust into the warm July air. When Tony didn’t have the means to buy his turn, Ryano came up with an alternative: if Tony would lie face down on the bonnet while Ryano drove a straight line across the yard, he could have a free spin. Others of the group had taken him up on the offer and come through it unscathed, and the worst fate Tony could have imagined back then was to be left out.
He climbed up over the warm engine and gripped the lip of the bonnet beneath the windscreen, his feet dangling free over the edge. Brown dust billowed up from the wheels as the car took off across the yard. The surge of speed clung him to the hot metal. His adrenaline spiked and he screamed himself breathless. The stony ground zoomed past in a dizzy blur. He caught sight of Ryano’s yellow smile as the car eased to a stop at the open gateway. He was saying something to Costello in the passenger seat that made both of their smiles stretch wider across their faces. Before Tony could unlatch his grip, dust plumes churned up from the wheels again and they were tearing down the main road. His memory of the day always sped up here and fractured, scattered every which way and he could never pull it all back together. There was a violent surge of speed until the houses blurred. Hedges streaked past in a bright green smear. Flashes of clean blue sky between the brambles. The rushing air so cold. Through the windscreen Ryano’s mouth thrown wide, his laughter lost to the roar of the engine that rattled Tony’s ribs. Then something chased the smile from Ryano’s face. He sharply tugged the wheel. Tony lost his grip. The world tilted. Dull grey tarmac came up fast. He heard himself shatter before a world of inky blackness swallowed him.
In that darkness, he floated for days, pinned to a raft off the shore of an island that rose up out of the horizon like a dead tooth. The water was as smooth as glass, not a single ripple on the whole ocean. He wasn’t drifting any closer to the island or any further from it. He never moved an inch. The only thing that moved was the cold persistent wind that blew across his legs.
When he came back to the world, it was not all at once. His eyes would flicker open and he might recognise the stroke of his mother’s thumb across his limp knuckles, or the meek timbre of his father’s voice, and then he was back on the ocean, adrift for days. Even afterwards, when he woke and learned to use his body again, something was left behind. His mind remained at sea, drifting on its own curious currents.
Looking again at Ryano’s yellow smile on the phone screen, he decided it was time to leave the chatter and the pummelling drone of the speakers, to walk out into the dark silence towards home and quieten his mind. But before he could haul himself out of the armchair, Jay tipped an ashtray out onto the coffee table, fished out the crumpled butts and began to carve the ash heap into flaky grey lines with the edge of a Costa Coffee rewards card.
“Right lads, who’s up for a line?” he said, and gave a cursory glance around before settling his eyes on Tony.
“How about you, big man?”
He offered a rolled ten euro note. Tony felt the heat of every eye in the room on him. “No thanks,” he said.
“No thanks? How about you do it and I won’t fling you out into the fuckin’ snow?”
A ripple of laughter weaved through the room. The lad with one eyebrow had woken, oblivious to his new look. He found Jay’s threat so funny he sprayed a mouthful of beer against the curtains. Tony withdrew deeper into the armchair.
Lara stood. “There’s no need for that,” she said. A sliver of a girl standing her ground, visibly unsure of her footing – of the sway she held among this group. “You don’t have to do it, Tony,” she said, and was answered with a chorus of pantomime boos.
“He wants to do it,” said Jay, twisting the rolled note between his thumb and fore finger, “don’t you?”
Tony’s jowls trembled as he shook his head.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, big man,” Jay said. “Here, take the tenner.”
“Nah, fair’s fair. You did us a favour with the vodka.”
When Tony reached across the coffee table for the tenner Jay blew a storm of ash into his face. Tony reeled back, blinded and choking, digging his fingers into his eyes. A gentle hand settled on his shoulder and Lara’s voice beckoned him to follow. Her voice rose over a fresh wave of laughter, telling Jay he really could be an asshole, sometimes. Tony allowed himself to be blindly towed away. He heard a screen door slide open and felt the air temperature plummet. When he cleared his eyes enough to open them he was standing on a timber deck. It was fully dark now. Snow powdered the railing, the grass; it danced in wild flurries in the porch light.
“I’m sorry about him,” she said. “He doesn’t know where the line is sometimes.”
Tony tried to blink the sting of ash from his eyes. “It’s just a bit of fun,” he said, with a forced smile. “We all wind each other up.”
“Not like that, Tony. You wouldn’t do that to anyone in a million years.”
She shuddered and pulled her hood up. She tried to rub heat into her arms. “I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have asked you to come in,” she said. “Maybe…”
Pressure began to build behind Tony’s eyes; the dull roar of one of his headaches coming on. He reached out a hand and let the snow soothe his skin, but nothing gentle ever lasted. The flakes melted and ran off the creases of his palm.
“…maybe I just don’t belong,” he said, “I don’t belong anywhere.”
Before she could answer him there was a cheer from the kitchen. A tide of laughter rose and carried out onto the deck. Jay and his buddies filtered out through the back door – a pack of leery bodies drawn to Lara. Their eyes climbed her body, their inhibitions well doused by now with cider and vodka and weed. The one with the eyebrow had Lara’s handbag clutched in his bony hand. Before she could question it he produced an unopened condom wrapper from inside, brandishing it for all to see.
“Big plans for tonight?” he said, and the laughter rose again.
Lara looked primed to take a swing at him. Tony’s vision began to swim, the pain burrowing its way to the top of his skull.
“I’ll let you know in about a half an hour,” Jay said, locking his arms around Lara’s waist and lifting her towards the house. A roar climbed up out of Tony that surprised even himself, “LET GO OF HER!”
“Go home, Empty Head,” Jay told him.
Tony caught a firm hold of Jay’s throat, backing him up against a beech tree with frosted ivy coiled around its trunk. He felt the squirm and pulse of the young lad’s Adam’s apple between his fingers. Fear widened the boy’s eyes. Tony had nothing to say to him. He only knew that he wanted to hurt him. Lara called Tony’s name, repeated it, pawed at his arm, but there was no talking to him.
“He can’t do that to you,” he told her. “He can’t. He can’t.”
Lara smacked Tony hard across the mouth. He stumbled back and Jay slumped to the wet ground, gasping. Tony touched his hand to his lip and was shocked that the blood that speckled his finger had been drawn by the same gentle hand that had guided him outside. For the first time all night the laughter died.
“Jesus, Tony, he was just messin’ around,” she said. “He’s my boyfriend. I don’t need you to defend me from him.”
“Get out of my house,” Jay told him from the ground.
Tony didn’t have an answer for either of them. He tried his best to shrink into himself as he walked to the sliding door, to disappear altogether from all the watching eyes.
Inside, the music still thumped. The house looked like it had been hastily evacuated during some great emergency. The debris of the party was scattered all over. Cans littered the living room. Two of the armchairs were side-by-side on their backs, space shuttle style. And in a scatter of ash on the coffee table a clear glass bottle lay on its side, trickling vodka onto the carpet. Passing the mantelpiece, a bunch of keys with a silver Kawasaki keyring caught his eye. He stuffed them into his pocket and shuffled through the hallway past the young couple who were still cannibalising each other.
He didn’t know much about motorbikes, but enough to turn the key halfway and silently release the steering lock. After some fumbling, he found neutral and aimed the bike down the centre of the driveway. He ran alongside it down the slope until it got up to speed, then released it and let its own momentum do the rest. It wheeled across the road, trailing a wavering black line in the snow and ramped up off the low hedge on the far side. The bike hung in the air a brief moment before being swallowed by the swollen black river.
The walk along the river road eased his headache. Snow was thickening on the ground and on the naked winter branches, and on the sloped roofs of the valley. There was no sound but for the river’s whisper and the beating of his own heart. He was almost to the village by the time the squad car pulled in. It eased up silently alongside him without the drama of sirens or flashing lights. Alison Ambrose didn’t even bother to get out, only buzzed the window down, a warm waft escaping the car. “I’ve had a call from the Nelligans’ neighbour about you, Tony,” she said.
“Jason Nelligan’s a prick.”
“Of the highest order. But that carry on with his bike was taking things a little too far, wouldn’t you say?”
Tony didn’t say one way or the other.
Alison tossed her head towards the back door, “Hop in there out of the cold,” she said. “We won’t bother with the cuffs.”
Tony did as he was told.
Alison doubled back towards the station, taking her time along the icy road. Across the river the hills were white as poured milk. The flurries outside were thickening to a blizzard.
“I’ll call your father from the station,” said Alison, “and we’ll see what’s the best way to smooth this over with the Nelligans.”
They were coming up on the Nelligans’ house as she spoke. Word had gotten out and the party had spilled out across the road and gathered around the low hedge. Jay was knee-deep in the river, plunging his hands over and over into the cold water, roaring his heart out. Alison showed no sign that she had seen anything and they carried on into the white night. Tony sat back in the warm silence, smiling to himself, watching the sky fall all around him.
About Stephen Brophy
Stephen Brophy is the winner of the 2021 Montana Prize in Fiction and the Silver Apples Magazine Short Story Competition. He has also been shortlisted for the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. He was a recipient of a Munster Literature Centre Mentoring Fellowship and an Agility Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. His short fiction appears in Cutbank, The Honest Ulsterman, and various other magazines. He lives in Cork, Ireland.