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Sooner barbarity than boredom.
 Theophile Gautier

From where he sat, the boy looked fragile, spindle-legged, delicate. But he was not delicate, he was strong as any boy his age. He was wiry. He could take the knocks on a sports field, small in his green jersey, swinging that hurley with the best of them. Sometimes it appeared that the stick in its arc would carry him off, upwards, to God only knew where. He was awkward, as all boys his age are meant to be.
      Beyond the boy lay an acre of dry field, green in spite of itself, and beyond that a guttering of hard grey rocks all the way to the mountains, grey whales of things under a patchy sky. There was a river, hardly worth the name, slithering under scraggy clumps of bushes before the first slopes. He knew that useless stone walls climbed up the mountains, and there were feral goats up there, but you couldn’t see anything like that at this distance. The boy was doing nothing, or doing something in his own world, interpretable only to him. He was bending and picking and kicking sticks, boards, the wash-up of any small farm stowed as far away as possible from the house. Nothing ever really removed. Behind him, the black-and-white dog hunkered down and lapped at the hot air.
      He sat in a circle of silence, in a weak shade. He leaned back on the unsteady bamboo chair. He smoked one cigarette after the other, not bothering to finish one before stoking up again. He was nervous, fidgety, not himself. But then, when he thought about it, being himself  hadn’t won any medals. Himself  had somehow failed. If not failed, exactly, dropped back too far to catch up. How far was too far? He hoped the boy wasn’t hungry. When he thought of making something to eat he was clouded in a gauze of tiredness. The tiredness began deep inside his head, like the seedling of a tumour. He was tired a great deal these days.
      He was a slim, well-made man. His unshaven face made him handsome in a rough sort of way. He kept pushing a flat cap back on his head. He wore his grandfather shirt open at the neck. It needed washing. His black hair was greasy. It needed washing too. On his left wrist he wore a cheap watch. He could have been anybody.
      Today he’d kept the boy back from school and dressed him in his cleanest jeans and a good, blue shirt. He looked well cared-for, clean. That mattered. He didn’t care so much about himself. He no longer went anywhere. Now and then, but rarely, a neighbor knocked, said small things, got angry when he didn't interact, and went away again. The welter of their visiting remained in the doorway for a long time, a ghosty conversation hanging in the framed air. He took two Lorazepam tablets each day and some nights he could even sleep for a few hours. His doctor told him he was depressed. He’d created no narratives that might satisfy the doctor’s professional ears. He’d just said he felt edgy and couldn’t sleep. Basics.
      At his back sat the cottage, smug in its own way, tight into the road. The front of the house was painted white, but he hadn’t bothered to do anything with the back. A plastic clothes-line stretched from a nail over the small back window to a split blank that idled in the breeze. A couple of his sleeveless vests and some of the boy’s underpants hung there. He couldn’t remember when he hung them up. A day ago, or two days. The cottage had a single chimney and in cold winter when the water would freeze in the veins of the building, grey smoke ascended from it. It came out slowly then and straight up. When it rained, water spat down the chimney into the open fireplace.  An old house, but he’d taken it and worked on it until it was pretty and good to live in. At the side of the house, he had his small car.
      When she’d still been with them, he’d taken her out in the car and tried to teach her to drive. She couldn’t seem to grasp it, though over and over they tried. In the end she’d grown peevish and abandoned any notion of driving. So he drove her in and out of the town, in and out to friends; drove her all over the place until she’d tired of him and the boy the way she’d become tired of the driving-lessons. He couldn’t touch her but she’d make some move away from him. Eventually he could see that she’d lost all love for her son and for him. Too much effort.  She’d let him hang on the end of their arguments, ages, drifts of silence. One day he took the boy into town to get him a new hurley and when they came back she was gone. She’d sent him a weepy postcard from Dublin, which meant nothing at all, and said how she was sorry to her heart, but the letters had been the last straw; she felt threatened, and she needed security.
      He hadn’t asked for the letters to come. He’d tried to keep them away. He’d said things like Look, I’m a good mechanic, a bloody good one. And they’d kept telling him, or a young whelp in a cheap suit had kept telling him, that being a good mechanic was not much use when the garage you’d worked for had closed. Often he’d had to pull himself back from reaching over the desk and hitting the little bastard with the first hard thing to hand. There was a generation of them out there, cock-sure, untouchable. Perhaps someone just like him had offered her security in big fat bucketfuls, enough to make her leave her child behind. She’d seen the letters, the little windows looking out on her. As if they were spying on her and had seen her naked. 
      Too much effort. Exhausting. Legal fees. The slow winding-down of possibility, the dregs of hope. Offers made in very quiet offices, his sense of helplessness. Then the letters had begun to scream. When the screaming died down, she was gone. He told the boy his mother had gone to visit a sick relative, which the boy didn’t believe. Every gesture the child made said he didn’t believe it. He didn’t have to cry or snivel. He could keep very quiet even when the heavy, unpardoning knocks came to the cottage door and they hunkered down behind the settee. He took the phone off the hook, then put it back in case she’d call. After a time he knew that wasn’t going to happen. He unplugged the whole lot from the wall and it was unplugged still.
      The sun and how it played over the fields and the far stones made him marvel. It always did. The light was fragile, tender. The dog had toddled over to the boy and they were playing around, falling and rolling. That was the way a boy should be, he thought. Untroubled. Nothing should slide its rotting fingers into his heart. Not at his age. There should be no doubt in a child’s mind, nothing to suggest a shadowy side to anything. It should be simple, the sun rising, the sun going down. A pattern to everything and comfort in it. You could learn things too quickly, learning them like taking blows. The wrong way, that.
      A breeze came up, warm enough, and tossed the plum tree, her idea. The fruit was red and ripe and ready now. Sometimes she’d made jam. The plums kept coming, marking time in their own way. Keeping the seasons. Better than a clock, more reliable. The birds would hack at the fruit first chance they got, the bulbous violated fruit bearing terrible wounds.
      He stood up, and was surprised by how much effort it took. He jerked down a plumb, took a single bite out of it, and tossed it away. Where was she now, where had she landed? No postcards after that first one, nothing at all. A door slammed on him. And on the boy. That was the way to do it, quickly, no fuss, no messing about in the end. Go somewhere else, get out of the place altogether.  Things about him had begun to irritate her. She wasn’t an uneducated woman, but his love of classical music seemed unsuited to his roots. She couldn’t understand it. She listened to agony shows on the radio, watched soaps on TV.  Anything he liked offended her. He couldn’t help what he liked and didn’t like. She told him he was a snob, trying to be better than he was. God forbid that anyone should try that.  He argued that it relaxed him. The Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik was hardly a threat to them. Just listen to it, he’d say. She preferred to turn on the radio and hear someone whimper about dying of lung cancer.
      Farcical stuff. Two children circling one another, an absurd game. But he knew it was just a symptom of more serious disorder. She knew it too. Perhaps when he’d driven the boy into town that time, he knew he was giving her a chance to get out. Put some distance between herself and Mozart and plum-trees and letters that spied on her.
      When she was gone, after a few days he liked the quietness of the house. He liked being all the boy had. Truth to tell, the postcard seemed to have come from a stranger, it held so little weight for him. He tore it up. For a couple of days he filled the place with everything he had of Mozart until the uncontrollable weeping began, the lump in the throat, the grief-bolus swelling like a tumour. Whiskey, throwing up, neglecting the boy; it had to stop, he stopped it. Of all things he dreaded taking everything out on the boy, hitting him maybe. Losing him. He took the boy into bed with him for comfort. Then he let the boy go back to his own bed and brought in the dog instead. The dog’s warmth and smell, it calmed him. Then he got the pills. Then he could sleep by himself.
      He found ways to fill his days, to pass unwanted time. But there was a lot of it. And he discovered a hole in himself he couldn’t fill. At night the cottage leaned in on him ominously. Like the stone-cold walls of a tomb. It seemed to be losing breathable air. During the day, all the tidying-up and sweeping and clothes-washing made him increasingly demoralized, and he felt he was aging at some unnatural rate.  He could watch television for hours and not have the least idea of what was showing. He would make sure the boy was in bed, tuck him up, turn him to the wall, go for a drive in the night until his throat tightened and water pushed from the backs of his eyes. He’d rush home, take a pill. Sometimes a small whiskey, and the two combined did the trick. Flipped a switch, made him normal. At night in bed, the dog starting to snore, he could imagine the great acres around him, the mirror lakes and thread rivers, stretching themselves lazily for miles. Stretching without end, come to that, out towards a smudgy horizon that no one could hope to reach. Frightening, the vastness of everything. Too much to take in.
      His nails were filthy. He cleaned them, scraped out black mulch. He scrubbed his hands hard, in between the fingers. It was like scrubbing away hate. It rolled down the drain and his hands felt lighter. He listened as the radio told him about a property developer who owed millions to his banks. He’d made a deal, kept his businesses. He imagined vividly how a bullet would mess up his grey head. How a device under his car would rip off his legs. He scared himself. He started to shake. You could be made so angry that your heart would speed up and it would take a long time to calm it down. Some days this sort of thing happened and other days, good days, he could listen to similar reports and feel nothing.
      The letters kept coming. That is, the postal van came round and he wouldn’t open the door and he’d nailed shut the letterbox, but he knew that the postman came with those  envelopes. He would peek through the curtains and see that he was right and feel victorious when the van drove off, the letter undelivered. He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t lying down for them. No more making it easy, pandering and slobbering and feeling angry later.
      In the kitchen he ran his fingers along the surface of the wooden table. He tossed his cap on to it. He’d made it himself, carved, cut, drilled holes. She was painting the bathroom, the whole place smelled of paint. They were eager and happy. They were laying down their own scent, and the boy slept in a carry-cot and his bottle lay on the red-tiled floor. The proof that a world could be made, fashioned, drawn up by two people out of sheer desire had taken gradual shape around them. The table wood felt good and sure. They’d eaten there, argued there, once even fucked there. The table absorbed them and what they were then. There were stains like maps all over it, burned into the wood. The table was a book or a geography lesson. He started reading it and little histories rose up like fumes. His exhilaration when he’d finished it, when he’d watched her admiring it. That was when. Let’s christen it, she’d said. They’d finished a bottle of cheap white wine. She climbed on to the new table and he’d pulled down her jeans. He’d probed her, tasted her. Right here on this table.
      The kitchen was cold. He left it. The house was darker than it ought to be. He’d hammered planks over the single window. He’d hammered planks over the door. It all looked ugly, ragged, like something slashed or maliciously ruined. Back when he’d made the table, he could never have imagined such rampage, such hate. More than that, the house stank of refusal.
      The dog barked in the yard. He went out, saw that the animal was still playing with the boy, his son. He smoked again, dripped ash everywhere on the red tiles. Then he went into the bedroom and, for the first time in days, made up the bed, was careful about it, tucked in the sheets, settled the flowery duvet, plumped up the dirty pillows. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror and combed his hair, then he shaved. The angry scraw of the overused razor burned his cheeks. He applied a cheap after-shave. He stood back and looked at himself again. Apart from his red and very wide-open eyes, he looked fine. His mouth tasted of cigarettes and old smoke. He cleaned his teeth. Blood dripped from his chin. He tasted minty tooth-paste and blood, salty.  There wasn’t a damn thing in the place to eat.
      Just white bread. How had that happened? He had butter and he had sliced bread. He called the boy but he wouldn’t leave off wrestling with the dog. That was fair enough, if he was hungry, he’d come in and eat. You couldn’t treat children like miniature adults; besides, they didn’t think like adults, they were kids. They sometimes didn’t come when they were called. They weren’t like pets. His son resembled him in one way and looked like nobody, not even her, in others. She’d never wanted another child. Neither had he. It had never been breathed openly but there it was, silent and agreed upon. He buttered a slice of bread and ate it quickly. It mulched in his teeth. He used his tongue to move the clog along.  He looked between the planking over the window and saw the road and hedges and the lands beyond, good farming land, worth money. Far away, a tractor, peevish as a toy, staggered along, a red spot on the green. He watched it for a while as if he might glean some deeper meaning out of it. He wanted it to be a metaphor for something, but it remained a tractor. The boy, nearing his fifth year, was growing alien to him now.
      Things seemed to be moving away from him, avoiding him. The boy avoided him. Not scared of him, not that. Just wary, guarded, as he had been told so often to be cautious around strangers. 
      But other things, too. Objects around the house, a cup here, a ballpoint pen there, seemed odd to him, as if he were seeing them for the first time. He would look at a book and wonder who had been reading it, who would find it interesting. He’d pull on his shoes, unpolished and uncared for as they were, and wonder who would have bought a style like that, who would have paid good money for shoes that didn’t say anything. He was wearing someone else’s shoes. Absurd as it felt, it also felt acceptable. He didn’t own anything anymore. Nothing was his, everything had assumed a privacy of its own, nothing wanted him.
      He opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out the cardboard box, then slid out the white plastic container. The heft felt good, chunky. Reliable. He looked at the other thing and wondered what had come over her to get it for him. A Christmas present, though he had no use for it. There it was. When they bought presents for one another, it didn’t matter whether they were useful or needed or just presents. You’ll make use of it sometime, she’d told him, with a smile as wide as a TV advertisement for toothpaste. When almost everything they did was a form of play. Before the world had turned serious. Morbid. Before joy had abandoned it like life leaving a run-over cat.
      Here was how things happened, how they ran down. A slow flutter of windowed envelopes, like dirty snow falling, had blocked the entrance to their lives. She’d dug her way out. He’d stayed, tremulous for a thaw. The legal rooms, the banking rooms, were igloos in the storm. In there, he’d made submission to the mischievous godlings who raged round his roof. And they’d won, because it is in their nature to win. He found a worn jacket, good Donegal tweed in its day, guided himself into it. There was not a sound in the cottage now.
      He sat down on the settee. The silence, now that he noticed it, pinned him down like a weight. He could hear the boy and he could hear the dog and it sounded so irritatingly right and normal. As if the sounds drifted over from some richer, ordered world. He put his hands over his ears and listened to the purr and beat of his blood. The floor at his feet seemed to be a long way down, as if he might tumble out of himself and hit the tiles if he wasn’t careful.  He felt out of balance, on a small boat that rocked and dithered. He pulled his hands away from his ears and heard the wash of the world flowing back in. A rogue tooth began to hum.
      The boy was in the doorway and the dog was still in the yard. I’ve cut my knee, his son said. He held his leg up at an angle. How do you know? Can you see through your jeans? He was supposed to help. Offer comfort. He didn’t know how. The boy hiked up a leg of his jeans and a raw slide of skin appeared. It’s not your knee. Better before you’re married.  The boy looked at him, trying to translate that odd suggestion. He gave up, lowered his jeans leg, ran out the door. I can only say things, he thought, looking after his son. Make the noises, form the words. Meaningless. She would have made a fuss of him. With her he would have felt important. A gift she had. Then she didn’t.
      His son flashes into the cooling sunlight as if he were splashing in a pool of water. The dog rears up to greet him. He peers again through the planked window. They’re in a white van, an immaculately clean and clinical thing, parked in plain view fifty yards down the road. The van looks new or at least well cared for. Perhaps they ran it through a car-wash on their way. The engine’s off. The van makes no sound. He can see nothing, no one, through the windscreen. He finds his pills and lowers two, washing them down with a gasp of whiskey by the neck. He doesn’t look for drowsiness, the usual fat bubble that crawls up around him, snug as a shroud. He wants to be clear-minded, even if his body slows down a notch. He looks out into the yard, through the brightness of the yard in sunlight, the boy and the dog carrying on as if the world turned only for them. The way it should. He lights up a new cigarette.
      He has the plastic container on the table, the dull grey light of the room sparking gently on the casings. He kicks Mozart back into life, turns up the volume. The music is lively, unsuited to the room. When he goes to the planked window again he sees another vehicle. The blue light on its roof is ticking and blinking, counting down. There’s the sound of big doors opening, squealing mice-noises on hinges, and the sound, too, of a man’s voice. Whatever is being said he cannot hear it. He’s nervous, but not afraid.
      He goes into the kitchen, the kitchen she’d painted, splashing herself with the paint from rollers and brushes, getting paint in her hair. She’d flicked paint at him, they’d laughed. The boy safe in his carry-cot. His nails had been blackened with machine-oil from a morning working on an engine at the garage. He remembers the shock of the black nails against the pale wood of the table. A man making a table. Good work. Useful. The work a husband did, and gladly. You’d want to be crazy to make a table just for yourself.
      In the kitchen he looks at the other thing and the gloss of the leather case. Pristine, unused, but admired. He roots about in a drawer, finds the sheet of paper, tacks it for no good reason he can think of over the sink. He obeys the law. They’d see that. Licensed. He hefts the long weight on to the table; it is like flesh with solid bone running through. He can hear hard footsteps now. He unstraps the case.
      The polished wooden stock almost reflects his face, but not quite, there is a blurring, a whispy fogging. The side-by-sides are blue and sleek as eels. The grip is beautifully crafted, a webbing of engraved wood. The barrels are twenty-seven inches in length and it is double-triggered, the orientation right-handed. It feels good and balanced and useful. The engraved maker’s name reads Coster & Lee. He lets it settle in his right hand, the barrels tipping forward just enough, the way a swimmer aims into the water, that same image of calculated plunge. He breaks the gun as he has done once or twice before for the sheer wonder of doing it and he takes out from the plastic case two Eley cartridges with copper-coated shot. The gun broken, the barrel ends look at him like two mournful dark eyes. He inserts the cartridges and snaps the gun shut. He strides to the planked window. There are police out there now. There are men in balaclavas looking ludicrously dramatic. There is a short, squat man in a suit holding something up, waving it.
      He knows what it says on the paper. What it said in the previous letters. The same thing. When she was already gone, writing her postcard. There is a brash thudding on his planked-up door. She’d sat at a table, God knew where in Dublin, and written down her whys and wherefores. On a card that anyone could read. She hadn’t bothered to use the privacy of a page tucked up in an envelope. She no longer cared who knew what. She was beyond private things. She was making public the lack in him.
      He shouts at the planks on the door that he has a gun. He hears them retreat, move back a yard or two.  Some sort of walkie-talkie makes a crackly static speech. You can’t come in, he shouts. He feels the tightness gather in his throat. His voice feels unpropelled, hesitant in his throat. You aren’t getting in. But they come on, the banging starting again, and someone is shouting back at him. Mozart grows hysterical. It is noise now, like the rest. One of the planks across the door fails, cracks, blows inwards, dances against a table leg, tocka-tocka-thock.
      The insides of his thighs are wet and warm. He has pissed himself. A dark stain widens on his trousers. He can smell the tart sting of urine. He’ll have to change his trousers, dry himself off. He can't go anywhere drenched in his own piss like some incontinent infant. Something very hard and heavy thuds off the door and a nail strikes him on the chest. There is someone round the side of the cottage.
      The dog runs in from the yard. He shoots it in the head. It is clumsy, reckless. The stock belts him in the upper arm. The gun, this close to his face, smells of oil and metal. A soft whimper and a carnage of blood. Blood dapples his shoes.        
      There is so much noise now. He is crying. Unavoidable. It is hardly his fault, the crying. The boy is screaming, shaking, staring down at the body of the animal. It is ugly, the boy’s scream, it rises above the Mozart, it fills the room with a bluish gun-smoke colour and a smell like fire-crackers. He vomits. Soured whiskey comes up. Behind the boy he sees the uniform, the cap, the badge.  He fires again. This time the noise is like a pain, it is so loud and big. The boy rises off the floor and collapses onto the red tiles. The wet animal noises the boy makes fade out abruptly. The uniform disappears.
      The music comes to an end. He hears someone throwing up outside in front of the house, but after that, no sounds anywhere. He’s stopped crying. Thankfully, he’s stopped pissing himself. There is so much smoke in the room it reminds him of something burning in the oven, something she’d left on the stove. The carcass of the dog is shitting itself. He breaks the gun, turns it and lets the spent Eleys drop out. He slides in one new cartridge, pristine and well-made and beautiful in the smoky light. He relocks the gun.
      Now he feels so tired it is as if his body was made of concrete slowly setting. He is smothering in a warm, milky fatigue. He closes his eyes and conjures up the round soft swell of plums fattening on the branch, hiding in among the green leaves. He fills his mouth with the soft pleasure of them. She’d made plum jam, humming to herself. Days of content. He’d tasted her. His mouth had taken to her, formed itself into her. Birds made deep wet gashes in the fruit. The red tractor was a child’s toy.  He breathes rust and smoke.

© Fred Johnston 2018

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