I was glue-lipped, dangling on the border between the horrors and the thirst. We were out in Ziggy’s yard, huddled on the lichen-knackered back step as the sun bate down. The air was close and muggy, like someone else’s breath, and I stank. Beside me Ziggy moaned, his head in bowed arms, the grease on his mop of hair blinding. The early giddiness we shared had dried and now an ashy staleness flowered. We grunted, we mourned. Pressed against my front teeth – furry in their unbrushed state – I felt the lunar, sour bumps of my tongue, still tasted the sick-spittle which had caked the hinges of my lips, still reeled from the fear of last night. I was seventeen, the Leaving a swelling shadow behind me.
I pounded the cooked patio with my feet. Felt my cheek, grooved like a peach from the shabby floorboards where I had scooped out a couple of hours. Above was streaked blue, so blue you’d believe in angels, so bright you couldn’t glace at it and not shudder. The hedges and the browning grass purred in the heat. The windows, the washing-line, the hopping insects shimmered. And amongst this hazy backdrop, I could hear the distant shearing of every make of lawn on the Island: the thistle-sloped fields, the reed-swamps, the block front gardens. ‘Fuck this,’ I said. ‘Fuck this completely.’
‘Proper cuntish weather.’ Ziggy flapped a hand at his neck. His nails were sooty and his shirt was turbaned over his head. He lifted himself up a little before crumbling again. The sun hadn’t tanned him as much as scabbed his skin, crisped it the colour of fried bacon. ‘It’s not natural. I’m telling you, we aren’t made for it.’ Ziggy said. ‘This heat.’
I mumbled, continued tracing with my limp finger the grikes between each slab in the patio. In sections, dog-tongued dock leaves had forced their roots through cement. Growing like pubes between the flagstone. I admired their perseverance. I coughed, spat a small sack of sick. The fry had done no good.
‘It’s not right,’ Ziggy said, ‘Not natural. If we kept this weather half the year, the country’d be fucked.’ He raised his brow at me. ‘Wouldn’t it?’
‘Jesus, I’m dying,’ Ziggy swung wide his knees and pushed himself to his feet. ‘Really dying.’
He bullfooted a nearby football. I watched as it rolled, rolled, rolled into a bush. He moved towards the open French doors, where just inside we had stacked our two plates. Three or four horseflies suckled on the smeared remains and it smelled something rotten. From near the plates, Ziggy reached for a lip-smudged glass. I closely watched him. I always hated how he drank, the sickly glug and gargle of it. The bob of his Adam’s apple like some fat arse slumping down the mattress of the bunk bed above you. Ziggy was bok-eyed – the nickname self-proclaimed in first year before others got creative – and all bones. In comparison to his elastic limbs, even my body seemed heroic. Worst of all though was Ziggy’s hole. Due to some misshapen ribs and a bollixed sternum – he wasn’t sure of the actual cause himself – there was a pothole indentation bang in the middle of Ziggy’s chest. A crater that was wider than my fist. It was like the gaping impact of a punch, like his body had caved in. He said I was the only one he had ever shown it to. Trusted enough. In May, when he first told me about Marian – about them – I had whispered, straight off, about his hollow. I scrunched my toes and asked how did he hide it from her? Sternly he explained how he kept a hand tucked under the front of his T-shirt. His arm went numb from keeping the T-shirt tugged down. I said she must have noticed. She must have felt the void on his chest like when you miscount the number of steps on a darkened stairway. She must have been freaked by it. From the slit of his mouth, Ziggy shot back, ‘When you going to get it done?’
I cut apart a dock leaf with my thumbnail. Once more, I saw her leading me to the fire escape. My hand in hers. I saw her sit on the third chrome step, one heel planted on the first. Her skirt hacked above the knee so that I could see tiny pinkish bumps along her thigh. I winced, turning colours again.
‘What you reckon?’ I said abruptly.
Ziggy widened his eyes and then sat once more on the step, his head falling into his knees. There were holes bored in his jeans and white skin could be seen through them.
He crooked an elbow over his eyes. Lifted his shoulders towards the sun. Murmured, ‘Fucked if I know, Dicey.’
We were in the midst of our summer. When for two weeks the place was scorched. Roads were full of oily mirages. Keel prom was slapped with sandaled-feet and the hopscotch dribbles of ice cream cones. Casey’s Well in Dooega had dried to plain earth. Yachts puzzled our waters. The Island twitched and throbbed with heat and we had to endure.
‘Cans?’ I said. ‘Rollover? Anything.’ I wanted to write off last night.
‘Yeah?’ Ziggy said with a hitch in his voice.
‘Nothing better to do.’
‘Right,’ Ziggy said. ‘Right, you see, I’m tight on money is the only thing.’
I stuck my hands into my pocket, fished out my wallet. A hand-me-down from the brother, Barzo. I teased through it – a wishful condom, a card from a club I hadn’t gone to in Castlebar – and scrapped out a ratty twenty. Ziggy’s jaw sagged to one side. I needed him and his date of birth.
‘Come on, you poof,’ I said.
He threw back his head. Seemed to be considering the inner workings of the world, the billions of stars in the sky, the waste and bone buried below us, before he sighed, ‘Fuck it so.’
Ziggy stumbled upstairs to change and I wandered around to the front of the house. Taking in mouthfuls of air. A cat hid under the exhaust end of a car, a fat tabby. I spooked it with a stomp. Grass blew white in the sun and, crouched against the wall, I scanned through my messages. The skin around my thumb beginning to bleed as I scrolled down. Four texts from Tracy, messy with question marks. She went to school in Westport: reddish blonde hair, braces with these gold elastic bands. I bent for a rock and threw it into a thorn bush across the way. Dust rose, floury as a baker’s clapped hands. I heard Ziggy’s footfalls rounding the back of the house and I quickly learned each text off by heart and deleted them one by one. I stood. Ziggy had thrown on a hoodie, despite the heat, but he still wore the same mangle-ended jeans.
‘Story,’ he said. There was a sheen to his face, I guessed he had ran it under the tap.
We glided down to Sweeney’s. Our post-mortem of last night interrupted only by fits of shirking laughter. The rattled pain forgotten as we bit into the raw shape of the day. In the dusty fields you could hear the cattle, their hoofs crushing the reedy grass. I told Ziggy about a heifer who had collapsed and died out near Keem Lake. Its owner, out on the piss since the sun exposed itself, hadn’t filled the trough in a week. I told him how a pack of stray dogs had savaged the cow’s body and when a neighbour finally went to clear the carcass, she found the other cows noising and tonguing up the heifer’s dark blood.
‘Why’d you bother telling me that?’ Ziggy asked.
Before the main road, when the briars stopped strangling the path, he mentioned Tracy. Casually, tactically. He knew I’d been after her, I had told him that much, and that some mutually-beneficial deal had been arranged. He said he saw me go off with her. Did I finally?
‘Yeah,’ I lied. Ziggy glanced at me then fixed his gaze to the road. ‘I went off with her. Out the back of the club. You know the spot there.’
‘Fair play,’ he said, ‘That’s the first time done so.’
Cutting him off, I asked about Marian.
‘What about her?’ His forehead crinkled.
‘Just I caught her last night with Jamesy. You know the tall lad from down Cypress?’ I didn’t speak for a moment, ‘You see that, too?’
He nodded. Spat and called her something.
We followed along the bank of the main road towards the Sound, cool in the shade of high shrubs. The church bell bonged and I told Ziggy you could hear the shutters of the offie being rolled open for us. ‘It’s like a love song,’ I joked. Ziggy smirked with a loud tssk, but didn’t face me.
By Brett’s shop, the scaffolding still framed around the half-crumpled chimney, we passed Martin Cooney and his father. Mr Cooney had one hand cradled under Martin’s elbow, a paper stuffed under the other. Martin turned away from us. It was known that Martin was home and unmasked but this was our first glimpse. To us now he was only the half-moon piece fashioned by that wicked slash of glass. The bridge of his nose, right eye socket and cheek were divided into three Africa-shaped sections. Stiches ran like barbed wire between his nose – inflamed like a Mr Potato Head piece – and his lips, and the skin around these cuts was still dabbed a sponge-cake yellow. Most shocking to me though was the shakiness in his eyes, as if these globes belonged not to a college boy but to a fifty-something-year-old lost on his punctured wagon.
‘Boys,’ Mr Cooney said. We nodded, keeping our heads down, but glanced back once we crossed to the church side of the road. Standing under a roof of fuschia, we watched as Mr Cooney almost folded Martin into the backseat of their car.
‘He got a bad going over,’ I said. The perfume of incense wafted behind us.
‘Yeah.’ Ziggy paused, ‘Pricks.’
Outside the wrinkled church gate, a crew of bundled-up sleeves had assembled. Smoking and chatting. They must have slipped out after Communion.
‘That’s what you should have done last night,’ I said.
‘What you mean?’
‘To James. When you seen him groping Marian.’ A sly grin spread across my face. ‘That’s what you should have done to him.’
‘Would you leave it?’
I clipped his heel and sped to match his pace. ‘I’m only messing, Ziggy. Come on. Relax.’
‘Fuck off,’ he said quietly.
We powered on and then crossed to Sweeney’s. By a chain of trolleys, I passed him my twenty. ‘Get two eight packs, yeah?’ I ordered. ‘That should do us plenty.’
‘Sound.’ Ziggy brushed a hand through his hair, pocketed the money with a clenched fist. He then double tapped his arse-pocket.
‘Go on so,’ I slouched onto the kerb. ‘You don’t need me to hold your hand.’
Left alone, I huffed and placed my phone flat between my feet. The scene around me was noise. Radios and mix CDs and fisted honks – the towners not wide to the idea of letting your car run as you nipped into the shop. There was the moil of the ice cream machine and the shouts of kids in faraway gardens. The front windows of the square terraced houses were wide open, releasing the crackle of TV shows, and, out the back, you could hear the winged-flap of sheets, pegged neat and fatly on washing lines like flocks of neck-wrung geese. Cars licked bumpers on the road, surfboards on their roof racks – the sand from yesterday still gritty on the shark fins. A tractor spurted black smog like a trumpet. On the ramp leading to Sweeney’s, people gossiped while scratching a midge-bitten leg or wiping a glistened neck with a tissue or fixing the peak of a cap.
I watched motionless, my stomach boiling once more, considering if I wanted to puke or not, until there, in the cramped back seat of a Peugeot, I spied a girl. Her lips puckered and her wispy hair so white it looked like it’d sting to touch. Her driver beeped. His flexed arm, carpeted with black hairs, rested on the open window. He wore sunglasses without shame. He gestured something to the girl, who, grinning, leaned forward and kissed his chin and its dirty stubble. I could almost taste their smell. She linked her arms around his neck and let her fingers stroke his chest. Her hand dropped and I imagined darkly where it went. I turned to my phone and checked back only to give his license plate the finger and watch as his car, and the hundreds of other cars, rolled on towards a beach that I’d never see in the same way they did. That icy fear of the morning after slithered back: why does summer always feel like it belongs to someone else?
I thought about Tracy. With a shudder I replayed us scudding through the fire exit. Her heels – red-velvet with peeping-Tom toes – barking on the gravel as we moved. Her ringlets had frizzed from the heat of the club, and she brushed one slowly, ever so slowly, behind her shoulder. I heard the tap-tap-tapping of her heel on the metal step. I saw her smile, those small cubic fangs, like baby’s teeth. I groped my cock, soft and hopeless, and saw her face change to a frown and then mortified confusion. Her voice calling after me, the confident twang lost, ‘What’s wrong with you? Mark. Come back. Mark, don’t leave me. Please!’
The shakes were back, my leg vibrating against the kerb. I hawked out a toffee-ball of mucus. I wanted to tell her how I felt, blame nerves or whatever, and then beg her to keep it fastened between us. I wanted to rush back, tell her why. I picked up my phone and dropped it down again. But I also saw how nakedly I only wanted to hide it, say she ran off on me. Say she was the one who fled in gop-mouthed panic. It was her fault. I bent forward and tried to make out the Peugeot, but it was long gone, swallowed by the blur. Who would ever know? An ant wandered over my phone’s screen. I watched its struggle, each leg moved like it was cranked forward. With the coarse side of my thumb, I smeared it into nothing. I cleaned the thumb on the hot concrete just as a shout came from behind.
Ziggy held the two golden packs like firewood. Eight cans in each. I took one and inspected it. ‘You didn’t fuck up anyway,’ I said.
‘Where we head?’ Ziggy ignored me and slipped down between the bars. ‘Under the bridge?’
I eyed the sun. ‘Be lit down there.’ Heavenly, the cold beers dampened the underside of my shirt. ‘We wouldn’t be able to cope.’
We began walking back the way we came. Weighing spots – strengths and weakness and if others might have already got there. By now the church had cleared out but the smell of candles lingered. I suggested the ball alley near Lavelle’s. Ziggy reminded me of the walk and the ordeal of hitching. ‘Not worth it.’
‘The Swamp.’ Ziggy stopped and I kept going. ‘Dicey. What about the Swamp? The stream and that.’
I leant my head from side to side. It was a good suggestion.
‘Where else is there? I’m not walking in this.’ Ziggy said. He knew he had the upper hand. ‘It’s only over the road.’
We doubled back and diverted, via the back of the Clinic, to the one-car lane which bent along by the library. The sun was right in front of us, a flipped copper penny. The tarmac sizzled and the far end of the road was brushed blank in the light. ‘This heat.’ Ziggy stuck out his tongue.
The ache was gnawing again in the corners of my head. I was parched and the cans were now a burden. I lifted high my pack and said in a mock-biblical gasp, ‘My cross to carry.’ Ziggy laughed and I added with a bump of his shoulder, ‘We need to tuck into these boys real soon.’
Ziggy agreed and half-started a sentence but drew it back. He then said, ‘Look: what happened with Tracy?’
‘What happened with Tracy?’ I mimicked.
‘Don’t get like that. I just heard something. I heard from –’
‘I told you what happened.’ He was trying to wound and I stared blindly ahead. ‘I told you, didn’t I?’
‘Dicey, come on,’ he said. ‘You can tell us.’
Then, when we were halfway down the road, Ziggy muttered, ‘Watch.’
I squinted, my cheeks burning, and saw the unmistakable headstone shape of Terry Coyle. He was sat on a wall, a good throw from us. A phone blasting choppy dance music beside him. He was in American-blue jeans and a black wife beater, mesh-like in the sun. Beside Terry, pressed against the wall, was his cousin Con McDonagh from Castlebar.
‘We head back?’ I noticed the quiver in Ziggy’s voice. He had always been the easy prey. With his hair, his needle legs, his smarts in the classroom.
‘No.’ I looked more clearly. They hadn’t seen us yet. Four years older, they knew power, held no fear of what we did. I gave a smack of my lips. ‘No, fuck that.’ Ziggy frowned, pleaded again, but I strode on. I faked a swagger in my steps, wanting to show Ziggy. Con whistled and Terry turned his loaf-of-bread neck our way. Against Ziggy’s unease, I was sure-footed.
‘The two faggits,’ Terry shouted. He hopped from the wall and his features glowed for a moment. On Terry’s upper arm was a tattoo of a Celtic cross. Black ink with copper-green highlights. He got the tattoo done while still in school and the next day, before the morning bell, he called everyone, even us juniors, to the basketball court, where he drew back his sleeve and tensed his bicep. I remember I felt like applauding, I remember being jealous of everything he had.
We slowed to a stop.
‘What ye two up to?’ Terry sneered. In the right corner of his lips was a cold sore, crusted over like a dunghill. In his large hands he held a plastic goon, in which there were only a few rusted squirts left. He whisked the neck of the bottle, his face gurning, and drained the last drips of cider. I could taste musky sweat. ‘Well?’ He threw the goon into the thickets.
‘The boys have drink, Ter.’ Con winked at me and my stomach turned. There was dash of toilet-cleaner blonde in Con’s fringe, and when he dragged a hand across his mouth I saw he wore a ring on his middle finger. A brass gold one, like a bottle cap.
‘I seen that,’ Terry palmed Ziggy hard on the shoulder, rocking him backward. ‘How you gettin on, Hare? Good? Haven’t see you in awhile.’
Ziggy didn’t answer, pivoted on one foot.
‘Where you going with the booze?’ Con asked me.
I blinked into the glare. ‘Say we’ll head to the Swamp.’
Con nodded. ‘Yeah?’ His eyes shifted and mine followed them weakly. I wondered if he was out last night. What damage he had done. He hmm-ed, mockingly considering what I said. ‘The Swamp, eh. What you reckon, Ter? You in the mood for a few in the Swamp?’
‘Do the lads want our company?’ Terry said. With a fish-hook thumb, he frayed open the blue and gold wrapper of Ziggy’s cans. He gripped one free and cracked it, guzzling up the foam. Con whooped. Terry dropped the ripped shreds of the wrapper and threw another can to his cousin. ‘I know Hare here wouldn’t mind sharing a few cans, anyway.’ Terry shrugged an ugly arm around Ziggy’s shoulder, who shrunk under it. ‘Great old pals, me and Hare.’
‘But what about this other fella?’ Con caught my eye and I buckled again.
‘It’s sound,’ I strained. ‘Ye can come with us. Yeah.’
‘Good man,’ Terry pushed Ziggy forward, ‘Hare will lead the way.’ Terry flung a can back at me. More scraps of the gold wrapper fell behind him. Con crashed his can against mine, instructed me to drink up.
At the end of the road we jumped a gate and hiked through a field – its hay brittle like chin hair. Only the cousins talked – their tongues raking through each word. I could tell they were already long on their way. After climbing another gate, we came to the slope of rock and heather which led down to the Swamp.
In this heat, the Swamp was baked solid and hard underfoot. The grass singed my fingers and the heather-roughed margins was a ready spark. A pit was dug out in the centre, filled with charred wood and the tinfoil containers of DIY barbeques sets. On the opposite side was an overarching expanse of thick bog dune. Violently purple heather furred over the ridge of the dune, a sort of canopy, leaving a shadow on the brown water; the wiry bone-roots of a nearby apple tree, wind-kicked as an old hag, crawled down and out of the brown crust like barky stalagmites. I had the sensation of being watched, judged, and I quickly finished my can. I flacked the empty at the dune and clumps of grey earth dropped free, smashing into the water.
Terry took the eight-pack from Ziggy. ‘You’re good for something anyway, Hare.’ Terry dropped the pack by the pit, snatched one out and then, after jerking his arm back twice, passed Ziggy a can. ‘You wormy little shit.’
Con stood beside me, peering into the stream. He spat out a drooping yo-yo of saliva. ‘Not a bad spot.’ He pretended to punch me before laughing. ‘Throw us another there, Ter.’
Terry slumbered into the shade and we sat more or less in a line next to him. By now our cans were sun-warmed, the freezer cold sweated from them. The beer tasted bitter and metallic and cheap but I sucked it back. Con asked who was the brains who thought of this place? Terry pushed down Ziggy’s head, said that it wouldn’t be Hare anyway. Ziggy hadn’t said more than two words since they found us and I knew I had stung him. Con kicked me. ‘Must be Einstein here, so.’ I smirked but didn’t reply. ‘Some man,’ Con said.
We drank steadily from then. The sun battering our exposed shins. The stream whistling by. Con and Terry talked, almost forgetting about us until Terry requested a fresh can and either myself or Ziggy would get up and hand it to him. I concentrated on getting drunk, rapidly dismissing everything but the can snug between my legs, the measured sips, and the tales being smacked around. Terry boasted about scabbing a tidy lump from the off-hours offie in the Island Head. ‘Made a clean grand last month. Cash.’ While Con recounted – without looking at any of us – how he took a bird last night. The details eerie, making me hold my breath. ‘She was wet as a rag.’ He repeated this again, his hushed voice scrawling like a razor blade against chalkboard. He told us where it happened and how he came after his final drawn-out pump, his hand thumping the beat into the ground.
When Ziggy’s pack was empty, the gold wrapper was lobbed into the stream. We tore open mine and drank on and on and on.
Overhead, a white line ripped through the blue seams of the sky. I slurped my can, blowing a hair of grass from the lid, and carefully watched it. I wagered saying something, pointing out the plane – was it even a plane? ‘Hare, my ol’ buddy?’ Terry adjusted his body so he faced Ziggy, his tattoo and bicep tensed, ‘I meant to ask, you still a virgin?’
Con clapped his hand.
I took a drink, forgot about the plane. Ziggy vaguely responded.
Terry cupped his ear, bent closer to Ziggy. ‘What was that? Speak up, Hare. I can’t hear ya.’
‘I’m not,’ he said.
‘Are you sure?’ Terry said.
‘He doesn’t sound sure, Ter,’ Con said.
‘Are you a virgin, Hare?’ Terry asked again. I grinned when he eyed me. ‘We’re all pals here.’
‘I’m not,’ Ziggy shouted.
‘Oh. Go easy, Hare,’ Terry howled. ‘I believe you, I believe you.’ Ziggy shot a look at me.
‘What about his buddy, Ter,’ Con yelled. A whiff of a breeze crossed. Enough to keep off midges. ‘Is he a virgin and all, do you think? Is there a pair of them in it?’
‘I’m not,’ I took a long sip and held in my gut. ‘I’m not.’
‘A right slayer, I bet,’ Con said.
‘Who you pipe?’ Terry asked, ‘Remember the right hand is no good, Dicey.’
I scoffed a laugh and messed again with my shirt. The stream glistened pure gold. ‘I was with Tracy Keating. I was with her last night.’
‘Ivan Keating’s youngest one?’ Terry said. ‘With the braces?’
‘Where you take her?’ Con snapped.
‘Yeah. Her.’ My throat felt clogged, I shook my can. ‘Ziggy’s gaff. He had a free one, so took her back. Did it in Ziggy’s house then.’
‘Man Dicey,’ Terry’s voice trailed off. He threw a can into the stream, shattering the gold. A dragon fly danced by, its wings rainbows in the light, and for a moment, I concentrated on that, the colours. Until, as an afterthought, Terry added, ‘You got more action than my man Hare, anyway.’
Ziggy shifted beside me but didn’t speak. We caught eyes and he looked away. I shook my can a little harder, brought it to my lips. I knew if the places were changed, if he was the one telling tales, I’d rat him out. As fast as anything. I’d rat him out. I’d make him the joke. Now, I prayed he wouldn’t do the same. I prayed that he would be better than me.
‘Two slayers on our hands, Ter. We could learn a thing or two.’ Con smiled at me. One of his front teeth was uneven. Bent, as if you could just twig it out. ‘I’d say they give the women a good seeing to. Leave them wake.’
‘Tell us how you do it lads,’ Con continued. ‘Tell us what you do to them.’
Terry howled again.
‘Go on, show us your moves, lads.’ Con shouted, ‘Stand up and show us how you do it.’
The shadow from the heather behind had crept further along our thighs. The sun wheeling backwards. I was being strung up again. ‘I always wondered how Hare managed to do it,’ I said. ‘With that hole in his chest.’
‘What’s this about?’ Terry’s ears perked. ‘What’s wrong with your chest, Hare?’
‘Show them, Ziggy.’ I saw what I was unravelling but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I feared more what they could reveal. Ziggy mouthed my name, his eyes wide. ‘Go on, show them,’ I said.
‘Hare,’ Terry lugged himself up. ‘Are you keeping secrets from me.’ In an instant, Terry went for Ziggy’s top. ‘There’s no secrets between friends, Hare.’ Ziggy kicked at Terry’s grasp and struggled to his feet. ‘Fuck away from me.’ Terry tried to choke him into a headlock but Ziggy managed to scramble free, his legs doing ninety, but then Con rushed in, tackling Ziggy to the ground. Together, the cousins wrenched off the hoodie, revealing the soft skin which the sun hadn’t itched, revealing that smooth, hairless hemisphere. They howled and I howled with them. Ziggy tried to stagger away but tripped over the pit, falling in arse-first, his hands locked together hoping to hide his chest. Con burst into Muttley-hysterics. I passed Ziggy’s hoodie to Terry, who threw it into the ash of the pit.
‘Fuckin cunts,’ Ziggy stumbled up. His voice wobbled with its own sobbing. I looked at the stream. ‘Fuck you all.’ He ran.
We toasted to Ziggy’s chest. Con and Terry shouted new insults and schemes for Ziggy’s hole – ‘you’d make a nice piss pond with it.’ I kept quiet, smiled, nodded when it was expected, and shied away from the glimpse of who I was. The laughter carried us for a while.
‘Last orders,’ Con shouted in the manner of an English landlord. ‘Just the three cans left.’
‘That’s all?’ Terry pounded his fist into his palm. ‘We need more drink,’ he said, challenging us. Terry hooked his last can at the stream. ‘Need to start some proper drinking.’
‘Hear, hear,’ Con said.
I gave a drowsy cheer – a belch stuck forever in my throat.
Plans were pieced together. Terry named women, sent a flurry of texts and then couldn’t sit still. Con mentioned pubs, potential lock-ins. I thought of crawling home when Terry turned to me, ‘Dicey. You’re in for the long haul, right?’ I nodded, a little drum roll in my chest. ‘Good man. You’ll lend us a few bob then. I’ll source the drink.’ He took my last tenner and counted what change I had – lifting each coin to the sun.
‘Get a move on will ya so, Ter?’ Con began rolling a joint. ‘I’ll stall here with this bruiser.’
‘Right. Sound,’ Terry glanced at me before hurrying off.
Con lit the joint. I nursed my can, holding it to my lips without letting any of it trickle down my throat. Pretending to myself there was a reason we weren’t talking. The battered tree moved a little in the late afternoon wind, and beneath it, apples lay like hardened nuts, rank and spoiled. His voice came to my ears as a pinch. ‘Tell us the truth, Dicey, you’ve never been with a woman, have you?’
‘What?’ I said. My voice pitched. ‘Didn’t I tell you about Tracy.’
He took a suck of the joint. Exhaled a spiral spell of smoke. ‘You told us that alright, but.’ There was a glint in his eye. ‘But I could smell the horseshit.’
I sifted grass with my fingers.
He laughed – not with venom, that lone ‘Ha’ – but with some tone of understanding. He leaned back, his right elbow propping him. ‘No shame in it.’ The stream ran all the way down from Slievemore, tracked through briar bushes, through this field, and onward still to the sea. ‘They are tricky, the women.’
At the bottom of the stream I spotted the royal blue of our discarded cans. Near it, one of the gold wrappers was caught in a leafless briar. I stared at this and asked when he had first done it.
I heard him smiling. The sap breaking as his lips opened. ‘Lost mine when I was fourteen,’ he said. ‘To a neighbour from up the road. This old one. She asked me one morning, when I was on my way to the shops for milk for my mother, would I call over?’ He clicked his fingers. ‘Just like that.’
‘Good?’ I asked. A question unsure if it was even a question.
He said nothing. Then after a while, ‘Yeah. She knew the ropes alright.’
I didn’t dare look at him. My eyes focused instead on the sheath of plastic from the eight pack. I tugged at myself. The sun spiked right through it.
‘I’ve done it with others as well,’ he said. ‘Different folks,’ he paused. ‘You’d like to try it some day, ah?’
He laughed to himself, rose. He stamped on his joint – its smell oozed – and struggled over a bush. I listened to him piss in the reeds. The stiff hiss of it as it hit the stalks. The passing of gas and his chuckle after.
Con stepped out. ‘What are you fuckin smiling at?’ He swiped grass from his boots. His shirt was off and he had left his fly and belt undone. There was a dark stretch of hair diving from his bellybutton to the band of his boxers. I watched him groom himself, hearing the jangle of his bracelet. The tinker gold of it. ‘Some heat,’ he said.
My hand tore at the grass and I could feel muck under my nails. ‘We could swim.’
‘A doggie-paddle is it?’ He laughed. ‘Could be nice, all right. What you think? Could be nice.’
I didn’t reply. But carefully nodded. I listened to his body – the old-man crack of his bended leg – as he pushed further down his jeans. He let out a grunt as he pulled a sock off. Through the distant fir trees the wind blew as if it was gossiping. I fingered open the laces of my shoe. Felt the dampness of my underarm.
‘I won’t tell,’ he said as he passed me.
He placed one foot on a large rock and then let himself fall into the stream. His boxers baggy and tartan. He had moles on his back, connecting dots. Wires of hair grazed on the cove of his neck. I unsnapped my belt. Lashed it out from the jean buckle. I laid my shirt neatly on the spread-legged jeans. Straightened my back.
The stream was about seven-foot wide and bracing cold, though the day was too hot for it to really freeze us. My feet rested on slime and stone. I rubbed my hand along my arms, where the line of sun-rash and freckles met, and cupped some water onto my shoulders and the unbroken chest that had saved me. ‘It’s nice,’ I ventured.
In the deepest area, the water came just above my hip. We ducked ourselves in, let the liquid peel over our shoulders. Hunched in the brown water, Con’s body took on a different shape. It was oily and runny. I thought I could scrub it away.
‘Some heat,’ Con slapped a skim of water at me. I smiled, not able to laugh. My teeth chattering. I looked again at the gold wrapper, caught in the briars a little ways past us. I bounded towards it. My hands raised and poised to pare it free.
‘What’re you doing,’ Con shouted. ‘Where you think you’re off to?’ He splashed closed to me and snagged back my hand. Cuffed it as if we were playing a game. The ripples of his movement broke against my own like the last spin of a record.
‘It’s nice the water,’ he said, ‘You need it on a day like today. Don’t you need it?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered.
A trickle of sweat escaped from my temple and pricked my eyelid. There, the skin was tender. I felt him behind. His pelvis pressing against my back. He didn’t bother turning me. I watched the water, noticing how it was fleshed in its movements. I saw our reflection and I let the back of my hand dash it away just as his thumb flicked at my underwear. I felt winded as the stream broke against me, against us, as my blood strengthened. He groaned, ‘Easy.’ I shut my eyes to the sun but its rays were still visible, rendering my closed world to groups of shiny green discs. My breath circled above while his heaved against my sleek neck. I sniffed the air like a dog. The brown water broke against us and the heat rubbed into us as one. I trembled and then I didn’t.
I opened my eyes, suspended atop the flow of the stream, my own milky self drifted by. ‘There you are.’ He bit the lobe of my ear, ‘There you are.’
His arms wrapped around my stomach and pulled me until we were again in the middle of the stream. ‘Now,’ he said. I fought for a moment but he held his forearm against my lower back. I bridged my arms in front of me and the water came to my elbows. I heard the sound of spit. I gritted my teeth and saw myself as if from afar. I felt it as if from afar. Then I heard a voice. Terry’s shouts raring towards us. I thought I heard the echoes of others too. Con thrusted forward and I swung an elbow, hard. Connected first with his stomach and, turning, his dodgy front tooth. It cut into the skin between my knuckles.
My underwear was sodden and soiled with a hint of blood, I shrugged them back up. Con glared at me, his gaze hurt and glassy from the drink. His boxers were like a fetter around one leg. Blood came from his lip. ‘What’s wrong?’ he said, ‘What’s wrong?’
I stomped on his stomach. ‘Get away.’
Terry ran into view. He had a dripping plastic bag roped around his wrist. ‘What’s going on?’ I could barely make out his face against the sun.
‘He tried to fuck me.’ I screamed, spit spraying from my mouth. ‘Tried to get me to wank him off. And tried to fuck me.’ I scampered towards the ledge. Con struggled up, purple blood gushing from his nostril. I grabbed a rock and feinted to clock him with it. He fell again.
Terry studied me and then his cousin. He shushed us both and dropped the bag, already tattered. On my own beating chest, I felt the hard and brutal light of the day. With a pointed finger, Terry spoke to the fallen boy, ‘What did I tell you?’ He bent for a rock and we both stepped forward.
‘Pure Gold’ is the title story of John Patrick McHugh’s short-story collection, which is available now for purchase.
Photograph © Marie Guillaumet