[John’s story ‘Marks’ won the prize for Fiction, Cuirt New Writing 2016.]
She’s standing over me and I can smell ThreeNines off her, his cheap cigars, the faint whiff of Old Spice. “Get up”, she says, “get up, Con”. “Leave me be, Ma”, I say, turning over, but she whips the duvet off me and suddenly I’m Baltic. “Get up, would you”, she says, “your lift’s downstairs”. Hoppy: I can hear him, smarming up to my sister. “Fifth Year, is it? I thought you’d finished school”. She’s buying it as well, smirking at him as she chews her hair in a way she doesn’t know is lovely. “There you are”, says Hoppy, looking up at me as I’m barrelling down towards the front door, still buttoning my shirt. “We’re off so, Mrs Kearney”, he says to the old doll, before turning to my sister. “Bye, Siobhan”, he says, flashing her a grin, his teeth a row of crooked tombstones. “Bye, Hoppy”, says Siobhan, smiling back.
“You’d better have that for me later”, Hoppy says, “or I won’t be responsible”. The interior of the Skoda is grimly pristine, like that room in “Silent Witness” where your one cuts up the stiffs. “Next Turn Garth Brooks Plaza”, says the road-sign. Hoppy veers left and the white roof rises up ahead of us, a giant stetson. I’ve no chance of finding him a monkey by tonight, and Hoppy knows it. The old doll’s not got it, nor Siobhan neither; an even if they had they wouldn’t give it to me, not after the row about Siobhan’s babysitting money going missing from the Father Ted DVD. “I already told you”, I said to them, Siobhan bawling her eyes out and the old doll waving the empty DVD case in my face, “I don’t have your stupid money”. I didn’t have it either, not by then: Doncaster, 3.30, Compagnero, 8 to 1, and for all I know it’s out there still, or else it’s sliced and diced and stewed in its own juices in some tin. Like I’ll be if I don’t get Hoppy back his money. Because that pair he kicks around with, they don’t mess about. The Twins.
Oh sure, I could tell ThreeNines. Tom Nyhan, Sergeant; NyhanNyhanNyhan, some smart- arse called him, and ThreeNines now, for short. My old doll’s squeeze these last two years. He knows I hate him. He’d be leaning on the counter in the station and winking back at Kennedy, the other blue. “D’you hear that, Kenno? Dolores’s young fella owes Aidan Hopkins five hundred”. The way he says the old doll’s name; I can’t stand it. “For the ponies. And now Hopkins is saying if he doesn’t get it back this evening, he’ll have young Con here done for”. Kennedy, the little scut that he is, would be smirking and rolling his eyes to Heaven inside in the office. “I’ve packed it in”, I’d want to say then, “I’ve packed it in and I’m never having another bet, so fuck the pair of ye”. And I’d walk out, leaving the both of them sniggering behind me. With the €4.30 I have left still in my pocket.
Way back before it became Boylesports it was Meaneys. “The best name for a bookie yet”, my father’d say as he’d push open the door and we’d step in. “Howiya, Ram”, Fonsie Meaney’d say to my father, watching as he thumbed over the notes. Then, the first time that he tossed a stray fiver in my direction: “Try this”, he said: Navan, 4.15, Just Kidding, 6 to 1. I could feel their eyes on me as I filled out the docket; Fonsie, and my father, and Higgins, the solicitor’s apprentice with his arse propped up against the wall. When I walked over to the counter I could hardly reach back then, it was like being on parade. He was beaten a short head. “Wuh-hoh!” said Higgins, who’d backed the winner, or was letting on he had anyway. But by then they had me, and they knew it: the bays and chestnuts, the candy-coloured silks, hunched and steering, the flying clumps of kicked-up turf and the screeching of the commentator, rising in excitement; and the rising up inside of me as well, where winning was the best, but nearly winning was nearly as good, was almost better, because of the win that was certain to come next . “We’ll have to put a block on young Con’s head to stop him growing”, Fonsie’d say each time I was in there after that, until I grew tall enough to look him in the eye, although I never did, not even after my father died, and sometimes I wished they’d tied a block around my ankles, to stop me going in.
But I’m finished with all that now. A mug’s game, I keep repeating to myself, the way they tell you to; never again. And anyway, €4.30: there’s no longshot would’ve got me out with Hoppy on that, not even up in Boylesports. So how much damage could those two gorillas do to me, I’m wondering as we head in the back-door of the Plaza to get changed, and then I think of MacNamee, barely breathing when the blues found him at the bottom of the quarry, and I start praying that Roz has put me on Till 6. Because that’s my only chance.
The roster’s up already, though, and Roz’s black and neatly looping hand says I’m on Till 5. I’m doing up my tunic when she comes waddling towards us, carrying her clipboard. “Anyone seen Mac?” she asks. Silence at first: does she not know about the quarry? “Sure he’s above in hospital”, Hoppy says eventually. Roz’s foot taps out a tiny drum tattoo. “Ok, so”, she says in her Shift-Leader voice, “you do 6 today, Aidan. Con, you do….actually, no. Con, you do 6. Aidan, you’re on 5”. Winner alright, winner alright, the fuzzy tannoy in my head is saying; and where he’s gone to most times I don’t know, but maybe after all there is a God.
The best marks are the young lads, especially if they’re with a young one; they’re so busy showing off they hardly ever check. Palm the twenty, turn away, ring up ten. Oh no, sir, definitely a ten. Here’s the print-out, sir; and look. You hit the return key with a flourish, and the drawer springs open, showing the stacks of tenners and not a single twenty. Till 6 is just outside the cctv’s range, so there’s no way Roz can see even if someone complains. By First Break I’ve €100; by Lunch-Break I’ve €360. The Plaza’s humming. They roll in off the motorway, pasty-faced, exhausted; you could serve them up the leg of the Lamb of God and they wouldn’t notice. At the break Hoppy is talking to The Twins in one of the banquettes. I can see him point in my direction as the two of them stuff their faces, splotches of the dark- red burger sauce spattering their uniforms. Storm Security, the black jackets say, and there’s a little bolt of lightning high up on either sleeve. They’re not even brothers, although that’s no consolation to MacNamee stretched out above in the Rehab after the trimming thateverybody’s saying was from the pair of them. “See you in Queallys, Hoppy”, I say, real friendly, though Hoppy just says nothing, and later on the Skoda wheelspins out of the carpark. The afternoon is quieter, but they still come piling in and I still keep piling them up, those beautiful twenties the colour of a summer sky stashed inside my pocket. By six o’clock when I clock off I’ve €540, and I walk the mile of road back in to town. Because before I go to Queallys there’s something that I need to do.
I push in through the door. The place is tumbleweed; the only other punter in is Higgins, thinning now on top, in his plum suit and scuffed shoes. “Any luck?” I say. “Cartoons”, he says, nodding at the virtual racing on the screens. I pass the pinned-up pages from The Sporting Life, and the sheaf of dockets; I take a twenty out and walk up to the counter. “Hi Aoife”, I say into the glass. And for the first time today I smile. Aoife Meaney: she’s with MacNamee, but there’s something in those hazel eyes that makes my own eyes water, always has . “Hi Con”, she says, smiling. She has a bruise on her left eyebrow that she’s tried to hide with make-up. “For Rubin”, I say, pushing over the twenty. Her son; he’s special needs, and it’s his birthday tomorrow. “Awh, Con. Thanks”, she says. She smiles at me again, a real big smile this time. “How’s Mac?” I say then. She shifts in her seat. “The same”, she says. She looks away, touches the bruise. For a moment neither of us say anything. “So”, she says,
recovering herself, “are you having….” “No”, I say, real proud, “no bet”. I turn to leave, and then I look over my shoulder. “Maybe see you in Queallys later?” I say, and she grins back. “Yeah”, she says, “maybe”.
And I’m almost out the door when a car goes up the street: the Skoda, with Siobhan in the back, still in her school uniform, and someone else in there beside her. But it isn’t Hoppy driving; it’s the taller of the two, and I can just about make out the flash of lightning on his sleeve. I’m about to run up after them but the Skoda disappears, leaving the street emptier than before. So I’m standing in the doorway trying to work out what my next move will be when a little gust of wind in off the street catches the corner of one of The Life’s pages, and I see it: Crayford dogs, 6.52, Take Your Marks, 3 to 1. And it’s swelling up inside me now once more like organ-music, the feeling that you get when you know your luck is in. I’m in control here, I tell myself as I turn back towards the counter, snatching up a docket and pulling out a fistful of the twenties, I’m in total control.
[John’s short story “Shelley” won the 42nd Hennessy Award 2013 for Emerging Fiction.]
You said for me to say what happened, so I am, I’m saying it now; nothing happened. I don’t care what I said earlier, ‘cos this time I’m telling you the truth.
Shelley’s twelve. Same as me. Her Mam’s Tracey. Tracey and Mam are friends, or were until all this. Tracey’s in our house all the time. Darren says she should have her own key.
She’s in a different school to me. A special school, Mam says. She’s weird. I was scared of her at first. Mam told me it was rude to stare but I couldn’t help it, especially when she talked. Her words came out all muffled, like she was speaking with her mouth full.
When Tracey and Shelley come round, me and Shelley watch videos while Mam and Tracey light up and yack away in the kitchen. She’s no good at PlayStation, Shelley. All she ever wants to do is watch DVDs. She loves Father Ted. Father Jack is her favourite. We never go to Shelley’s place. Darren says I’m not missing much. He’s not the worst, Darren, though he really loses it if Mam’s been drinking. Last time there was a huge row. Darren was shouting, and Mam was crying and telling him he was a bully. He made her promise to give it up then, or he’d leave.
Anyway, this afternoon I’m telling about, Tracey came round with Shelley. It was still school holidays and I was on PlayStation. Tracey looked really posh; heels and lipstick and a tight dress. She kept talking about “the interview” and asking Mam and me to wish her luck. Mam said the manager would have to be dead from the waist down not to give her the job. They both started giggling and fussing, and then the front door closed and Tracey was gone and it was just Mam and Shelley and me.
We’d watched two episodes when Mam’s mobile rang. I could hear Tracey squeaking at the other end. Mam closed her phone and said “She’s got the job, she’s got the job” and gave us both a hug. Then she looked at Shelley and me. “Tracey’s down in Ryan’s having a drink to celebrate,” she said. “You’ll be okay here, the two of you, if I just go down for one drink, won’t you?” Then she changed her top and put on some lipstick. “One drink” she said, and the door closed and then it was just Shelley and me.
Vodka. I know where Mam hides it, so Darren won’t know she’s drinking. In the toilet. In a plastic bag at the bottom of the cistern. I lifted up the lid and put my hand down into the water. There was still a good bit left; more than half a bottle. I brought the bottle back to the front room. Mam had given us each some Coke so there were still two glasses on the table in front of the television. I poured some vodka into my glass and some into Shelley’s and I poured some Coke in for each of us. Shelley smiled; her funny crooked smile. Then we both took a drink. It didn’t taste any different. I poured in some more vodka into both our glasses and we drank again. Then I poured in some more Coke, and more vodka until it was gone and then we drank again.
Father Ted was still on. The milkman one. But Shelley wasn’t watching. She kept looking over at me, smiling that stupid smile. Then she moved over beside me, and fell on top of me. She’s a ton weight, Shelley, and I wanted to get her off of me, but I was starting to feel a bit blurry and it was kind of nice, her lying on top of me. Then she started to kiss me, all over my face and cheeks and nose and ears. And then my mouth. She stopped and said my name. “Jibby, Jibby.” Then she started slobbering over me again.
I didn’t kiss her back. Not really. She was so heavy I could hardly breathe. I just moved her over slightly. She had her knee in between my legs. She kept squirming around, like she couldn’t get comfortable. I could see her legs moving, and her bum. She had on this trackie bottoms; black with three white stripes. She stopped slobbering for a moment, and giggled. Then she started to pull down her trackie bottoms. I swear I didn’t do it, and I didn’t make her do it. She had these knickers underneath, like swimming togs; white with a little gold star. Then she put her hands inside my trackie. So, yeah, I put my hand inside her knickers; but only for a second. Like I said to that policewoman earlier, before the court case, I touched her. Yeah, there. With my finger. Yeah, my first finger. But only for a second. And I didn’t put it in. I swear to you I didn’t put it in.
She was lying there with her eyes closed. She had her hand inside my trackie, on my privates. I definitely didn’t put my privates in. Yeah, I know what my privates are. Definitely I didn’t. I felt kind of warm and nice and sleepy, and I took my hands out of her knickers. Then her eyes opened and she took her hand away. She sat up and looked at me, smiling. “I lubya Jibby,” she said, twice. I love you Jimmy. Then her face changed, as if she’d seen something she was afraid of, and she fell off the couch and started to get sick. And at that moment the door opened and Mam and Tracey came in, kind of tottering. Mam saw the sick and asked what happened and Shelley started to cry; only not just an ordinary cry, more a roar. Tracey went to hug her and saw the vodka bottle and Shelley’s trackie bottoms on the floor. Then Tracey started roaring. Shelley had big tears coming down her cheeks and she was pointing at me and saying “Jibby, Jibby”. Then Tracey started hitting me and calling me a bastard and Mam was shouting at Tracey to let go, let go, and I suddenly felt more blurry than ever before and really full up inside of everything, and then I got sick.
I could hear them outside, shouting and banging on the van. “Little pervert,” one kept saying. “Ya little pervert.” When we got into the court the lawyers were all standing around like great black birds. Then the judge came out. He had a big red face and tiny little glasses, and he made them all take off their wigs and capes “because of the age of the accused, and the main witness”. I’d met mine already, at the detention centre. She was okay. She had grey hair that curled at the ends. Looked a bit like George Washington.
When Shelley came up to say her story George Washington jumped up and objected and the jury were sent out. There was a big row between her and Redface, but Redface said Shelley was allowed to give her evidence if she understood the oath. I didn’t get this “giving” bit, or the “oath”, but then the lawyer on Shelley’s side asked her did she know what would happen if she told a lie. He had a gold pen he kept fiddling with while he was asking questions. Shelley said she’d be sent Down Below if she told a lie, but Redface couldn’t make out what she said and nor could Goldpen, nor the woman doing the typing, so Tracey had to explain it, and Redface sighed and said proceed.
It was very quiet when Shelley was telling her story to Goldpen. He kept repeating her answers, making it sound worse. People at the back started hissing and giving out when Shelley mentioned the vodka. Goldpen asked about my finger and how long it had been there, and Shelley said an hour. Goldpen asked again, and Shelley said a minute. George Washington turned round and smiled at Mam then, like she’d won something. Goldpen asked about my privates and Shelley said she touched it but that I didn’t put it in. Then George Washington got up and started asking all sorts of questions about times of things like TV programmes and classes, and Shelley got all muddled and started to cry. George Washington asked her if she’d been promised anything for coming here, and Shelley said her Mam had told her she could have any My Little Pony she wanted if she came here. George Washington smiled back again at Mam, and I could see Tracey’s face going all red. Shelley seemed like she was trying not to look at me when she was answering, but she did look once or twice. One time she even waved. “Hi Jibby,” she said. Then a doctor said some stuff, and a policewoman, and then it was my turn.
I don’t know why I lied. I told George Washington when she was asking me what I’d told her before: nothing happened. Then when she was finished with me, Goldpen started asking me loads of questions, and I got really nervous. Goldpen kept twisting my words, so I just kept saying “no” and “nothing happened” all the time. I could see George Washington getting flustered and Redface getting redder and redder. One time he looked at me over the top of his glasses. “You have to tell the truth, Jimmy,” he said. “You have to tell the truth.” “I am telling the truth,” I said. Because nothing did happen, really. By the time I was finished one of the jury was shaking his head and Redface was sighing and Goldpen was standing there, smirking and playing with that stupid pen and saying: “Is that the truth, Jimmy? Really?” George Washington wasn’t even looking at me anymore; she was looking at Mam. But Mam was just staring, with her mouth open.
Then another woman doctor came up to talk about sex and my “capacity to understand”. Then Goldpen and George Washington each gave a big long lecture to the jury, and Redface gave an even longer lecture. Then the jury went off out of court. George Washington came over and said, “Well, we’ve a chance”, and we all just hung around, waiting. After a while I really needed to go to the jacks so I was let go out with a policeman. Shelley was outside, with Tracey and Goldpen. I waved at her but she didn’t see me. Then someone came running down the corridor saying “They’re back, they’re back.”
When the head of the jury said “Guilty” there was a big cheer. Tracey was on her feet shouting “Yes, yes”, and Mam was crying. Redface banged his desk and said this was a courthouse not a public house and started talking about reports and stuff. George Washington got up asking about bail but Redface just looked at me and shook his head and said his options were very limited. That’s when I knew, I suppose. That I was going to prison.
We have classes and art and football. The food isn’t bad. They’ve given me a new name so no one will know. I’m in a room with two other boys. They don’t really talk to me much, though the way one of them looks at me sometimes, I think he knows. There’s a lady I see once a month. Maureen. She has this big blue folder and she asks loads of questions and makes loads of notes. She talks about getting out “on licence” and asks me do I feel “remorse”. I haven’t a clue what she means. So I say “Yeah, kind of” and she makes another note. It’s full of notes and letters and reports, that folder; there’s even a photo of me, when I was ten.
Mam comes every week. She used to cry each time, but now she doesn’t. Not in the Visiting Centre, anyway. Her eyes are always red, though, and she looks real thin. I used to cry each time as well, but now it’s not so bad. Darren even came a couple of times, at the beginning. But not since. I still miss Mam, though. I even miss Darren.
And sometimes I think of Shelley. Once when Maureen was checking something in one of the reports I saw a page from a school copybook pinned inside the folder. Shelley’s writing; it’s really, really bad. “Dear Jimmy,” it said. “I hope you are well. I am well. We have a new teacher. I have a new My Little Pony. I love Father Ted. I love you Jimmy. Lots of love, Shelley.” With a big X beside her name. There was some sort of letter from Shelley’s school pinned in with it as well. But Maureen saw me looking and she closed the folder quickly, before I could read any more.