THIS STORY IS RE-PRINTED HERE ON DECEMBER 30TH 2020 AND WILL REMAIN AVAILABLE TO READ UNTIL JANUARY 6TH. IT WAS INCLUDED IN THE DEGREE PORTFOLIO FOR MY M.PHIL IN CREATIVE WRITING FROM TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN, AWARDED 2010.
Parental / Content Advice – parts of this story may be unsuited to certain readers, based on age or personal views. This link gives advance guidance if required.
They sang Auld Ang Syne around the bonfire, but only messing. Halfway through the song, his mate Macker had broken rank, let go of his girlfriend’s hand on one side and Jamie’s on the other, leapt into the centre of the ring and begun to perform a daft juju dance. He pulled down his tracksuit bottoms and mooned, provoking roars of mock disgust. “Ah Jayzus, Macker, put yer arse back in yer TROUSERS!” his girlfriend shouted. Jamie didn’t know her. She was new, from Twomey. They all sat down again, a bit awkward now and sheepish about having sung the naff song. Jamie’s face grew hot, looking into the flames, but his back was cold. All he had on was a hoodie and a t-shirt and torn jeans. He was conscious of Evie Kelly pressing against him, trying to share a little of her body heat with him. But his feet were cold in his runners. Down the track it was foggy. Patches of freezing fog. He drank from his can but he was getting no buzz. His socks had got wet earlier when he slipped into an icy puddle, crossing George Bellew’s field. It was too cold.
Above the embankment three hundred metres away, he could hear the warm carousing and singing from The Railway Bar. The log fire would be banked high and blazing in the lounge. His Mam and Dad would be drunk by now, and Jackie his older brother and his wife would both be plastered. His other brothers and sisters were all gone into Scallagh, to The Scupper. He was too young to get in anywhere. They’d even had trouble getting cans. Larry in the Railway had gone all legal on them, all of a sudden, when they’d called in earlier.
“No lads, I can’t serve you. You’re underage. The guards are everywhere.”
They’d had to waste good money to get a taxi into Scallagh for cans in the supermarket and nearly hadn’t made it by the ten o’clock curfew. The Latvian girl was pulling down the off-licence shutters when they arrived, but they’d pleaded and she’d said, “OK, just because it’s New Year’s Eve”, and served them. Imagine! New Year’s and no cans. But they’d made it and now they were back out in Carrickhill, all the sixteen year olds, skulling cans and singing the same songs their aul’ wans were singing above in the pub. Brooner O’Byrne threw another pallet on the fire. They’d stashed the pallets a few days earlier, having robbed them from Leary’s Fruit Farm. Leary wouldn’t notice. He had millions.
Macker was all horny now, after his moon. The cold air up his arse and around his bollocks had got him going. And the cans. He was off to one side, a little away from the main crowd, his big waxed jacket laid out on the ground. He was all over his bird and she was game enough. Her hand was down his trousers. Jamie looked away. He was afraid he was going to cry and he didn’t want anyone to see. Evie passed him a Breezer, as if she sensed his distress, and pressed tighter against him.
“Here, Jamie,” she said, “Try this stuff.”
Evie was his best friend, ever since Primary. He threw back the Breezer in a few gulps, as if it was lemonade, and the booze finally hit him and he warmed. He eased himself away from Evie’s support, stood up resolutely and zipped his hoodie up to his neck.
“Where are ye goin’?” Macker called over.
“Nowhere,” Jamie said, ”I’m goin’ over to me Grandda’s, see if he’s alright.”
The Twomey one rolled on top of Macker and began to pull his trousers down.
“See ya, man! Se ya next year!” Macker laughed.
“It already is next year, ya thick ya” one of the lads shouted up, could have been Billy Kerr.
“Yeh. See ya.” Jamie said.
He wanted to get out before she started giving Macker a blowjob or before they started actually shagging. Macker didn’t give a bollix and the girl was drunk. Jamie didn’t want to see any of that, he just wanted to get away.
“Here. I’ll come with ya.”
It was Evie. She slipped her arm through his. Good old Eve. She was a real friend. Brooner fell in behind them.
“Might join yiz.” he said, “if that’s alright?”
They climbed up the embankment and crossed Bellew’s field. They took the shortcut through Bellew’s yard, the big green tractors and the vegetable trailers looming in the white mist. They shinned over Bellew’s wall onto the Scallagh road and crossed over to the new tarmac footpath on the far side. Up the hill, at the edge of the village, Jamie stopped. He gripped a Yield sign pole and began to cry.
“Missin’ yer Nana, are ye?” Evie asked him gently. She moved carefully just behind him and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Yeh,” he sobbed.
Brooner stood respectfully back, clutching their large bag of cans and Breezer bottles. Like Jamie, he was not sufficiently dressed for a freezing night. His teeth chattered, but he stood quietly and waited for Jamie’s crying fit to end. Too bad, yer Nana dyin’ like that. Everyone loved Old Joe and Cissy. Now Joe was all on his own, after fifty odd years. Crap that was!
Jamie stopped crying as suddenly as he had begun.
“Are ya sure he’s there?” Evie said, “Is he not gone to your Auntie Philomena for the night?”
“No,” Jamie said, “He wouldn’t go. Wasn’t even gonna stay up to ring in the New Year. Imagine. Grandda! An’ all the years we used to go up to him for the fireworks!”
They turned right at the crossroads and headed towards Old Joe’s cottage. Up here, there was no fog at all. Evie checked her phone. It was twelve minutes past midnight.
“Look.” she showed the boys, “New Year’s! It’s official!”
“Yeh” said Brooner, “Happy New Year! Alright now Jamie?”
“Alright now. Just missin’ me Nana, I was.”
“I know,” Brooner said, “Sad for ya, I am. And for Old Joe.”
They passed a few cottages and bungalows clustered on the right, near the crossroads. Outside one of them, a few people were gathered, setting off fireworks. Brooner knew them all. Jamie kept his head down and Evie held his arm tight. Evie was like that, always linking your arm or she would just take your hand without even thinking when you were walking along, but tonight there was something different in the way she was around him, something deliberate and precious and protective. She moved her hand down and slipped her fingers between his.
“Alright, Mr. O’Neill?” Brooner called out. “Alright Mrs O’Neill? Happy New Year to yiz. Happy New Year, Frank. Happy New Year, Nora! Ah how’ya, Roper!”
Far away over Twomey and Swords and Dublin, fireworks sprinkled the night sky. They stood for a moment, gazing across the frozen fields of dead parsnips and spuds at the sporadic shoots of blue and silver light bursting open among the stars. Behind them a loud banger went off in someone’s back garden, followed by a series of startling Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels. Smoke wafted across their path and the smell of bentonite caught in their nostrils.
“Cool, wha’?” Brooner said.
“I love New Year’s” Evie murmured but then went quiet, knowing Jamie was still upset. She tightened her grip slightly and he responded with a reciprocal squeeze of her small hand.
They crossed the bridge over Corey’s Stream, passing again into dense fog, and eventually arrived at Joe’s gate. The house was completely dark.
“Are ya sure he’s here?” Evie asked. “Are ya sure he didn’t go to Philomena’s? Or maybe he changed his mind and went round to your Ma and Da in the Railway?”
“No way!” Jamie said, “He hasn’t gone to the Railway for twenty years, near. He was barred during a Dublin match for throwin’ a pool ball at the telly. They let him back but he wouldn’t go. Anyway, he doesn’t drink anymore. He used to drink like a fish, but not since he got the heart attack that time.”
“Is he asleep, do you reckon?” Evie asked.
“I doubt it. He’s prob’ly just lyin’ in the dark, cryin’ for Nana. That’s all he does now. Always bawlin’. We’ll call in. Say hello. Cheer him up.”
“Yeh, lovely thought” said Brooner.
The house stood about thirty metres off the road, along a driveway. The front garden, normally festooned at this time of year with lights and reindeer and beaming fat Santas, was eerily dark, enveloped in mist. He hadn’t even put up a Christmas tree in the window. A few yards in, however, they triggered Joe’s new security light, installed at Jamie’s Da’s insistence.
“You’re an old man on yer own now, Joe. There’s every kind of knacker and foreigner goin’. You need to be safe.”
The brightness of the light startled the teenagers and they stepped back again instinctively to the front gate.
“We don’t wanna wake him if he’s asleep,” Brooner said.
“Yeh, maybe,” Jamie said, uncertain now, “Let’s wait a minute, see if he puts on his light. He sleeps in the front room.”
Just then, from nowhere, silent as a submarine, a Garda car appeared out of the mist and pulled up.
“Fuck!” Brooner muttered, dropping the bag of booze into a flowerbed.
“Fuck nuttin’”, said Jamie, “We done nuttin’ wrong.”
He held Evie to him, her head pressed into his shoulder, as a young policeman stepped out of the patrol car and approached them.
“Everything alright here?” the Garda asked.
Brooner stepped forward to do the talking.
“Yeh, Happy New Year, Guard. We’re just callin’ in on Joe here, Joe Mooney. That’s Jamie, his grandson, over there. Poor ol’ Joe. He wouldn’t go out for New Year’s with Cissy bein’ dead an’ all, his wife. She died in September.”
“I know all about Joe Mooney,” the Garda snapped. “Were you people drinking?”
“Ah no, Guard.” Brooner said, “We were just home in my place playin’ the Playstation and we thought we’d head up and see if Joe was alright.”
“At half twelve in the night?” the Garda said.
“We done the ringin’ in the New Year thing and then we thought, poor ol’ Joe, on his own an’ all…”
His voice trailed off. The policeman shone a torch at Jamie and Evie.
“What’s your name?”
“Jamie Bennett. Joe’s me Grandda. You can ask him. My Ma is his…”
“Eve Kelly. I’m his friend.”
“And I’m Brooner O’Byrne. Brian that is.”
“I know who you are, O’Byrne. And I know well youse were drinkin’… Playstation!” he said with contempt. “Head off home now, and leave that old man in peace.”
He returned to the squad car where his driver colleague, a young woman, had sat listening through the rolled down window.
“You heard the man,” she called out, “Go home before we take you in.”
“Sure Garda, “ Brooner said, “No bodder. Happy New Year to yiz now. No, genuine, Happy New Year.”
As quietly as it had arrived, the Garda car drove off. They stood in silence watching the red tail lights until the car vanished into the thick mist.
“Cunts.” Jamie said.
“Yeh, cunts.” Brooner agreed.
“Cunts! None of their business if I wanna visit me own Grandda. C’mon we’ll knock on the side door.”
They walked up the path along the bare and frozen herbaceous borders, around the side of the house to a glass and wood-panelled door which was part of an awkward, built-on veranda. Jamie took a two euro coin out of his pocket and tapped the glass three times. No lights came on. He tapped again, more insistently.
“Grandda! It’s Jamie!”
Still no reaction. After a few moments, he said, “I hope he’s OK. His heart doesn’t be the best.”
“Yeah,” said Brooner, “and he’s dead old and all.”
“He’s not that old,” said Jamie, “Only seventy four. There’s people round here nearly a hundred. Come with me but stay back. I’m gonna knock on his bedroom winda.”
They moved back around to the front of the cottage. The old wooden sash windows had long since been replaced with white PVC. Cissie had always hated them, preferring the wood, but she had done her best to hide them with huge, swollen flower boxes and hanging baskets. Now in midwinter, the boxes were barren and in sympathy with the general air of death about the place. A cream-coloured blind was pulled down inside, making it impossible to see in. Jamie placed his left hand against the glass to dull the sound and with his right hand tapped the bedroom window pane with the coin, twice.
“Grandda! Grandda!” he whispered loudly.
The blind shot up like a bullet and Joe’s face appeared at the window, huge, craggy, toothless and spectral.
Even Jamie, who was used to seeing him without his teeth drew back, momentarily shocked. A few yards behind him, Evie clutched Brooner’s arm.
“Woh! Fuckin’ zombie moment!” Brooner whispered.
“Who’s out there? I have a gun!” Joe hollered.
“Grandda! It’s me! Jamie!”
A car sped past the front gates. Brooner thought it might be the cops again and pulled Evie in against the trunk of a prickly hawthorn. “Aow!” A thorny branch caught his hair and bled his head. Joe opened his window an inch.
“Jamie? Jamie? What the fuck are ya doin’ callin’ here this time of the night? Go on home!”
“We came to wish you a Happy New Year, Grandda! Just wanted to see if ya were alright.”
“We? Who’s with ya?”
“Just Evie, Grandda. And Brooner O’Byrne.”
“How’ya Joe.” Brooner called, sheepishly. “Happy New Year!”
“Brooner O’Byrne?” said Joe, “Are ya mad, for fuck’s sake? Here, the three of yiz, would yiz fuck away off home and don’t be botherin’ me. Lookin’ to come in here and drink yizzer cans. Away home Jamie, and come up with yer Mammy in the mornin’. I’m fast asleep in here.”
“But Grandda, it’s New Year’s”
“I know fuckin’ well what day it is! I told them I was stayin’ in on me own, goin’ to bed, now what’s wrong with ya? Go HOME!”
In the fishing shed, Sandy the old golden retriever awoke from his deep sleep and began to bark.
“Shut up, dog!” Joe shouted, “Jaysus, we’ll have the guards up before we know it! QUIET DOG!” The dog fell silent. “Now Jamie, will ya be a good boy and go home to yer Mammy and leave me in Jaysus peace like a good lad!”
He shut the window, pulled down the blind and vanished. Jamie stood in confusion for a moment, staring at the window. Then he stepped back.
“He’s a bit upset.” he said finally.
Evie gripped his hand. “He’s just sad, that’s all. It’s not you. He just wants to be on his own.”
“I don’t wanna leave him.” Jamie said. “All on his own.”
“What can ya do?” Brooner asked.
“Look. We’ll let ourselves into the fishin’ shed. It’ll be warmer in there. We’ll just sit. Be near him. OK?”
“What about the dog?” Brooner asked.
“Sandy? Sandy’s alright. Sandy won’t bodder us.”
The shed was bolted shut and secured with a huge padlock.
“The lock’s a dummy,” said Jamie, “It’s broken. Ya just have to tap the bolt. Grandda smashed the lock one time he lost the key.”
He picked up a red brick, left there for the purpose. The dog growled quietly as he tapped at the bolt.
“It’s alright, Sandy. It’s on’y me, Jamie! Good boy!”
The dog went quiet again. Its tail thumped against something plastic inside, a bin or something, creating a rhythm like a drum. Jamie gave one last tap, the bolt slipped out and the big metal door creaked open by itself. The dog bounded out, panting, its tail wagging.
“Quiet, Sandy, quiet! Good boy!” Jamie stepped in and groped about for the light switch. A dull naked bulb came to feeble life, hanging miserably from a wooden roof beam. Thick cobwebs clung to the cable and the beam, and spread across the galvanised sheet metal roof, all the way to the breeze block wall. They all entered. Brooner shut the door behind them. The dog jumped up excitedly on Evie.
“Down, Sandy, down!” she laughed, “Sit!”
The dog sat obediently and looked up in anticipation.
“I have nuttin’ for ya.” she said.
“Here,” Brooner said, reaching into his hoodie pocket and taking out a bag of crisps. He opened the pack. “Take a few of these. Now, lie down.”
The dog accepted the handful of crisps gratefully and loped off to his bed, watching the night visitors curiously. They looked around and took in the shed. It was cold. Just as cold as outside. A big tractor-type petrol lawnmower took up a large part of the floor area, its mossy grassbox propped up on the driver’s seat. Against one wall were gardening tools: a coiled hose, a hoe, a spade, a backpack spray hanging on a nail. The other walls were covered with the accoutrements of the professional sea fisherman. Oilskins, rods, tackles, nets, waders, thousands of hooks.
“Thousands of quidsworth of stuff.” Jamie said proudly.
“Is there no heater?” Brooner asked.
“No. and it’s feckin’ freezin’! Here, we’ll pull on some of his coats to keep warm.”
They took a few coats off the wall hooks: a warm, wool-lined high-viz; an olive green oilskin and a donkey jacket that smelled faintly of fish and saltwater. Evie put on the high-viz. It was ridiculously large on her.
“You look like the lollipop lady!” Brooner laughed, trying on the donkey jacket, “Ugh! Fish!”
“Whadd’ya expect?” Jamie asked, “It’s a fishin’ shed. He fished off Carrick for sixty years, since he was a kid. Now he fishes in the river!”
“You really love yer Grandda, don’t ya?” said Evie.
“Yeah,” said Jamie, and after a pause, “More than my Da. A lot more than my Da.”
“My Da’s a bollix,” said Brooner, “But I don’t mind him”
Brooner’s Da had been in jail a few years before for driving without insurance. He was a heavy drinker, like Jamie’s Da and Ma.
“Like he’s OK,” Brooner clarified, “He buys us stuff and all, but ya couldn’t exactly… well, ya wouldn’t exactly love him.”
“I love my Da.” Evie said.
“Yeah!” Both boys nodded, and Brooner added, “Everyone loves your Da.”
The boys settled onto two bags of grass-seed. Evie sat on an old fruit box. She passed around the Breezers and they all drank.
“What do yis think of Macker’s new bird?” Brooner asked.
“Bit of a slapper, I’d say.” said Jamie.
“Yeh, yer probably right,” Evie jumped in. Then on reflection, she added, “Now yiz know me, I wouldn’t just judge somebody. But I didn’t like her. She’s a bit… loud.”
“Did ya see her goin’ for him there at the end?” Brooner said, “Pullin’ the trousers down off him, she was. Gummin’ for a ride!”
“Shut up, Brooner!” Jamie said, embarrassed.
“He’s right,” said Evie, “Like I wouldn’t mind that in itself… but out in front of everyone.”
“Yeah,” said Brooner, “If it was me, I’d at least go behind a wall.”
“They were drunk.” Jamie said, “Macker was drinkin’ all day since lunchtime.”
They continued to chat for an hour and a half, huddling in their big fishermen’s coats to keep warm. After a while, Evie slipped down off her orange box, squeezing in beside Jamie on the grass seed bag, pressing herself close to him. He was conscious of her body breathing. Even through two layers of heavy coat he felt comforted and slightly aroused by the sensual rise and fall of her small frame, and for a moment he laid his head back, letting her hair fall across his face, before sitting up again.
When they finished the Breezers they opened the cans. Jamie told them all about New Year’s nights in Joe’s.
“Every year, Nana would have a big spread ready. Chicken wings and potato salad and pizza slices and billions of crisps and cocktail sausages and booze for all me uncles and aunties and Coke and Seven-Up for us. And at ten to twelve exactly, we’d go out to the back garden, out there. Grandda’d have it all set up.”
He stood up and tried to look out through the cracked window pane. All he could see was his own reflection. The sleeping dog woke and sidled over beside him. He leaned against the glass to block out his reflection and that of the bulb and when he pressed his face close against the cold pane he could just about make out the first two or three of a line of low, growing cypress trees that ran down the east boundary of the long half-acre garden. Away, away down at the bottom, lost in the mist, was a small vegetable patch where Grandda had occasionally cultivated a few ridges of peas, but nothing else. Round here you were either a fisherman or a vegetable grower. The vegetable men didn’t go in much for angling, and the fishermen didn’t care much for amateur horticulture. You got your veg thrown over the fence from your neighbour in the old days, and, in return, on your way back at quare hours from the North Sea or whatever waters you had just fished, you hung a few fresh cod or monkfish from your neighbour’s doorknob. Nowadays, you just went to Supervalu for everything.
Between the shed and the pea patch was a long, thin, grassy field, not a cultivated lawn like out front, but well-enough kept to function as a football ground, a cricket pitch, a race track or whatever the grandchildren might need on any given Summer day. And on New Year’s Eve, it became the launching pad for the greatest family pyrotechnic show in the whole of North County Dublin. Until this year, when the rockets had fallen silent and the New Year garden lay empty.
“You weren’t allowed to light a rocket till you were twelve.” Jamie said, lost in his remembering. “And even then, there had to be grown up with you. Da was more fun back then. He’d go easy on the drink in front of Nana. He held me arm the first time I lit a banger. It flew off up there like an alien spaceship and exploded red and green and left a trail of white smoke.”
He began to cry again, quietly sniffing and wiping a tear away. Evie stood up and came over behind him. She laid the side of her face against his back and nuzzled him, like a soft pony. They rocked together silently. Brooner had fallen asleep. He stood up now suddenly, causing the dog to bark.
“Whisht, Sandy!” Jamie ordered.
“Lads, I think I’ll head.” said Brooner, stumbling over his grass-seed sack. He cut a comical figure now, all bleary and vulnerable and hungover. “If yiz don’t mind. I think I’ll go on home.”
“No bodder,” said Jamie. “See ya next year, pal.”
“Yeah, next year, man” said Brooner, his speech slightly slurred, “G’night Evie.”
He let himself out, triggering the security light, and walked gingerly off into the fog. Joe didn’t wake. The dog made no attempt to follow him. The countryside was silent. Evie and Jamie stood at the shed door watching him until he vanished, like an old Sherlock Holmes character into the pea soup. Jamie closed the door again. The dog lay down and went back to sleep.
● ● ●
They were alone now. Friends since Junior Infants, neighbours, a few doors apart, below at Carrick Harbour. She turned and stood directly in front of him and kissed him on the mouth. A single postscript tear slid down his face as he drank in the kiss and kissed back. How strange this. They had never done this, never even thought of it. She was one of the lads. Sound as a bell. She had a boyfriend in Scallagh.
“You’re a lovely fella, Jamie Bennett.” she whispered, “a lovely fella.”
She pressed him down onto the grass-seed bags and kissed him again, deep and full, spreading her legs across him, holding him in a tight, strong embrace. He felt an erection forming as she pushed herself against him easily, warm and good. And in that moment he felt perfect and whole. Now he came alive, kissed her firmly and rolled her over so he was above her, pressed against her.
Later on he went into a deep sleep and dreamed he was on a boat with Joe, off Greenland, watching a fireworks display on a shoreline hill. The show was fantastic, like an Olympic opening ceremony, with thumping dance music echoing out across the bay and the sky exploding constantly with streams and circles and spirals of golden, red and green illuminations. He looked across the deck and Joe had gone to sleep on a jute bag of grain. He went over and began to shake him.
He woke suddenly. Evie was lying in his arms asleep. They had laid out a few of Joe’s old coats as a bed on the floor. From outside he could hear men’s voices. Dim daylight was showing through the cracked window pane. The dog leaped up suddenly and began to bark frantically at the shed door.
“QUIET SANDY!” shouted a voice.
Grandda! Now he was talking to someone, a man… Da!
“Evie!” Jamie whispered, “Evie?”
She half woke up and smiled. Her face was peaceful and beautiful.
“He called here, alright.” He could make out Grandda’s muffled words, “About half twelve. But I told him to go home.”
“Geraldine’s frantic with worry”, Da was saying, “He never stayed out all night before. And the young Kelly girl is missing. Evie. Tom and Anne called to our place at eight o’clock, out of their minds. Anne and Geraldine wanted to call the cops, get a search party out. I said I’d call up to you first, see if they were here.”
“Evie Kelly? Jaysus! She was with him when he called. And the young O’Byrne lad. Brooner.”
“Brooner O’Byrne? That cunt? I shudda known, I better go and call at his house. Those people hate me. I’m hungover Joe. I don’t fuckin’ need this. I’ll kill Jamie”
Evie was fully awake now. The two friends looked at each other wondering whether to be afraid or to laugh. She leaned towards him and kissed him deeply again.
“We better go out,” she said, “put them out of their misery.”
“Fuck, we’ll be kilt!”
“See you in Heaven so!”
She kissed him again one last time and then stood up, adjusted her clothing and dusted herself down. Sandy came over wagging his tail. Jamie rose to his feet and likewise readied himself. They hung all the coats back on the hooks and patted the seed bags back into shape.
“Look. Give me a minute, I’ll come with you.” Grandda was saying.
Evie checked her phone.
“Jesus! Quarter to ten. Happy New Year, Jamie.
“Yeh. Same to you.
They opened the door. A weak sun was pushing its way through the rising mist. Da’s car was in the drive, still half covered with frost. Sandy ran out ahead of them, wagging his golden tail.
“Da,” Jamie called out, “Da! I’m over here.”
Parental / Content Guidance Note:
The opening section (six paragraphs) of this story deal with social behaviour and attitudes which some readers may find discomfiting, and include strong language. The story is not recommended for readers under 15, unless with parental approval. One adult character in a later section is quoted making a racist remark.
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