The first person I ever got drunk with was my best friend, Vinnie Shaw, at fourteen years of age. There was little to do in our town so we tried things early. Prior to this event, I was less a boy my age than a monk in seclusion, my evenings after school made up of reading books about the places I would some day visit when my actual life began. Vinnie, by contrast, was a known troublemaker. By the time he enrolled in our school, he had already been expelled from two others. It had done nothing to temper his behaviour.
Shortly after arriving at our school, he got into an argument with another boy intent on baiting him. When Mr Willoughby intervened, making it impossible for a physical confrontation to occur between them, Vinnie went berserk, heaving a table across the classroom. He was short and skinny and did not look he had the upper arm strength. All the same, he flung it against a wall, where it ricocheted with the most explosive noise. I can still see his face at the time, flushed red, his eyes nearly coming out of his skull. I hadn’t at that age felt rage comparable to it. Mr Willoughby actually threw his hands up in in an oddly martial pose that made me wonder if he had not perhaps attended karate lessons as a younger man.
Vinnie remained at the school after this incident, no doubt due to his circumstances: he had lost his sister several years before, in an accident that culminated in his father’s sudden and unannounced departure from his life. She slipped stepping off a footpath walking home from school. She was two years older than him. Apparently, these things happen all the time, though not to me or anyone I had ever known, but, I suppose, someone, somewhere, must be due.
I was the last person anyone thought would become his friend. He spent time with the other rough boys, who slipped off school grounds to smoke during lunch break, skipped classes, and got into the pre-arranged fights after the last class of the day that Larry ‘Cockeye’ Healy took bets on. Like Vinnie, they were given a certain amount of leeway due to their dreadful home lives. I felt they deserved their lot, considering how they treated everyone else. Humanity does not extend very far at fourteen years of age. Seeing Vinnie with them, I assumed he was the same type, who I would eventually spot shoving another boy down or mocking one of the more unfortunate teachers – Mr Cullen, for example, who had such an appalling stammer in times of distress, I don’t know how he coped at all.
One day I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on my break. My father loved the film, due less to its message than the presence of Jack Nicholson, a personal hero, and I had spotted the book on a school outing when we were granted an hour to visit a local bookshop. Mrs O’Gara found me admiring the cover, which featured abstract drawings of the mental patients whom were the novel’s subject. She said, ‘Maybe in a few years, Peter, I think it’s a little old for you.’ She could have provided no better endorsement and I bought it when she was rounding everyone else up, slipping it into my bag before she got back.
‘What you reading?’ was the first thing I remember Vinnie saying to me. We had probably spoken before, in passing. I think I once stood lookout for him while he sneaked a smoke in the toilets but he was a hostile figure then whom I felt it prudent to oblige. He looked younger than he did in class now, as if some tightly coiled spring within him was momentarily at rest. I realised for the first time that I was taller than him.
I held the book up for him to see. He knew it, as I had, through the film. Vinnie Shaw, I soon learned, seemingly knew every film ever made. He could name actors my parents had watched as children. He stayed for dinner one time and spent two hours talking with them about old movies, often beating them to a successful guess about who had starred in what, the year it had come out, how many Oscars it had won. I remember being shocked that someone who got on so well with the school’s worst was such a nerd. More surprising still, and a little galling, if I’m honest, was the fact that he did not even hide this side from them.
That first afternoon he approached me, we talked about books and movies. He did most of the talking. He was manic at that age, just thoughts and ideas rushing through his head like a train, and you could only sit back and experience it. He told me he was going to be an actor, that he would go to Hollywood, live in a car if he had to, and one day he would be on cinema screens across the world. This was an astonishing thing for someone in our class to say, most of whom had already decided they would be mechanics, doctors, teachers, or else any profession that did not require one second more of school than absolutely necessary.
I had known him only a few months when he told me that a group of them were planning to get drunk in Halley Park on Saturday afternoon. He wanted me to come along. The bottom of my stomach fell out at the prospect but I knew I would not get many opportunities like this and that Vinnie was holding open a door I myself could never push.
‘Have you tasted whiskey before?’
‘No,’ I said. I had tasted beer on one occasion, when my father was out of the room and I had stolen a sip of his. The characters in my book had been drinking beer for pages and I decided I’d like to try. It tasted horrid but I knew it was an acquired taste but not the volume required to achieve this breakthrough.
Vinnie grinned at me. ‘You’ll like it.’
I didn’t. When I first arrived at the park, I wanted to turn around, go home and accept my fate as a largely failed member of society. My anxiety was not much helped by one of the boys, prompted by the sight of me approaching, asking very loudly, ‘Who invited the freak?’ I pretended not to hear this, a skill I had developed over the course of school, and later consoled myself by imagining the unhappy ends that might be visited upon him, from exam failure to the much more satisfying prospect of him being mauled by the demonic clown our town sewers presumably housed.
Vinnie provided the whiskey, purchased at an off-licence where a nineteen-year-old dropout served without prejudice. He had it in a brown paper bag and I felt like I had stepped into a movie or one of my books. That was how I felt about most things that happened to me at that age. There were three other boys and two girls. Ricky Brady was there, who I considered then to be the worst individual I had met so far in life. He eventually got a girl pregnant at sixteen and dropped out of school. He works at the post office back home now and is a decent man, by all accounts.
‘Ready, ladies and gentlemen?’ Vinnie said, presenting the bottle like a bouquet of flowers from behind his back.
The rest of them had been drinking cider and were already drunk. One of the girls nodded to me which I guessed was what passed for welcome in this gang. I knew cider to be easier to drink than beer and wanted one as I thought it would loosen me up. Ricky was the oldest person there, at fifteen. I suspected he could drink quite a lot. He stepped close to Vinnie and I stepped back to accommodate him. Vinnie handed him the bottle. Ricky unscrewed it and took a slug. He made a face that suggested pleasure as well as a kind of disgust. He handed it back to Vinnie who threw some back. I watched the whiskey splash in the bottle. An air pocket formed as he tipped it. It was the hottest day of the year so far. There was no shade, except for single trees, spread far apart, in a meandering line towards the park’s edge. Beyond that, I could hear cars on the road, roaring on to the next town. Some distance away, a family had set up a picnic under one of the trees. A small child was tottering in a circle around the blanket and falling in the grass.
‘Jesus,’ said Vinnie, gasping as he lowered the bottle. Ricky and the other boys laughed. The girls watched closely. I felt we were being tested, and that Vinnie and Ricky had passed. Vinnie offered me the bottle. I expected it to go to someone else first. Ricky’s gaze was burning into the side of my face like a brand. I looked at Vinnie, whose expression was one of benevolent encouragement. I lifted the bottle to my lips. It smelt utilitarian, a workman’s product, for floors or pipes, certainly not intended for human consumption. I knew I couldn’t take a dainty sip so I tipped the bottle sharply. What I tasted made me gasp and splutter, cueing howls of laughter. Vinnie patted my shoulder.
‘Go again, go again.’
I can still remember heat coming off my face in waves. Their opinion meant so much at that minute, at that time. I took another drink and Vinnie cheered my commitment. My second attempt was much better as I braced myself accordingly and actually managed to swallow some of the vile stuff. I don’t drink whiskey now. I lowered the bottle and took a breath. Ricky nodded in a fashion that implied I would not be beaten to death with sticks for my initial failure.
‘Wash it down with this,’ he said, and handed me his cider. It was like nectar after the whiskey.
After that, Vinnie and I were blessedly removed from the spotlight. The group’s attention was diffused by the alcohol and, at times, they forgot about me entirely, which suited me perfectly. I remember feeling the effects immediately, a sort of disorientated elation. The park glowed and the contours of people’s faces sharpened and softened, depending on how much I concentrated. I was still careful about my intake. Vinnie had swiped a can of cider for me to drink and I took tiny sips from it but made a show of throwing it back with abandon, using my tongue to block the flow. The others had a different agenda in mind and continued to sip at the whiskey until very soon they were completely pissed. They started laughing at everything, cackling in a way that made them appear almost unwell. Two of them started play-fighting, grabbing each other’s legs and trying to upend the other until they both spilled over in the grass. Ricky’s reaction was more in line with what I had witnessed in inebriated adults; he grew morose and staring, sitting with the girls who started putting daisies in his hair while he drank, hardly aware of them, crushing a can and flinging it across the grass when he had finished. A passing walker glanced in our direction and I had the rare experience of feeling an adult’s disapproval levelled at me. I wanted to gather the empties and carry them to the bin but thought this might be the worst possible way to ingratiate myself.
Vinnie threw his arm around me. ‘Do you like it?’ he asked. He was red in the face and his eyes were damp and shining
‘Yes,’ I said. I did, in a way, but I was also a little frightened, as if I was leaving behind something, and a new phase of my life had begun, one I was wholly unprepared for.
‘Best feeling in the world.’ He yelled it and I felt spittle spray my face. I waited until he lurched away to wipe it.
I sat in the grass. My face had gone numb. There was a general feeling of having undergone an anaesthetic. I thought about my parents at home and what they might say if they could see me. I was worried I would not be able to hide it when I got back. Another part of me, taking up more and more space in my brain by the minute, did not care. I lay back on the grass and prodded my face gingerly. Overhead, the sky was a phenomenal blue, just a cloudless shimmer over everything. Even with my eyes closed, the sun was red as a furnace through my lids. Somebody kicked the sole of my shoe.
‘What are you doing, Brennan?’
I looked up and saw it was the same boy as before, who had called me a freak. I sat up. Vinnie had climbed a nearby tree. One of the girls stood at the bottom, telling him to be careful. She was laughing. The other girl had lain back on the grass with Ricky, their legs drawn up, knees bumping against each other. Vinnie went up the tree like a chimp, scrambling and hauling himself higher with natural grace. He was talking as he climbed now, raising his voice to be heard.
‘We few,’ he said, ‘we happy few. We band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. Be he ne’er so vile this day shall gentle his condition.’
‘Holy shit,’ said the boy beside me. He was swaying slightly and his eyes were bloodshot and weepy-looking. I was not sure if he was impressed by Shakespeare, Vinnie’s memory, or merely his own intoxication.
‘And gentlemen in England now a-bed,’ Vinnie continued, scrabbling higher up the tree, pitching his voice further, so he was now shouting to the entire park. The family picnicking nearby looked over, ‘shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought us upon St Crispin’s day.’
‘Get down, you tit.’ It was Mr Goggins. He was a nearly permanent presence at Halley Park, a retiree who spent his afternoons feeding the ducks on Elbow Pond. ‘What are you all doing?’ He directed this at me, jabbing his finger in my direction. ‘I’m calling the guards. This is a public park and you’re underage drinking.’
‘Vinnie,’ I said. ‘Come down.’
Vinnie looked down, at me, then at the ground. I knew he was going to do it but my reactions were too slow. Not that they would have done much good for him anyway. He jumped and caught a branch on the way down, body swinging as he clutched, and it looked, very briefly, as though he would be fine, then his fingers snapped open and he fell back. I watched him fall, waiting for his head to clip the ground but he turned as he descended and curled into a ball before impact. The girl at the foot of the tree screamed and the old man dropped his plastic bag of bread heels. I ran to Vinnie, dropping my can, kicking as it fell so it went spinning across the grass, flinging a string of cider across Mr Goggins’ legs. I knelt down and turned Vinnie over. His eyes were unfocused and his face was streaked with dirt. He had landed on his wrist. He clutched it now, the hand above it swinging at an unnatural angle. He sat up before I could stop him. He looked at the height he had fallen, then at me.
‘See?’ he said. ‘No problem.’ There were tears hanging on his eyelids, not quite breaking their banks.
It was Mr Goggins and not Vinnie’s ‘friends’ who helped me take him to the clinic. The others did not hang around long, fearing reprisal. Vinnie did not notice their departure and I don’t think he cared by that point. He was silent on the walk. The colour had leaked from his face, giving him a greyish pallor. He swayed against our hands as we guided him up the hill. We had to stop a few times so he could sit and catch his breath. I ran into a nearby corner shop and bought him a 7Up. I opened it for him and he drank a little, missing his mouth. I handed him a rag of tissue in my pocket and he dabbed at his chin, suddenly ancient in appearance and behaviour. His t-shirt was dark was sweat, there were beads of it standing out on his forehead. Mr Goggins hovered over us, making noises of distaste, and I felt myself shrinking to a nub under his gaze.
At the clinic, they saw him right away. A nurse put her hand on his shoulder and rolled her eyes theatrically. ‘Every summer, all summer,’ she said as she led him through. On the walk, Mr Goggins had coerced Vinnie’s home number from him and rang his mother on the payphone. I sat in the waiting room. I had a ghastly headache as the alcohol wore off, my spit a gluey, unworkable paste in in cracks of my teeth. I wanted to go to the water dispenser but I was too scared to move. I felt everyone waiting knew I was not like them, that I had done something I shouldn’t and was about to be punished for it. Mr Goggins came and sat beside me after the phone call. I wished he would go. He wanted my home number as well but I told him I couldn’t remember it, which did nothing to improve his opinion of me. I wanted to cry right there in the waiting room. I decided I would avoid Vinnie for the rest of the summer and by the time we returned to school, he would have lost interest in me as a friend and I could go back to my previous life.
Vinnie was out before his mother arrived. His wrist was in a sling and he looked much better.
‘I need an x-ray,’ he said. ‘I have to wait around.’
He had sobered up in the meantime but did not look distressed. His features were set and his hair was stuck to his forehead from prior sweating. He glared at Mr Goggins, who I was sure he wanted to leave as much as I did, and even leaned close to me to make a joke, ‘We should have brought the whiskey.’
When Mrs Shaw got there, she looked nothing like the woman who usually greeted me when I dropped by Vinnie’s house. Vinnie stood at once but Mr Goggins was quicker. I’m sure he meant well but there was something vindictive about his help, the pleasure he took in taking Mrs Shaw aside and telling her all the sordid details whilst looking squarely in our direction. She nodded along, as if to a song, white-faced. She touched Mr Goggins’ arm and walked over to us She was shaking as she approached. I jumped up as she came and stepped back, expecting her to scream at both of us. But instead she went straight to Vinnie, snatching him into her arms.
‘How could you?’ She hissed it in his ear. She was gripping the back of his head, hand sprawled across his skull as if checking for dents or bumps. ‘How could you be so stupid?’ I could see Vinnie’s face perched on her shoulder, expression stony. Mrs Shaw started crying a little, restrained, hardly noticeable, turning him left and right, little turns back and forth, as if slow-dancing with him in the clinic waiting room.
‘It’s OK,’ said Vinnie, eventually. His eyes had gradually pinkened over the course of the hug and he blinked rapidly now as if to expel something from them.
Mrs Shaw wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands and directed her attention to his wrist, dangling in its sling like a flower broken on its stem. She touched it gingerly and Vinnie made a noise of resistance and anger. ‘Oh, don’t be a baby’ she said softly, composed once more.
‘I should go,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Shaw. She did not look angry at me but she did not look happy either.
‘Thanks for waiting with me,’ Vinnie said.
‘See you soon, maybe?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
When I got home, I didn’t feel drunk anymore, only nauseous and hollowed out. I went straight upstairs. My mother called me from the kitchen. I said nothing but stopped on the landing. I could hear her in the kitchen, the clatter of pots, forks going into potatoes to test their hardness, the oven door coming down like a drawbridge. The radio on the windowsill was on, playing smooth, inoffensive classics.
I went back down, put my trainers under the stairs and stepped into the kitchen in my socks. Even in this warm weather, I could feel the coolness of the tiles under my feet. My mother had taken lamb out to rest on the side where it glistened in its foil bed. She was straining the potatoes at the sink. Past her, out the window, my father was slumped in a garden chair, arms freckling in the sun as he read the paper.
‘Can I help?’
She looked over her shoulder, surprised to see me. ‘No, it’s OK.’
‘I want to.’
‘All right then – you can mash.’ She plucked the potato masher from its place on the magnetic strip and handed it to me. She did not look at me properly, she was busy. She put the potatoes back on the hob and I started mashing them. I breathed into a cupped hand to check my breath but I could not detect anything. My mother was singing the song on the radio to herself as she laid the table. Outside, my father got up and came to the window, pressing his face against it.
‘Feed me,’ he said, in a mock-child’s voice.
‘It’s ready now, come on in,’ my mother said, laughing.
He stepped into the kitchen, casting the newspaper down on the sideboard. He messed my hair as he passed me and sat at the table. I kept mashing. My mother leaned over my shoulder to add milk to the pot and a hunk of butter. She put a fork in my hand and I whipped the potatoes into the smooth texture of ice cream. My mother inspected them and nodded in satisfaction
‘Thank you, Pete,’ she said, ‘sit down, I’ll bring it over. Do you want a drink?’
‘You should never eat without a drink,’ my father said.
When we are all sitting, I loaded my plate but did not eat immediately. The clock said it was quarter past seven. My parents sat respectively at their ends of the table, bookending it perfectly. Their heads were tilted down over their food, my father in a crisp blue shirt, split by a grid of white lines, my mother in a bird-print blouse she wore once a week. They were younger than Mrs Shaw, early parents.
‘Are you OK, Pete?’ my mother asked. She had been observing me since we sat down, no longer distracted by the business of dinner.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Do you think we could have Vinnie over soon?’
‘The boy who beat us at the guessing game?’ my father asked. ‘Not a chance. Your mother and I have our pride.’ He smiled at me, trying to rope me into his silly good mood.
‘Of course,’ my mother said. ‘He’s a nice boy, Vinnie. I see his mother downtown all the time. Lovely woman.’
‘Tough as nails,’ my father said, around a mouthful of lamb.
‘Are you sure you’re all right, Pete?’
‘Yes,’ I said.’I just thought we could maybe have him over again. He likes coming over.’
‘Of course,’ my father said, ‘who doesn’t like us?’
Vinnie’s wrist was in a cast for the rest of the summer. When school started again in September, I actually walked right past him, failing to see him as he was, kitted out in full uniform for what must have been the first time in my memory, having shed his usual style that constituted untucked shirt, flapping shoelace and tie rammed in pocket like a clown’s handkerchief. He stopped skipping class, listened in class, approaching teachers after the bell with follow-up questions. He would chat with Mr Feeney, our English teacher, as if they were colleagues, discussing various playwrights, their strengths and weaknesses, the optimum way to stage a production. Mr Feeney assigned him plays to read that were not on the curriculum, occasionally a crumpled but unmistakably valuable volume from his own personal collection, never intended for the callous, grubby digits of teenage boys. I think he was fascinated by Vinnie’s fascination. Vinnie in turn memorised every monologue put in front of him, reciting them over and over when we went walking together, through Halley Park or down to the Ponds, where we would take our shoes off, roll up our jeans and stand on the stones to let the water splash through our ankles.
‘You’ll remember your friends when you get to Hollywood, won’t you?’ I asked him.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’ll need my entourage.’ This was a term he had recently learned in his reading and liked to bandy about ever since. But he did not make it as far as Hollywood and he has no entourage to speak of. He runs a theatre company in Dublin now and I see him once or twice a year, when we can make time, of which there is always a shortage. On my last visit, they let me backstage to see him after the show. His was dressing room was an ascetic setup, lacking in the expected comforts and amenities; I don’t think he ever learned how to enjoy money. He was in the bathroom when I entered. I could hear the gurgling crash of water in the sink. On the dressing table were makeup brushes, foundation, rouge, things I had teased him about in the past. I heard the lock click behind me and I moved across the room, back to the door. Vinnie stepped out. He was still in costume but he had washed his face, drying his hands with a pale blue towel.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m here.’
Michael Lawlor has previously been published in the Irish Independent and the Writer’s Hub. He studied an MA in Literature at the University of Limerick and lived for several years in the west of Ireland. He now lives and works in London.