Conor walked through the cramped service station, past the stacked newspapers and the beige and burnt hot food, beyond the rotating stand of birthday cards and the single brand of mouthwash and toothpaste. The ATM was at the very back, beside the drinks cooler. He sighed when it fired out a fifty-pound note.
‘Useless,’ he said – pausing at the sight of the wee boy crouched beside him, reaching for a carton of Capri-Sun. ‘Useless…thing.’
Rubbing the fifty-pound note between his fingers, he stared into the empty ice-cream freezer and listened to the ugly chugs from the coffee machine, then made his way to the one-pound share bags of sweets by the till. He could remember the taste of some of them. The strong, bitter bite of the sour rings. The way American hard gums would stick to the inside of your teeth. How a packet of jelly babies could disappear in a single sitting, addictive.
He dropped a packet of wine gums onto the counter and the woman behind the till asked if he’d got any fuel, then stared at him when he shook his head and held out the note.
‘Fifty quid just for these?’
Conor didn’t flinch. ‘It’s straight out of your ATM,’ he said. ‘Hardly fake, is it?’
‘I don’t care. I’m not taking it.’
‘Why the fuck not?’
There was a gasp from the queue behind as the wee boy clasped his hands over his ears, the Capri-Sun slapping against the side of his head.
‘Look, just take the money and give me my change.’
‘No. Not for the sake of a pound.’
Conor was shaking in his usual way. It got progressively worse as he groaned out of bed each morning, shivered through a cold shower, got dressed and made his way to work. It was only ever a temporary condition but was becoming a constant part of his life. Now, the shake was beginning to bubble beyond his clothes, becoming visible to the other people in the shop, and all he wanted was to get out and continue moving forward through the day. He lifted another bag of sweets – glowing, red sticks of liquorice this time – and set them on the counter.
‘Not for two quid either,’ the woman said.
Another bag. Jelly beans.
Two more. Aniseed balls, mint imperials.
‘A fiver then,’ Conor said. ‘Five pounds. Take the fifty and give me my fucking change.’
The boy let out a tiny squeal as his drink fell to the ground and Conor flashed a glare back at him. He was wearing a large backpack and looked liable to tip over if he leaned back too far. His grandfather stood behind him, guiding his shoulders like handlebars. Conor turned away as he recognised the man’s face.
The checkout women sighed. ‘Fine’, she said.
It was approaching noon, it was bright and warm and even the dirty, shallow water of the river looked inviting as Conor made his way across the bridge. He could see Doc through the wire meshing of the tennis court, sitting on a picnic bench in front of the tall oak trees behind, which lined up as though they went on for miles rather than mere metres. It was a rare spot in the town that could have been picked up and set anywhere else and been a welcome addition, and Doc was doing his best to take on a similarly ubiquitous demeanour, wearing a plain t-shirt and a pair of shorts so that a stranger could be forgiven for figuring that he was just sitting there, taking in the scenery.
‘You’re a nuisance, Doc,’ Conor said, as he approached him. ‘Life would be a lot easier if you gave a man change for his purchases.’
Doc stood up and reached for the backpack under the picnic table. ‘What, you think I’m gonna stand here with a fanny pack full of coins for you?’
Conor laughed as he handed Doc a twenty-pound note and took a small clear bag in return. He rubbed the plastic, already feeling better just by being in possession of it, enjoying the comfort of knowing things were in motion. Something for before work, just enough to clear his head and stop the shakes; something for his lunch break, just enough to get him through the afternoon; and something to look forward to when he got home, to ease him into the night.
‘Do you mind if I smoke one now?’ he asked.
‘I’d sooner you waited ‘til you’re away, to be honest,’ Doc said.
Conor nodded, then paused, unsure of whether to head on or stay and try to think of something more to say. He’d known Doc before he became a customer, had known him even before Doc had any customers, but their relationship now overpowered all those old memories, like chalk over chalk on a blackboard, and it was hard to think back. Still, he always liked to ask a question or share a conversation, as though being able to think of him as a friend who sold him drugs rather than as a drug dealer would mean that he wasn’t really a user, not a proper one at least.
‘No other craic then?’ he asked.
‘Craic. As in, no other craic?‘
‘No, I’ve no other craic,’ Doc said. ‘What craic would there be?’
Conor paused again. ‘I suppose, when you put it like that,’ he said.
They were both in their mid-twenties but compared to Conor, Doc had never aged. The stubble on his chin was neatly trimmed, and the hair on his head, although thick and dark, was only slightly longer. He had a look that could fit in anywhere and when he spoke it was in that general way that some people do, like he could be talking to anyone about anything.
‘What about you?’ Doc asked. ‘How’s work in the abattoir? It’s meant to be freezing in there.’
‘It’s cold, yeah,’ Conor said. ‘But nice like. Fresh. Good for a day like this.’
It was true, the abattoir would be misery for some people, but there was nowhere better to sober you up and dry you out than those cold, clinical walls. It was usually exactly what Conor needed.
Doc nodded. ‘Still, blood, guts, animal heads, it wouldn’t be for me. Will I see you later?’
‘Why, what’s up?’ Conor said, firing the question back, like they were in the middle of a tennis rally, not a conversation – just glad to be talking.
‘Nothing’s up. I mean will you be coming to see me?”
‘Ah nah, sure I’m all stocked now,’ Conor said, ruffling his bulging pockets.
Doc laughed. ‘You are aye. You always say that.’
‘Always say what?’
‘Always say that. Anyway, I’ll be outside the bar this evening when you’re looking me.’
* * * * * * * * * *
Tommy sat on his bench in the middle of the town, scowering for voices. When office workers briefly reprieved would line up inside and outside cafés, parents with arms strapped to young children moved between shops, and school students sauntered to and fro, savouring their seconds, Tommy would sit in his usual spot, absorbing their chorus, listening for specific sounds. No matter how loud it got, however many voices joined in, he could always hear what he was trained to hear, just like an eight-year-old boy will always see the acorns on the crowded, camouflaged autumn floor.
Tommy didn’t so much like the voices as hate the silence in his own house. He lived six miles into the country, in a bungalow a quarter mile off the road, and it was the gentle hum of his old life he missed the most. Loved ones laughing in another room; her uninhibited, private piano recitals heard through the living room door; standing in the back garden on summer evenings, hearing his children play two fields away. If he could spend eternity in some distant, empty room where those sounds just barely reached his ears, he would.
But his house was vacant and quiet now and he was old and retired, so he came to the town and sat on the bench, with nothing but a dog and a backpack by his feet, listening out for conversations or phone calls that could be in some way useful.
He rubbed the neck of the dog and squirted water from a sports cap onto the cracks in the pavement and the dog lapped it up greedily.
Doc spent his afternoon hanging around the bookmakers, killing time, sitting on a stool by the far wall, eating wine gums from his pocket and leafing through a local newspaper. He recognised faces on every page: local people he’d passed in the streets or encountered in quiet, private locations, lined up together, staring out in groups of four and five, smiling at him for the first time.
‘Come on then.’
‘Here we fucking go.’
Two old boys stood shouting at one of the screens, watching a horserace that had just started. They stared intently, eyes never leaving the screen, heels occasionally rising in anticipation, soles leaving the floor, standing on tiptoes, their elbows nudging one another, until:
‘Fuck, rider’s down.’
‘Like a sack of spuds. More money down the drain.’
The first man scrunched up the betting slip and threw it down at his feet, but their excitement until that point outweighed their disappointment and Doc decided, Friday afternoon or not, they were just casual gamblers. He could always tell: addiction being something he could identify even if it wasn’t obvious, even if he couldn’t quite explain how, in the same way you recognise a loved one’s eyes even if you can’t describe exactly what it is you recognise about them.
‘C’mon, we’ll get back to the bar before the next one,’ one of the men said.
‘Hang on, keep an eye on this horse on the outside.’
‘It’s not our horse.’
‘But it’s a hundred-to-one-shot and it’s gunning for it.’
‘Would be some scene if it won.’
Doc stood up and the three of them watched in silence. As the horse moved into the lead, Doc bent down and picked up the discarded betting slip at the man’s feet and folded it into his hand. The hundred-to-one shot crossed the finishing line three, four, maybe five strides ahead of second place.
‘Look at that,’ one of the men said. ‘And by a mile too. You couldn’t pick it.’
‘Somebody will have. Some lucky boyo somewhere.’
As they turned around Doc looked straight at them and released a yell at the top of his voice.
‘Get in there,’ he shouted. ‘Get in there.’
The two men stared.
‘One thousand big ones,’ Doc said.
They looked him up and down.
‘You were on that horse?’ one of them asked.
‘You won?’ the other followed.
‘Hell yeah I did.’
Their faces turned from shock to jealousy and then finally to a shared smile.
‘Give us a look,’ the first man said, reaching for the slip in Doc’s hand.
‘Hold your horses, pal,’ Doc said. ‘Look with your eyes.’ He flicked his wrist, feigning to reveal the bet slip to them, holding it out in plain sight for a split second, like an amateur magician. Neither man dared let on that they hadn’t seen it; people believing what they want to believe.
‘There you have it, some pick.’
‘Fair play, son. We’ll be across the road if you’re buying a round to celebrate.’
And they tapped him on the shoulder and made their way out of the shop, waving to the employee behind the counter as they went, still saying things like: you wouldn’t believe it like, there’s always one, even when you’d never think of it, always one lucky bastard.
As Doc left, the employee behind the counter was shaking his head at him.
‘I don’t know why I let you in here,’ he said, ‘let alone allow you to take the piss out of the punters like that.’
Doc just smiled, in a way that said aye, you know rightly, you know why as well as I do.
Outside, he put his card into the ATM, entered his pin and waited for the options to pop up. He selected deposit, then cash and used his body to hide the fact that he was putting money into the ATM rather than taking it out. He did this at least once a day, ever since Jacko had been busted by the police – caught carrying more money than can be easily explained when you’re only ever seen hanging about town in a tracksuit. Doc tried to carry no more than two hundred on him at any time and never more than a personal supply of drugs. It limited the amount of money he could make in one day, but the only way to keep scrutiny off yourself is minute by minute, like shielding your eyes from the sun or batting a fly off your arm.
When he sat down on the bench beside Tommy, neither man acknowledged the other. Doc set his backpack, which was identical to Tommy’s, on the bench between them. He sat for three minutes then got up, leaving the backpack on the bench and lifting the one on the ground. As Doc walked away, Tommy was staring in the opposite direction and when he finally did move, ten minutes later, he lifted the bag from the bench. It was light, probably completely empty, and the weightlessness made him smile.
* * * * * * * * * *
Conor finished his shift in the abattoir at seven, got changed and made his way through the evening streets, walking in a way that made the town seem even smaller than usual. He circled it and it quickened his pulse like a string swirling around his finger.
Doc was sat outside a pub on the edge of the town. A chip box on the table in front of him, a plastic fork stabbed through the polystyrene lid and an empty pint of cider beside it, the ice shrinking and settling at the bottom of the glass.
‘The evening prescription, is it?’ Doc asked, and Conor smiled and exchanged another note for another small bag from the backpack.
‘I thought I wasn’t supposed to be seeing you again today?’
‘What can I say? Work was shit.’
It was Friday night, or at least approaching it, and if the Hog’s Head wasn’t a pub people went out to it was at least a pub they went to before going out. Doc liked it at this time, when those inside were still drinking beer, still playing Stereophonics and Arctic Monkeys on the jukebox, and you could sit outside and listen to what was still a pleasant atmosphere while taking in the evening sun. It never lasted. Beer and tranquil atmospheres were never enough – Doc’s livelihood depended on that – but if he timed it right he could slowly enjoy a single pint, watch the people come and go in relative sobriety, and make it the best part of his week.
‘Shit how?’ he asked. ‘Cus you’re working with dead animals all day?’
‘Cus you’re working with people,’ Conor said.
Doc laughed, leant back on the bench, and stared off into the middle distance. Conor just watched him. There were plenty of things people said about Doc. Some said he got his stuff in a black package from the postman and had never seen his supplier’s eyes. Others said he knew his supplier intimately, even grew some of the lighter stuff himself. And some people went wild, told stories of how he had no supplier at all, was his own little drug empire, more self-employed than anyone you’ve ever met in your life. Conor didn’t care, never dreamt of asking where the stuff came from, who else Doc sold it to, or where the profits went. There was no need. Doc was easy going, he was solid. There were ways he bordered on paranoia, but those eccentricities were funny as far as Conor was concerned.
Doc would block and delete your number if you talked too openly in a text. Conor got around it by using movie references and enjoyed keeping an ear out for lines he could use in every film he watched. He saved them as drafts in his phone, paraphrasing them into requests and replies that could be filtered into their conversations, like I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse, Go ahead, make my day and Show me the money!
They laughed at them when they saw each other.
‘Movie quote for everything, isn’t there?’
‘Yeah, everything worth saying has been said before.’
‘A million times over.’
Conor rubbed the plastic of the bag between his fingers. He’d make dinner when he got home, he thought. Enjoy that simple pleasure. Find another film he liked too. He might even laugh at it, and who could have imagined that just a few hours ago. And throughout it all the ever-present, naive lie to himself that maybe this was the last time, maybe he wouldn’t be back crossing that bridge again in the morning.
He opened the small bag, licked his finger, dipped it in the powder and ran it in a circle around the gums of his mouth.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘You can’t do that here.’
‘You’ve never said that before.’
‘You’ve never done drugs in the middle of the street before.’
‘You’re selling drugs in the middle of the street.’
Doc instinctively slapped the bag out of Conor’s hand and the powder spilled across the ground.
‘You’re mental you are, Conor.’
Conor hadn’t heard Doc use his name in years, hadn’t even been sure he remembered it.
‘C’mon Doc, it was a mistake.’
Doc took a large bottle of water from his bag and poured it around the powder on the ground, then grinded the puddle with the bottom of his trainers.
‘You rock up here like you’re normal, casual, some boy who’s just looking for a random hit to pass an evening. But you’re my fucking best customer. And then you go and just stick your finger…in bloody daylight…’
‘I’m sorry, man, I wasn’t thinking.’
‘You don’t seem to think about much, do you?’
Doc stared at Conor, but he could see that his eyes were going. The bag was already back in his hands. He let the silence hang between them.
‘Are you mad at me?’ Conor said.
It was a ridiculous question, but Doc said nothing to it, just sat back down.
Doc could remember a day sometime during his last year at school when he and a group of friends headed out of town in search of the nearest beach. There was debate over where the closest shore was and in the end the beach they found wasn’t even sandy, just a load of stones and they didn’t actually do much, just walked along a path that went on forever, skimming stones the odd time, then stopping to see who could hit the rock forty or fifty feet out in the waves, before they chanced their arm at getting a pint in the scummiest looking bar in the town, where likely no one had ever been asked to show I-D, and then came home again, none the wiser, with no great stories to tell and barely a full afternoon having passed.
Conor had been one of the other lads in the car, though he was only a mutual friend, if even that. Doc didn’t even know if Conor remembered it and if he did, whether he recognised Doc from that day. They were never mates, but they’d been in each other’s company for what must have added up to hours a week for at least three years and the biggest disagreement they’d ever had was when Conor showed up one day with a Messi shirt on, when the previous night he’d been wearing a Real Madrid shirt that said Ronaldo.
‘Surely you have to pick one,’ Doc had said.
Conor was wearing the Ronaldo shirt now and he was still standing there, staring with a look that was still asking are you mad at me? Doc could taste the words he had just shouted at him in his mouth.
‘You’ll have to get rid of that top,’ he said eventually. ‘Ronaldo doesn’t even play for Real Madrid anymore.’
Conor laughed in a way which Doc thought was somehow, for some reason, asking him of all people for a kind of forgiveness.
‘Still scoring goals though, isn’t he?’ Conor said. ‘Messi too. They were scoring bucketful’s when I bought the shirts and they’re scoring bucketful’s now. It’s nice when somethings don’t change, when there’s still something you can count on.’
Tommy walked slowly, the dog on the lead in front, the backpack over his shoulders. When he saw Doc he bent down and let the Labrador off the lead so that it ran towards him, the way a dog might run towards someone you meet on the street, forcing you to go and say hello. Tommy dropped a copy of the Racing Post onto the table as the dog spiralled Doc’s legs and lay down at his feet.
‘Did you see the hundred-to-one shot that came in this afternoon?’ Doc asked.
‘Heard about it. Did you have any money on it?’
‘Sure you know I wouldn’t. But I watched it. Came from nowhere on the outside and won by a couple of strides.’
Doc lifted the polystyrene box and dropped it at his feet. Tommy glared at him.
‘It’s just a few chips.’
They’d first met in a fairly normal way. Tommy’s wife had been dead for nearly a year and he felt like he’d barely slept, so an old work friend brought round a single bag, smoked it with him and then left him to sleep through the night for the first time in months. They did that a few more times, until Tommy started using so much that his friend said he didn’t want to be his middleman anymore. He gave him Doc’s number and that was that. For a year Tommy was Doc’s most consistent customer, then Doc found out where he lived. A house six miles from town, off the main road, home only to a retired widower. A house that would never be suspected of anything.
Tommy nodded at the pint glass. ‘Do you want another one?’
Doc shook his head.
‘I heard a few things in town earlier,’ Tommy said. ‘There was a group from the college talking about an eighteenth birthday tomorrow night, then a few young suits, estate agents I think they were, on about a managers retirement party. They were saying it would be boring. You could soon fix that for them.’
Doc just nodded.
‘Do you want a sweet instead?’ Tommy said, as he took a packet of aniseed balls from his pocket and passed them across the table. Doc reached into his own pocket and took out a packet of wine gums.
Tommy laughed. ‘Were they from a customer?’
‘What’s he like?’
‘As a customer?’
‘I suppose, yeah.’
‘Good for us, not so good on himself.’
‘Should we cut him off?’
‘What would we be doing that for?’ Doc asked.
‘Well, if he’s turning into some sort of tragic case.’
Doc tapped his knee and the dog put his front paws up on him.
‘What have I said before, Tommy? You’ll cause no tragedy around here. When things are bad enough to begin with, tragedy isn’t tragedy, it’s just change. It’s just difference.’
Tommy nodded along, although he wasn’t sure how much he actually understood. He didn’t know where the contents of the bags went when Doc took them. Doc told him about certain names and places, like he was describing where a football team was playing that weekend or what film was showing in what theatre. The High School lads will be away over at the bridge this afternoon. I might go see your girl with the ponytail at the top of the town this evening. But if Tommy ever asked a question with any seriousness, Doc would shush him like he was trying to ease his concerns. It’ll all be gone before you know it, don’t worry about that. You just be sure to have the other backpack filled and ready and count yourself lucky that you’ve nothing else to be thinking about.
‘I guess you’re right,’ Tommy said. ‘Sure he has time yet. Maybe he’ll learn from his mistakes.’
More people were starting to arrive at the pub and the music inside was getting louder, the night already turning into more of a rave. As Doc stood up, he looked at the two backpacks beside the table, nudged them with his feet, lifted the one that was full and left the one that was empty. He gave the dog a final rub.
‘Except there’s nothing new to learn, Tommy,’ he said. ‘Every mistake worth making has already been made a million times before, and all that’s left for us to do is run around repeating them.’
As Conor turned the corner it was like the whole world turned it with him. He dipped his finger again, rubbed his gums and the setting sun hit his eyes and the ground and the trees around him all at once. The leaves caught the glow and turned from green to gold, lit up by the sunlight as though they’d been waiting on it all day.
He stood at the traffic lights and waited for the green man to appear. There was a young lad and his mother in front of him and although the road was clear Conor waited, conscious not to spoil her lesson or tarnish his young mind. He took his finger from his pocket and rubbed it around his gums, then counted to ten in his head and when the light still hadn’t changed, reached into his pocket and did the same thing again. He felt the second time like a switch in his head and he smiled.
In front of him, the wee lad pulled a stick of liquorice from his pocket and turned to Conor and grinned as he bit into it. Conor was already looking away, too busy staring into the sun to recognise him.
Andrew Maguire is a writer from Omagh, County Tyrone. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast. His writing has featured in Blackbird, The Honest Ulsterman, Lunate and the Irish Times. He is chairperson of the Omagh Literary Festival and co-founder of the Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition.
Childhood Fantasies. A short story in The Honest Ulsterman: https://bit.ly/30xSxiM
Free Lift Home. A short story in Lunate: https://bit.ly/2YnW7JB
‘My story is slightly different to everyone else’s’. An interview with Michael McKillop, for the Irish Times: https://bit.ly/2MQB4K5
You can find Andrew at:
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.