For a last meal it was hardly the stuff of legend. The old fella chipped a couple of spuds, threw them in the fryer and popped a chop under the grill, followed by a digestif of Barry’s tea and a smoke out the garden. I was lately back in the family home because me and Sharon were having a few problems. Or she was having a few with me, if we’re getting into it. She’d pointed to the door and I was too full of myself to beg forgiveness, which is the way of men. I found the old fella. The fag in his mouth one long finger of ash which disintegrated when I shook his shoulder and called his name. The ash settled down the front of his cardigan. There was none of his breath in the cold air.
I rang the ambulance and they said they’d be a while and I said take your time, unless you’ve a necromancer on staff. Then I phoned Deirdre and she howled down the line and was there twenty minutes later. Together we waited and when the ambulance arrived the paramedic felt for Da’s pulse and apologetically pronounced him dead. Are you sure, I asked. Because he can go days without saying a word. Your man the paramedic looked at me like I was a sad sack, but I didn’t care. I’d already made a dent the old man’s Paddy, I was coping. They took their time trussing him up and taking him away. He didn’t complain. An aneurism can take the tongue out of your head.
We sat there, brother and sister newly orphaned, in the parlour of the house we grew up in and couldn’t wait to get out of. Our mother on the mantelpiece, ashes herself, looking down on us. The very room she died in two decades ago. She’d come home one day to find someone had broken in and ransacked the place. The silver, gone. The stash of fivers she kept in the press, gone. Jewellery, gone. My CDs, gone. Nana Kelly spilled on the floor in a little heap, the gold-plated urn she’d reposed in, also gone. Ma couldn’t handle this final and brutal insult. Her heart stopped. She collapsed. Guess who found her? I’ve some record for coming across the corpses of my parents. I’d come home from college, first year pre-med it was, so I knew a few things. I checked for a pulse, did some chest compressions, but she was already cold and hard like fresh hewn marble and I didn’t need a degree to tell me I was wasting my time.
A picture of Steven next to Ma on the mantelpiece, black and white, in his footy gear, smiling. About fourteen, holding a trophy, mud on his face. Steo, was a Garda when Ma died. He got the crime scene lads in their overalls and gloves to give the place a proper going over and they covered the place in grey dust, searching for answers. All the surfaces revealed their spectral prints under the sweep of fine-haired brushes. They took copies and filed them away, but they were our dabs and no use to them. During the clean-up someone vacuumed Nana and we haven’t seen her since.
It was the first time I’d seen Steo doing his job. He was stationed in some grim Northside suburb, but he came over in his uniform and was granite calm compared to me or Da or Deirdre, still in her school uniform, sitting in the kitchen smoking the last of Ma’s ciggies, crying and turning the kettle on every five minutes in case someone needed a tea.
Steo enjoyed the privilege the uniform gave him, picking up the Mirror for nothing in the shops and stopping whomever he wanted for a slap around the head if he felt like it. He was like all the other Guards; a complete prick, which I suppose made him successful at being police, despite his abiding love of the illicit. But to see him in the crime scene of our home, stern and sharing jargon with the forensic lads, I felt something bordering on admiration. It was like he’d made sense of it. Death was a puzzle that could be unpicked.
A few months or a year or two after we watched Ma’s coffin roll into an oven I was walking back to my flat when the screech of tyres on the tarmac shuddered me out of the deep contemplation of my hangover. I’d left college at this stage – the medicine wouldn’t take – to concentrate on my drinking. Steo there, hanging his head out of the window.
This wasn’t a Garda Sierra he was ushering me into, but unmarked Corolla belonging to his fellow Officer and best mate, Collie.
-What’s going on?
-Get in, he said again, and there was no negotiation in his tone. They teach you that in Templemore. I’d nothing else on, so I complied. Collie sped off. The man drove fast.
-You remember Gus O’Toole? Steo asked me, using the rear view mirror as his intermediary.
Everyone knew Gussie. He was a good baller back in the day, but after he broke an ankle he packed football in for house and yokes before graduating to skag and thievery. You’d see him haunting the streets, somewhere between living and dead, the want in him glowing like a sacred heart.
-We were in his gaff, searching for gear. Look what I found.
Steo pointed to a kit bag on the floor beside me, an old, battered, black Head one.
-Looks like… I started.
-That’s your bag, said Steo.
-It’s just a bag.
-It’s yours. Gus took it to carry the shit he stole from our house.
-I wrote me name on the handle, I said, examining the bag. Anto Jackson, with an addendum added by the class comedian Tony Reilly… is a prick. The bag had no handles.
-He reefed the handles off, obviously. Thinking he was clever.
-So you’re saying Gussie robbed the gaff based on this?
Collie laughed, a sharp, glottal bark. -He’s detective quality, this one, he said.
It took a will of iron to ignore the cunt but I wasn’t in possession of one. -Fuck you, I said. Steo turned to me, his face was hard. –Stupid bastard never got rid of the bag because he couldn’t sell it. Probably can’t even remember what job it came from.
-Because there’s hundreds of bags look like it, I suggested. Steo wasn’t having it. His mind was set.
-Gussie robbed the gaff, which means Gussie killed our Ma.
It was an article of faith, immutable, like transubstantiation or four-four-two. I didn’t argue, you can’t fight that kind of belief. It was no leap of imagination to think Gussie did the break in. He had form. He’d been lifted for burglary loads of times and done his bit in the ‘Joy. Gus would rob the shoes off your feet if you let him. Then he’d try and sell them back to you and you’d almost fall for it because he was selling you the fact you were not him.
We drove in silence, but for the angry revving of Collie’s engine. I noticed we weren’t going anywhere in particular, just around the neighbourhood again and again. Half an hour of this and there he was, coming out of the gloom of the bookie’s and blinking, bewildered at the afternoon. Collie drove onto the pavement, skidded to a stop right in front of Gus. Shock on his bony face. You could smell the rubber from the tyres. Steo got out. He went to Gussie and put his strong hand on Gus’s scrawny arm. Gus tried to pull away, but he had no strength, he lacked will.
-Been looking for you, Gus.
-I’ve done nothing, but.
-I don’t know about that, Gus.
-You pigs are always on my case.
-You keep giving us a reason.
Steo flexed his hand. His fingers nearly all the way around Gussie’s bicep, as thin as a child’s wrist. Gus gave resistance a go but he knew it was pointless. Things just happened to Gus, he’d tell you himself. It was never his fault. He bore bad luck like a coalman shoulders a bag of coke. No doubt he’d staked his rent allowance on a horse that was fried by lightning in the final furlong, finish line a lungful away. Steo shoved him in next to me, getting in himself so Gus was the meat in the sandwich and me and Steo were the bread.
Collie took off and we were pushed back into the seats with the force of it. Gussie’s elbows in my side, the smell of him. His skin was shrinking on his skull. His eyes, deep in their sockets, were dark and almost innocent. Lost and accepting, bovine. A lifelong victim.
Collie drove us into a derelict factory. Before the Tiger these empty skeletons were everywhere, playgrounds and dosshouses. All the windows were smashed, gaping down on us without interest. Collie and Steo reefed Gussie out of the car. He looked towards me, unblinking. My pulse was loud in my ears. Steo got back in, took out some tin foil and unwrapped it. Some grains of white power. He snorted with one nostril and then the other and handed it to me.
-Finish it, he said, and got out again. I wasn’t the kind of man who turned down mysterious powders, not then, not ever. I tipped it onto the back of my left hand and did it quick. It stung. Whatever it was, it was rough. My sinus felt raw. I shook my head and squeezed my eyes closed and felt a red hot needle of pain, as if a nail was being hammered into my skull between my eyes.
I followed them around the back of the factory. Collie on one side, Steo on the other, each holding one of Gussie’s elbows. Gus was saying something, pleading innocence, but he didn’t believe his own words. They walked into a large loading area that smelt of damp and piss. The walls were in shadows, but I could make out the dull colour of old graffiti. The ground was covered in bottles and cans and glass and syringes and shit. Pigeons cooed among the rafters, unseen.
Steo and Collie stopped and stood there. Both men put their hands into their pockets and came out with surgical gloves, like something precise needed doing. Gussie said –Why?
-You know what you’ve done, Gussie. You go around climbing in people’s windows and you don’t give a fuck what kind of damage you do. We put you away and you keep coming back. What choice do we have?
After the first few blows Gus stopped asking why or even begging them to stop. They took turns, resting between each swing of the fist. Gussie’s white skin grew more livid. When he could stand no more he fell and he balled himself up, so they landed kicks with their heavy boots. Ribs popped. Steo turned to me. –You ma, he said. I felt my breath hot within me. My limbs twitched. I closed my eyes, concentrated on the pain I felt in the middle of my head. The loss and lack we’ve suffered. Gussie’s accepting guilt. His complicity in his own beating. We’re better than this, I wanted to say, but it wasn’t true. Someone had to pay for what happened. Afterwards there was silence but for our heavy breathing. The day had minutes left, the sky blazing orange and red as it expired, like a warning.
Deirdre and me watched Da take the same route into the furnace Ma and Nana had before him. Steo had been buried. Just like him to take up as much space as he could. The whole station turned out in their uniforms for the funeral because he died on the job, squad car wrapped around a lamp post, chasing some young fellas through the estate. Collie, who was driving, apologised to Da from his wheelchair and Da shook his hand and told him they’d done good work, keeping the bad lads off the street. Collie’s face was red and broken, he slurred, under the spell of something prescribed for a change. He never walked again.
Da shrank with every eulogy. Grief is knowledge, the more he learned the smaller he got. After his own funeral he could fit into a Tesco bag. No use thinking of all the things unsaid. We weren’t great talkers. You keep the words inside and they get burned up or you let it them out and they blow away. What secrets can you keep from the dead in anyway? They’ve learned all there is worth knowing.
We decided to sell the gaff. The market was looking up, the estate agent said, now was a good time to get rid. We’d take our wedge and split it. Deirdre was getting a new kitchen and I thought I’d give another county a go. A man with some money on a street full of pubs can find a purpose.
Sharon had kicked out me for good, which was fair enough. The kids would be better off without me. Even they understood it and they were small, thick about the way of the world other than an innate understanding of its unfairness. We weren’t good people, or bad. We just made mistakes and tried to atone somehow. Funny thing, Steo always understood. He was the most primal of all of us. He knew the law was a joke, which is why he became police. Might as well be making the joke than complaining it isn’t fucking funny. Life got the last laugh. It always does.
Deirdre took the photos off the wall, Ma’s albums. Some delph. After that there wasn’t much. Twenty years a widower and the old man never changed a thing. We took black bags of old clothes to the charity shops and fucked everything else into a skip. There was nothing left of them now, we’d even set them both free, their mixed particles caught by a gust of wind off Howth Head. All that remained was the things done in their name, and none of them can ever be said.
I packed what little I now owned into a bag – a man with no past doesn’t need much – left the house and heard the familiar click of the lock behind me for the last time. I picked up the kit bag. A black Head one I’d stashed in the attic twenty years earlier. My name on the handle. Anto Jackson…is a prick.
Dara Thomas Higgins
Dara Thomas Higgins is a writer and musician from Ireland.
During the day he writes for television, by night be plays bass guitar. In the afternoon he naps.
Previously he’s had work published by TSS (https://theshortstory.co.uk/short-story-you-cant-put-your-arms-around-a-memory-by-dara-thomas-higgins/), Virtual Zine (https://virtualzinemag.com/f/the-great-bear-by-dara-thomas-higgins), The Bohemyth (https://thebohemyth.com/2018/01/30/building-skyscrapers-by-dara-thomas-higgins/), Iota Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction among others. He is a Pushcart Prize Nominee and, in collaboration with artist Eoin Whelehan, placed second in The Irish Times Graphic Short Story competition. The pair have also had their work feature on the cover of The Dublin Enquirer and are currently collaborating on a graphic novel.
Dara is a founding member of The Jimmy Cake who have released 6 critically acclaimed albums, and has played with many other musicians over the years including A. Smyth, Katell Keineg, Nina Hynes, Mark Geary, Martin A. Egan, Daniel Figgis, Glen Hansard and many more. He has appeared numerous times on television and radio.
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