Eyes are elsewhere.
So no-one sees the child at loose in the street, dodging bin and lamppost and striking the pavement with stinging feet. A phantom manifesting; thunder through open windows, as a flash of colour, sudden, in the doors of shops and houses.
No stopping for traffic as he cuts across a car park, nor is he slowed by the blare of a horn, the grumble of wheels on gravel, and futile the thump of fist on steering wheel.
Because Kevin Shields has seen.
His lips tightly stretched upon the news that churns within, swarming like fish in boiling water, coming apart in their struggling, pink and beige. Words bully up and he fights them back with straining whimpers: Hnnng… hnnng…
They set in toffee sickness, ossifying the cords of neck.
Up swing fists and back in pendulum, winding him taut, spurring him onwards— the blackest red encroaches, tightening the world into tunnel so only the destination is sharp and clear.
And all other eyes are elsewhere. Turning back to where he came. To the edge of town.
Where things have begun to happen.
We played out on the edge of things, where the tarmac ran into the muck of the field and rose in the remnants of a ditch, a smoothed hump, all grass worn away by countless runners and shoes, where struggling trees threw out their scatters of listless leaves, their lower branches kept from growing by the snapping hands of kids.
That’s where we’d spend our lunchtimes
Cormac Sulltry, Danny Cullen, Kevin Shields, and myself.
We’d sit on that last scrap of farmland and watch the football matches break about us, half a dozen ragged games flowing in and out of each other— waves of limb in frantic kick, children dashing to grapple the ball— that tease!— always, always just out of reach.
The sound of them a physical thing.
Beating us about the ears.
And today is like every other day; the games flowing back and forth in front of us and Cormac laughing and telling his tales and Danny nodding in that silent disinterested way he has, and me, I am on my hands and knees, teasing the ants from the hole with a stick and listening with only half an ear.
Just like any other day.
Not knowing how different tomorrow would be. Because this was the day that we’d see.
The ball strikes the narrow gate in the corner of the playground and skips away, setting the rusted padlock squeaking from the bolt and looking up, I’m the one who sees him—Behind the gate, wild-eyed, with teeth bared in a brittle grid, with fingers worming the squares of metal mesh, is Kevin Shields.
Motioning for us with his hands.
“Look,” I say, my pointing stick acrawl with ants.
And when we get to the gate we launch our questions at Kevin, not waiting for answers: “I thought you were supposed to be sick,” says Cormac, and to me he sounds a little hurt.
“Are you okay?” I ask, for the tall boy with the crooked teeth looks pale and patched in red at the same time. He looks ill. “Is something—”
Cormac cuts across me, his finger pointing at Kevin, “We told everyone you weren’t well! You could get us all in trouble!”
And Danny moves forward, the way Danny always moves— slowly, considered, saying softly “You’ve seen something, haven’t you? Something’s happening, out in the town…”
The news spews out of Kevin, blowing apart lips and stunning his teeth with flecks of spit, unrestrainable bursts of word and air:
“There’s been a fucking!”
It’s almost a roar, up, up into the close and empty sky—
“There’s been a fucking!”
And there is no more breath in the run-thumped lungs, sentences shut down in a handful of words—
“Out in the.”
With that words fail; Kevin bends in butterfly, wrists against ribs and elbows out in arches, battling for breath against the stitch. A hand wags a limp indication off, somewhere, vaguely, to his right.
A whoof exhaled, then up looks Kevin Shields at us, pained, eyes pinched, mouth monkeying a grimace, saying softer: “There’s been a fucking.”
“They caught them.”
And a last word is a plead with us:
We look at each other, Cormac and Danny and Kevin and me.
“Come on,” says the tall and breathless boy, stepping back from the gate, “Come on. If you’re quick. You’ll get to see.”
The draw of it. The thrill.
As one we turn and peer behind us.
Mrs Quinliven and Mrs Cunningham are chatting at the corner of the building, their backs turned towards us, and there’s a rolling scrum of football frantic on the tarmac, hiding us from view.
“If we’re quick,” whispers Danny with a slow nod.
“If we’re quick!” cries Cormac, slapping a fist in his palm. They look at me.
The weight of their stares.
And I know I have to say yes.
I have to.
Because they’ll say it for me if I don’t, and what will I be then? Small and fat and weak and spineless too.
So I nod.
Throw a little smile on my face.
Pretending to agree.
“Go. Go!” barks Cormac.
An impatient shove to my shoulder, a hand underarm and on my hip and Cormac and Danny lift me; before I know it I am bent across the top of the rusted gate, the air knocked out so I can’t scream, my hands scrabbling down the mesh for purchase.
I hit the ground on my side and rolling, follow Kevin down the slope and into the estate beside the school. Cormac is up and over behind me with Danny following finally, his eye on the teachers and kids in the yard as he mounts the gate with ease and drops.
I’m in a rosebush, my palms scratched in red, hissing with the sting; I’m helped to my feet and pushed into a run.
Telling myself I want to go.
Kevin is already at the mouth of the estate, there where it gurns onto main street. “Can’t you hear that?” he shouts, “It’s starting! It’s starting!”
And all the eyes are elsewhere, so no-one sees four boys breaking into run; three in wine-coloured uniforms, one boy in t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. Down the town we go— darting from door to door, stopping in the gaps between houses, making sure that no-one sees or hears us—
We cross the road by the courthouse. Zip by Promissory House. We dip behind the bus shelter, come by the back of the bank, the front of the chipper and slowly now, slow and wary we creep, by the vets, by where the beauty parlour used to be, until we reach the wall of stone by the old village pump.
On the rise behind is the forecourt of a dealership, hemmed in by a hoarding, plastic splashed in muck by wind and rain, the whole place
overshadowed by a dark and massive tree where links of unbulbed Christmas lights have long been left to hang.
Cormac and Kevin thrust out their arms to pull me up and down we crouch between second-hand cars, shuffling with crooked backs to hide beneath the sign, peeping over time to time like stalking kittens.
Here, at the crossroads, at the place called Gallow’s Hill the people are gathering.
We watch and wait.
There is the stink of petrol.
The sound of creaking knees, of grinding soles.
Pins and needles like ants on my splayed fingers.
The sky is the colour of milk, not an edge of cloud or break of sky to offer an escape; we are sealed in today, and everything close and everything breathless.
The sheltering tree is motionless overhang. Waiting and watching like we are. “Look,” says Kevin.
No need to point.
We all see.
Down the Navan road and chaperoned, two thin white shapes in slanting stagger and all the crowd turn faces towards them.
“Flowers towards the sun,” whispers Danny and when he turns back to us the sick light coats his glasses with grease.
(That’s the type of thing he says.)
The white shapes come closer, the crowd tightening closed to receive them and we see that it’s a boy and girl standing together in ill light.
Looking like something illustrated. Picked out in pen. Diagrammatic. Five or six years older than us. Secondary school.
She’s taller than him and pale— there’s something raw and unfinished about her.
She’s not beautiful, but…
And he is a fragile slip of a thing, so skinny you can count his ribs.
Both are barely half in clothes; hanging from them it bunches and stretches in awkward places, shows an arm or shin or hip. She has a scrap of grass in her hair while his is a mass of jet black curls.
“Corben Dennis,” mutters Cormac, “I know him…”
They are near the crowd now, still walking close together, still chaperoned
by dour-faced men.
“And who’s the girl?” I whisper.
But no-one has anything to say. Not one of us recognises her.
“Where are their shoes?” is a gentle question half-said to myself.
But Danny answers anyway. “They left them behind. They didn’t have time to get dressed, not completely.”
For the first time we hear the noise of the throng, two hundred forty shuffling feet, as through the crowd the father comes, bullying people out of his way, sending them stumbling along the street.
He sees his son and seems to open in a roar—is that a mouth or a cannon breach?
“He’s gone mad,” whispers Cormac, “Corben Dennis’s dad’s gone mad.” 7
I find myself giggling and Kevin picks it up like golden thread, and all four of us, crouching there between the cars, we make it rhythmic with our mouths:
“Corben Dennis’s Dad’s Gone Mad!” “Corben Dennis’s Dad’s Gone Mad!” We grin with the stupid joy of the words.
A scream snaps us out of our giddiness, shocks a chest-lurch through us, wrenches faces round and sends us scrabbling forward— Kevin and Cormac in the front and me just behind, and finally Danny, scrabbling desperate in his pockets.
Khuffffk— the sound of his inhaler.
Four boys peer above the hoarding. We’re too far away to hear words spoken. Words shouted, we hear well enough.
“Fucking!” screams Corben Dennis’s dad, striking his hip with the flat of his hand, “Found fucking!” We watch him clutch his clouds of ginger hair and stalk forwards and back, dancing his anger in electric jerks.
And we only can hear the harsh words, a staccato hail that peppers the air:
Dead light renders the spittle in his beard as points of pearl as he pulls at the belt about his waist. In artless grabbings the leather unsheaths and snakes through rungs, catching, releasing, catching again until it is free.
It is wielded, coiling lovingly tight about the wrist and forearm.
We watch as the man whips the metal clasp in an arc of sickly gold, connecting on forehead and neck and arms held up vainly to protect.
Between the curves of bonnets and wheels we watch him knock his son about the street. We see the belt connect, the punches land; we wait for the clap to cross to where we bend.
The fat man’s trousers slip an inch—he has to hold them with one hand as the other rises and falls and catches the boy a perfect cut upon his cheek.
He waddles, red faced, a tumour, a ball of gout on spindle legs.
And the scene, the sight of it, it should be ludicrous and laughable.
But no-one makes a sound. No-one dares.
Alone out of the dozens gathered to witness she is the one to open her mouth.
And maybe she says “Stop.”
Maybe she softly calls his name, “Corben… please…”
Maybe it’s just open in wordless shock, knowing that the blows could so easily fall on her.
But we’re too far away to tell.
Finally, men step out of the heart of the crowd and restrain Corben Dennis’s dad. It’s a slow, half-hearted waltz: they take his arms and fold them behind; they throw an arm around his neck, across his chest. They untwine the belt from his reddened fist.
They say something to him.
“Let us have our turn.”
His struggles fade; he nods, a hand pulled free is held up, palm outwards— Okay, okay. Enough— and he is released. We watch him draw a palm across his eyes and form it in a point, moving from boy to girl, from girl to boy.
And we hear the words he howls at them. How can we not?
“Finish it clean.”
Come a closing ring of hands: the half-clothed kids are further undressed, jerked left and right and back and forth—the last of his hanging shirt is pulled away in strips, the trousers tear the length of his leg, ankle to hip.
I fancy I hear the pop as each button on her dress comes away. Fancy I hear them hit the street and be kicked, careless, into drains. And then.
We smell it.
The bleach, brought forth in foaming buckets.
Making everything sharp and raw and urgent.
It seems to hook in our palates so deep a hundred swallowings would never shift it— it seems to strip the skin from the soft of our mouths.
We chew slivers pink and beige— it sets Kevin’s eyes watering, makes Cormac gag.
The resounding clank as buckets are set in front of the boy and girl and the look on their faces as rags and sponges are drowned, as they are squeezed to shit a bubble paste that clings and pinkens fists and arms.
We’ve all seen festivals and pageants in this town and those were bright and manufactured things, there was thought and purpose at the heart of them, but this…
This is something else. Something sudden.
“Look at their faces,” says Danny.
“No special music. No costumes…”
“It’s like they’re… falling into it.”
“It’s like they’re making it up as they go along.” “It’s just something happening.”
And quietly, I find myself saying how I feel.
“I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel right.”
The ends of my fingers I bite between teeth, feeling nothing. “I’m really…”
“I’m really scared.”
But if they hear me they make no sign or sound.
I’m never the one they need to listen to.
And the girl is cleaned by a brace of red-faced men who grin and roll up their sleeves jostling to get arm and shoulder in, while the boy is surrounded by old women who scowl and grit their teeth with the unpleasant job that needs to be done.
The girl screams as the men squeezes a fistful of bleach up between her legs—it sprays— the plap and slap as it hits the ground, it comes down cream along her thighs—
The men laugh.
And he gasps as he is delicately handled, softly moved from side to side, and dipped, decorously, in a cupful of bleach—dipped and dipped again.
He hisses with the sting.
He rolls his eyes as they shake him dry. The women scowl.
We watch the cleaning.
We watch it all.
Seems to go.
But it’s her.
I watch her the most.
The broad white of her hips and the furrow of light brown hair from belly button to the dark crease down between…
And her small breasts— shapes I’ve never seen before.
They seem to change with every angle; suddenly sharp, now suddenly smooth and round.
She struggles as the men wash her, almost breaking back and forth. They move.
Can’t take my eyes away.
And we’re all so silent.
We’re all so still.
Are they the same as me?
Are we all feeling it?
That shameful little thing.
Pressing against the fly of my trousers, throbbing a rose-coloured urgency. Hot and full.
I have to hide it with a hand.
But not to touch.
Because touching is—
Four crouching boys.
Watching over the hoarding lip.
There is a creaking grind of gravel, a mutter of stone: Danny, creeping back and away, as quietly as he can. Only I hear it; the other two remain shoulder to shoulder, watching the boy and girl get scrubbed.
I turn, crouched in half like a cornered animal, looking back over the bulk of my shoulder. Feeling the rub, the tautness of myself against the grey uniform trousers.
Danny straightens behind the cars, standing half-turned from me, and I watch as he lets his opened trousers down an inch. And there; a little pink and shell-less snail appears between his finger and thumb, a delicate puckering grub, unbudding itself in soft unravelling folds.
Slowly Danny kicks his legs apart and gently cups and cradles himself.
Languid gold in arcing, thrown at an angle.
Sputtering froth on tarmac, flecks of it spotting the curve of second-hand doors—
Danny catches my eyes as he empties, as he drains, as it spreads to wet the base of tires, to seep soundless into treads. A breath of steam comes by his face, by his lenses smeared in light.
Lip-locked. Barely there.
For me only.
Sending something between us.
The sky is milk and the tree is dark and there is no way out of this; just the world, and me and him and what passes between.
I watch him watching me as he softly puts himself away again.
It does… something… to me.
What do I feel?
What am I supposed to feel?
Danny pushes his way back down and crouches beside me. Khuffffk— is the sound of his inhaler.
I say something. Don’t remember what. It doesn’t matter.
He looks through me, out onto the street, at the scene unfolding— because the boy and girl are clean now.
“Finish it,” cries Corben Dennis’s dad. “Finish it.”
The boy lies down on the road and she is placed on top of him.
Before our eyes they convulse; they shudder once, they shudder twice. Little sudden movements— arrhythmic meat in action.
Her hair hangs down, dirty strips of cloth, heavy with wet, brushing the pitiful thinness of his chest.
She opens and closes her mouth as they jerk and we can’t hear a single thing she says.
Whether they’re words or just…
The crowd watch.
Corben Dennis’s dad, holding his mouth between finger and thumb, watches with reddened eyes.
As the boy opens a shoulder on grit.
As the girl ruins her knees on stone.
As they finish.
Left to lie together on the road.
The crowd disperses in little groups—some pale, some flushed, some laughing, some quiet.
Corben Dennis’s dad is last to leave.
I expect a kick to the body.
A spit or shout.
But he just walks away, slowly, unsteadily, leaving his boy and bloody belt behind. He stops, just once, looking back at the sprawl of limb.
We watch him from behind the hoarding.
And Danny whispers “We need to go back.”
“They’ll know we’re gone.”
We walk back to school.
No need to run. No-one looks at us.
Four boys in procession, all lost in thought.
Feeling significance settle, curling anew for each of us. Everything heightened.
Everything sharp and real and meaning more than just itself. No words pass. Petty, inadequate things.
The world’s too big.
Too big and strange.
I’m lost in it. It means too much.
At the toll house Kevin leaves us, heading home before his absence is discovered. There are tears in the tall boy’s eyes; he holds his arms across his chest. He goes in silence, the excitement of an hour ago destroyed.
We continue on to the schoolyard. We’re there before the bell for class.
On the scrap of ditch, the last of farmland, we tell the gathered school kids what we saw.
We’re popular now.
The ones who left.
The ones who saw the fucking.
Cormac’s in his element: telling them all about it, grinning with the vicarious. Telling them how the belt whipped, how the bleach ran.
How Corben Dennis’s dad went mad.
And Danny, calm and silent as always, watches their reactions with the smallest smile, nodding as they gasp and grin.
I watch him.
He catches my eye.
And what does it signify? I look away.
The bell rings for class. We go inside.
And tomorrows will always be different now.
Something opened and showed itself to me. And I wasn’t able…
I wasn’t ready.
But they made me say yes and they brought me. And we all saw something that day, didn’t we? We saw something.