I’m in a white fury. The cheek, face-timing me early to wish me a happy New Year, so I won’t bother her later. She’d rather spend it in Garibaldi’s mansion than down the GAA club. There’s rumours he’s having a band. To rub it in she was so ashamed of the sight of me in my golf gear, she wouldn’t show me to her friends to say “Hi”. Eddie had me out on the course all day, impressing his visitors.
A little whiskey warms my belly and dulls the hurt. She’s just 15, the daughter, and nothing I say impresses her. There’s a campaign for everything, and she thinks my jeep, the mighty Tourag should be swapped for a little electric car. This campaign won’t include her new i-pad though, oh no. She’s a far cry from the fluffy little thing that used think I was God and wanted to become a GAA Allstar so I’d be proud.
I take a shower, performing all the hits, Blur, Oasis, REM, class acoustics. That done, there’s no hanging around for anyone to get themselves poured into whatever they’re trying to wear. I always told Assumpta when I thought she was mutton, being honest for her sake – do you think she ever thanked me? Garibaldi probably says she’s “Magnifico” no matter what.
I’ve my bed made. No harm being prepared, for the night that’s in it. There’s no-one in particular, but there’s a bounce in my step at the thought. The last woman I had was the rebound, my daughter’s fat guitar tutor, she couldn’t believe her luck landing me, but sure it was sex wasn’t it, beggars can’t be choosers.
The club is quiet when I get there, and it’s not even that early, fucking hate that. I don’t know what other people do be doing to be so late.
I’m at the bar with a whiskey when Vicky’s son slopes across the room with her gear. Vicky, the poor widow of my good friend Sean. I don’t know why I still think of her as a poor widow all these years on, but there it is. I was on the trip to Majorca with Sean when it happened, so maybe that’s why I dwell on it.
The son’s getting big. He’ll be a decent player when he’s grown. He’s got Sean’s same determination, a dog with a bone. Though I’d say a fair bit of that came from Vicky. She’s all grit that woman, she’d clear the roads for you. She’d be out in all weathers, making sure her boy got every chance, worse than some Dads. I looked out for him too, that did him no harm either. I made sure Vicky always knew what was going on if there were street leagues or anything, things the other Rugby Moms might forget to say to her.
“Jesus, is she hunting another Rugger or what.” said Assumpta when I said she’d started him. That’s what a few of the lads said too, more in hopefulness than jest. I tried to be friendly, offering her a spin home after practise, but she never accepted. She’d be friendly alright, all smiles when you’d go up to her, but I don’t know, maybe she didn’t want the gossip mill turning. Though, she hasn’t altered the pattern since my separation. I don’t know why I’m lingering on the thought of her so much tonight.
I have a few drinks with the lads. She starts singing, the voice smooth as silk, that’d go well with Michael Stipes. I do my best to ignore her and stay cool.
I can’t help returning to that lads holiday though, with Sean. Eight of us on the holiday, and seven came back. Ironically it was mainly organised for his sake. He was burnt out minding his little family, like he had nothing else to breathe for. It’d become the norm because of Vicky’s baby blues, like he was afraid she’d crack up if he didn’t support her enough. It made him awful boring though, we wanted our buddy back.
He’d been in a huff, trying to get us to leave the strip club, saying he’d only come for some sun, and how would I feel if it was my daughter.
“It’s not my daughter” I’d told him “She’s only two, you thick. Go on home, why don’t you.”
If he had any sense he’d have ignored me, but he left. I tried to call him at 5am, loads of times, getting really worried, panicking even. He was at breakfast the next day like nothing had happened. He had his phone on him, charged and all. That really annoyed me, if he hadn’t done that, it might’ve been ok.
We hired a yacht. He was on an inflatable tied on the side, and I saw my chance for revenge. I thought it’d be funny to let him off drifting, this is thirteen years ago, don’t forget. The others were below deck playing cards.
I thought he was calling my bluff, just pretending to be asleep. If he had sat tight when he woke he’d have been fine. The coastguard figured he’d tried to swim for it, but got a massive heart attack. I didn’t tell anyone what happened, not even Assumpta. She said to me over and over “His number was up, it was his time.”
I didn’t shed a tear over it, didn’t feel guilty. It took a fair few years before I could look Vicky in the eye all the same.
The place fills up as the evening progresses, that unique New Year’s mood – the pressure to have a great night – falling on some more heavily than others. Vicky’s singing has us all moving. She drives every tapping foot and swinging hip in the place, and has a wicked grin on her, savoring it.
She takes a break, and I feel I can relax for the first time. It strikes me as odd, why I’d be uptight while she’s singing. I generally enjoy her but there’s an edge to it tonight. I wonder how the party at Garibaldi’s is going.
Vicky approaches the bar.
“How’re ye?” I venture.
“Ah there’s yourself John, how’re you going?”
“You’re sounding well,” I tell her. “I could’ve sworn we’d Beyoncé singing live there.”
She smiles, catches the barmaid’s eye, “A warm water with lemon” she says.
“Let me get you something stronger…” I say, “For old time’s sake – I’m sure your voice will thank me for a brandy –all the opera singers drink it.”
She laughs at that – “It’s far from opera I was reared… Go on sure.” she says after a hesitation. “For the night that’s in it.”
She goes back to her son with the drink and they whisper and nudge each other. They’re not looking my way, so it’s possible they’re not laughing at me.
“What’s up with you tonight?” Eddie shouts in my ear, after creeping up on me.
“There’s no need to shout!”
“You’ve a face like a wet pair of nun’s knickers all night.”
“You’d know… with the study you make of them.” That shuts him up a second.
But then he goes “It’s feckin’ Assumpta isn’t it, and Garibaldi’s new gaff? I heard they’re throwing the party to end all parties tonight.”
“The only reason it would end all parties is because he’d fucking bored everyone to death.” I snort at my joke, I’ve drank enough that most things are funny. “Anyway, I’ve my own party.”
Eddie chuckles, he’s drank enough too and we lapse into a comfortable silence, watching women and letting the night slip past. At the stroke of 12, we slap each other on the back, and watch the younger crowd’s ecstatic celebrations. I catch Vicky’s eye and hold it just a second too long, and she stares back, smiling, a bold invitation in the look.
Later there’s a dozen of us squeezed up in a corner for the lock-in. I keep buying doubles for Vicky, I don’t let her finish one but I’ve another down. I buy the boy all the bacon fries he can eat, and Lucozade. He’s buried in his phone. Everyone’s merry and saying what a great singer Vicky is.
It’s 3am and most people have left when Vicky and the boy stand to go.
“Here I’ll drive ye,” I say, “Go on, honestly, I haven’t had a drink since one, I’m grand – here seriously, you’ll never get a cab.”
She consults her phone, then looks defeated when she sees how long it’d be.
“C’mon, they never go the country till the townies are all safely tucked up – Come on look!” I shout casually, heading for the door.
They come. She sits in beside me, seeming to relax now the decision is made. The kid sits behind us, a blue glowing face and fingertips floating in black. She chats drunkenly at me as we drive, talking resolutions. It’s like I’m just a friendly cab driver. She confides she’s going full time with the music.
“Arrah sure I’ll probably be over that next week when I check the bank balance.”
She’s giddy and glowing, and I can’t blame her being on a high with how the night went. I keep trying to look at her, she’s all happy and sparkly, like she looked years ago. I feel like if I look behind Sean will be in the back, smiling away.
The road is dark and tricky with bends – I used to know it well, but haven’t had occasion to travel it lately. I’ve my full beams on, they’re glorious, like daylight and anyway the moon is full – but somehow this thick dog doesn’t cop that I’m coming and when it does it’s too late. The kid doesn’t notice but Vicky yelps on its behalf as we tha-dunk into it, and drops her handbag on the ground in front of her.
I pull over. Not for the dog – but to play the gentleman and help her find her bag. She moves her legs to one side, and I reach down there in the dark. I mess with her a bit, hold onto her leg for just a second, saying “Is this it?” – the sheer tights on her, calves taut in heels. Then I find the bag and hand it up. The son saw nothing, and it’s too dark for me to gauge her reaction, but I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.
There’s a new raised road, all scuttle-y stones lifted up beside the turlough near their house, safe from flooding. I take it handy.
We turn up their boreen, and the moonlight we had is swallowed by clouds.
The kid opens the gate, and continues walking. I go to swing in, a bit tight, and hear an almighty scrape, metal on stone.
“Jesus Vicky, what did ye leave that pillar there for?”
She doesn’t laugh, and I get a sinking feeling.
I try for nice guy. “Ah sure never mind, it’s only a 171, eh? hah”
No reply. I decide on directness.
“Can I get a coffee, I’m rather too fucked to be drinking I think, I mean driving haha– especially after that.” I back up a little and go to move the car in further.
“Ah you’re fine” she says, and then “Listen, I don’t have any coffee in the house, you might as well go on.” She gets out. I get out. Ungrateful bitch, after all I’ve done for her. I walk up behind her. The kid waits at the house.
“You go on in there son, we’ll see you at training the week, go on in.”
She turns, and puts a hand up in front of me, to wave me off. “Thanks again John, we’ll see you soon no doubt.”
“Kid,” I say “Are you fucking deaf or stupid? I said you could go in.” I want him to get to fuck away so I can talk to the woman, one adult to another, on the brink of a New Year, maybe I can convince her. Tell her how it could’ve all been different, if I’d seen her first that night she met Sean.
I take a run at the boy but he doesn’t flinch. He mirrors my run, with a ferocious head on him, eyes flashing wild in the headlights of my jeep, he roars in a voice I’ve never before heard, in all the matches he’s played. “You’d better get off our land!”
Such a line, something from a western, I almost snigger. And like that, the tension is broken, on my side anyway and I realise, look – I was being charitable. It was for old time’s sake, and if she’s still stuck on Sean, then too bad. No point making mince-meat of the kid for something I don’t even badly want. I raise my hands, like he’s the big man. His face is exactly Sean now, on that last night; anger, defiance and an annoying superiority.
“You better like the bench,” I tell him, “You’ll be seeing lots of it”
“I’m quitting anyway.” He tells my back.
I get in the jeep, open the window and shout.
“You can expect a bill for the damage.”
But they’ve already gone, she needn’t fucking think she’ll be doing any gigs in the club any time soon either.
I’ve lost all patience, I blast on the radio, some Oasis. I get the bottle from my glove box and take a long glug, fuck ‘em all, I think, Assumpta, Garibaldi, the daughter and everyone else too. I’m booting it, singing along.
“Lately, I don’t really want to know, how your garden grows” putting real venom into it. I’m just at the turlough when the jeep is pulled from under me. I’m flying. There’s a jolt, like when you wake suddenly from a dream where you’re falling because you struggled for your footing, but ten times more violent. I only hear the final collision well after it’s happened, like my ears are only catching up after. Then there’s a long silence followed by rain falling on the roof, there’s a sound of trickling water too and a hissing of something hot meeting cold.
I don’t feel bad initially, but I’m unable to move. The steering wheel is snug against my chest, and the dash kisses my knees underneath. There’s an ice-cold feeling in my feet, at least I can feel my feet, I think.
The more time goes by, the more pain introduces itself. I’m slowly starting to hurt everywhere, just in varying ways – stabbing, aching, starburst pains.
I look up, wondering if the shattered black sky will be the last thing I see.
I remember another sky, warm turquoise, that day long ago, and a new detail emerges, shaken loose in the crash maybe. The birds. Gliders with black heads. A pair of them making downwards curves with wings held steady away from round little bodies – so they looked like cartoon eyes in the sky. That’s what distracted me I suddenly remember, their floating impressions of eyes. It was mesmerising, so I stared, until they disappeared. I really would’ve shouted after Sean a lot sooner if they hadn’t distracted me, of course I would have. I can’t believe I forgot. When they were gone, he was a dot on the horizon. I shouted for Eddie straight away, and we called it in, just a few minutes too late.
The icy water reaches my knees.
I picture my funeral. My daughter, saying something brave in the church. Assumpta, fake-sobbing, propped up by Garibaldi. Vicky would sing – doing it for guilt.
“If only we’d heard the crash,” she’d tell Assumpta “and called someone, it mightn’t have been too late.”
“His number was up, it was his time.” Assumpta would say.
“He’s with Sean,” Vicky might add, regretfully.
I don’t know whether for me or Sean but tears start. Maybe for the lost years, the kid that never knew him. How proud he’d have been of him tonight. My tears join the water but do nothing to warm it. As the turlough creeps up my chest, I faintly notice a dim flash of cold light splashed on it. Maybe the moon has fallen back out of the clouds.
The pain makes my head incapable of any further coherent thought so I let go. My daughter’s beautiful face fills my head and floods me as I surrender her smile to the softening black.
Niamh Bagnell is a member of Midleton Writers’ Group and occasionally read with the illustrious Poetry Divas. She was exiled in Dublin many years ago and while there hosted a weekly writing-based show on Liffey Sound. She’s been previously published in leading Irish literary magazines the Stinging Fly magazine and Southword, as well as being featured in 2019’s From the Well review, published by Cork County Council, and twice have been a featured reader at Cork’s International Short Story Festival.