Has our awareness of the privileges we enjoy, what we call Western values, been awakened by the barbarity of the massacres in Paris and Brussels? This is not a political question but a question that should occupy the concerns of Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators. It is a question of freedom, and poets above all others are fixated with the idea of freedom. Paris, for centuries, has been the epicentre of all to which artists aspire, it is there that Western values have been exalted in their purest form, it is there that the right to artistic freedom has been cherished by so many Irish writers, forced to flee vile censorship, until comparatively recently, in the so-called ‘independent Ireland’ whose birth pangs we are expected to celebrate this year. Paris is the Mount Olympus of liberty, and as such was well identified by those to whom freedom in any form is anathema. .
It is not so long since Russian poets were murdered and tortured in the Gulag, since Anna Akhmatova, afraid to write them, for years carried the words of her great poem ‘Requiem’, in her head, or since Pasternak was granted permission to collect his Nobel prize on the condition that he would not return to his beloved Russia. Repressive regimes and medieval ideologies know well the dangers posed to their all-embracing control from the freedom demanded by artists.
Western values are not – like Marx’s master narrative – a blueprint for a perfect society, rather they recognize the imperfections endemic to the species for which there is no quick fix. Because of these flaws within Western society we can insist on exercising our rights to criticize and to satirize, to peaceful protest, to freedom of expression, the rule of a written law and the right to change our government. These rights, often hard won, are the bedrock which defines a society ever vigilant in its defence of liberty. From that bedrock thought, that questions ideology, and art, that questions everything will sprout and flourish. Once poets and artists begin to court an ideology they are at risk of compromising their artistic integrity. The broad parameters that outline Western values, handed down to us from the Greeks, are the best that poets can hope for. They are worth defending.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Preparing for Open House
Wipe the last dewy syllable from the house of words.
Clip the sentenced roses that surround the door.
Remove all dross, every dead leaf
from beneath the oak so that
what remains outside are hobbled branches,
that deceptive nude grey as they feign sleep.
Mop up remains, the crumbs of your existence,
that slice of uneaten humble pie, scoop it up
then bin it. Go on, brush, scrub. Leave nothing
in the upstairs cupboards for them to misunderstand.
It is your mess, your doing, your unstoppered
bottle of potion. Your work, after all,
to soak, mop the faulty syllables off the skin
of the house of words you have constructed —
windowpanes, doors, the cobwebbed drainpipes —
for you must be precise, leave nothing for others
when finally it is time for reading and the house
of words is opened to your guests, who will
stream in, accomplices all, despite appearances.
In the shadow of St Matthias
People would hate us,
call us callous, sacrilegious;
it’s not the done thing.
Convention, common decency,
says we should be ashamed;
this deviance that makes us
brace our living hips
against your stone.
Hot giggles sing on our out-breaths,
squirm filmy ghosts
into the unblinking night.
I don’t think you’d mind.
Sobs gush from the phone, wet
and enveloping, her throat
howled wide by them –
they trash the midnight bedroom
like drunk ghosts after closing time;
fresh sweat on my limbs
now this wash of her tears.
I sit up, take my body
away from his.
Arms grasprasp my waist, objecting
monkey, chest-slick to my spine.
The handset leaks her misery –
he laps it from my neck,
in rhythm to the aching breath
she doesn’t want to breathe anymore.
Fingers play to my left breast,
others stroking my stomach;
he goes lower.
There is a hardness growing
at the small of my back,
but also making a fist
of my free hand.
The Lighthouse in the Stars
The architect sufficiently ambitious,
the civil engineering firm undaunted.
Foundations shot-blasted, the edifice
constructed under difficult conditions.
Door sealed against the atmosphere,
staircase spiralling the inner wall.
Glass burnished to withstand the glare
of falling stars and dying galaxies.
Lamp stabbing into distant reaches,
the very definition of lux aeternae.
A light to guide ships of all classes
and cargoes: freighters, fighters,
cruisers and reivers. A light to pinion
the phosphorescence of dust and gases
and point the way through asteroid fields.
A light moving a million years later
across the night sky of what’s left
of the earth. Its purposeful strobing
joins the dots of the constellations.
Learning the Craft
for the budding poet:
pneumatic drill –
to callus the hands
and leave the ears
the soft arpeggios
of the moonlit forest
by the clamour
of concrete mixers,
of the defeated lover
by the air brakes
of heavy goods vehicles
and carlite bonding.
of a man carrying a hod
and the forklift driver
a via negativa.
Junk the notebook, kid –
all that’s for later;
there’s work to be done.
Things to Make and Do: Modern Art
to turd. Buff
next to turd
The fire has dimmed. The embers glow
like a lantern on a square-rigged ship,
though they weaken and wheeze, slowly
consumed by the intrusion of darkness.
My life has been moored to this ship
that drifts through a schematic of stars
towards the dark, cosmic heart
of the mother of light,
but I will reach that port
long before this wayward ship
and its hooded helmsmen, the blind
boatmen forever lost on the endless Styx.
It is so still, this night;
for once no wind shrieks
and rips the limbs from the trees,
and all the birds sleep in peace;
the only sound the crackle
of burning wood
without a breath of a breeze.
Then a moan from a meadow I cannot see
calls from the darkness like a desolate whale
disproving the peace of a quiet sea:
a cow in mourning
for her slaughtered calf
informs me I am not alone in loss,
that the currents of this ocean carry us all
to the same anchorage of grief.
What will the dry land of our discoveries hold
when we find it? What will we fathom there?
What treasure of our lives will we barter
to the buccaneers
throwing dice on the balance between
heaven and hell? Or are we bound
to be reborn in a new Tortuga
of plunder and murder, and why?
But the night is still and has no answer,
save the embers warming me yet
and a cow now bellowing
beyond distant swells of grass,
and the late moon rising,
full with doubloons and jewels,
and the stars falling like fillings
picked from the teeth of the moon.
(dry cough in a barren white roomscape)
a black turning
of lungs lashed from the caress of
liquid flowers of decimated shit
I/ eye of vortices
meat to caress to turn from lack or longing
(blank-ed the eye…)
subtle as a snapped neck’s whispering
of the bitten blood
semblance of dry light
and the smoke of
(pyre unto absence/
welt/ breath of silent winds
of the ruin rush ash and the wilting blood
spasm lock till claimed
(image of a sky’s black longing set to light)
kicking dust from sunk eye till break of none
silenced lest the petals birth the rot of hours
as if there never was
scattered remnants of what/
or else/if /ever/…
a bone’s closed tongue
till eye of/
locked sharp till hang-ed colourings
the flight from which unto the none
dressage of night
and the bound blight wind claiming the less and less
(lest there be)…
atrophy of the hand that gives
laughterling of silence
the hung light
oceanic as of breath’s escape
( I dreamed the…)
hollowed drowning of spun till lack
divorced the skyline’s I
of the settled distance
the upturned eye’s devoid
a graze of endings murmurings
and the absent blood
a landscape obese with night
as it lathes
blossoms of rip till knocking upon/
a foreign gaze fettered
stripped of all but the sky’s barren
flourish of a skyline’s searing/
beacon of none come to claim the I-unknown
blackened fingers trace/
clamour for the tongue to lay its exigent claim
absurd walls broken
naught for the asking of
given for the less or else
these bone(ish) cries from out of which until unclaimed
the shale’s wind chimes…)
the retraced wind
blood clot of nowhere else through which
the drag of the flesh of the I-eradicated
splendour of the
In Your Mind
A summer scifaiku shisan
ragwort hip-high –
in your mind suddenly
a poignancy of yellow
the face with five noses
a child’s picture of pollen
as a seam
unravels in the hill
cows low into dusk
a stopped watch
accumulates stale eternity
three astronauts bounce
on the tranquil bright
of an autumn moon
crickets mimicking the static
of the Milky Way
with a donkey’s throat
the bray-gun’s on full throttle
their shared pillow of down
is stained with dreams
long after him
the necklace of promises
how many meteors
fit into a blink?
what we thought of
as the void
was a mathematical lotus
meadows remembering snowmelt
retain the finish and start
John W. Sexton
A summer scifaiku junicho
no one hears the dog rose
this scent in the shadows
the scent of shadows
in folded geometries
paper airplanes reach
the upper step
from my bannister
you’ll disappear into thin air
at the evening moon
mother collects the souls
of eaten guests
how many autumns stored
in the golem of coal?
so in love the serpents
in her hair kissed him
snug and intimate
in the sentient winter coat
the ventriloquizing wardrobe
demands a new dress
the deaf ear is on
and functioning perfectly
the miners breach the anther
of a crocus
frogs deep in luck
down the wishing well
John W. Sexton
Journeys by Inland Waterway
The white enamelled bath
she steps into
is the same white enamelled bath
that’s everywhere else.
Only those who know its intricate operations
understand it to be a single
She travels often by bath.
She immerses herself,
holds her breath,
then rises up out of the water;
inhales the hot vapour
and steps up
The first time she travelled this way,
she immersed herself in a bathwater
quickly reddening with her own blood,
salting her with its flat metallic scent.
But now she travels freely
through waters not her own.
Perhaps, reclined in your bath,
you have felt a shiver
as something imposes through you;
have mistaken it for a draught and closed your eyes.
Or perhaps, wet and naked,
or newly draped in a soddening towel,
you’ve seen a blur in the steamed glass
and thought it your own.
In such an instance that is her.
John W. Sexton
The Sea Eagles Return to Lough Derg
Art is a civilized substitute for magic
Red tinged clouds stacked over the Lough,
the ruffled lake water bloody, I hold it in my eye
as I glide on thermals, telescoped below
are the rain glossed woods, the rocky bays,
small wind tossed islands. I have seen all this before
but not from above.
In another life I was the importunate poet, Aithirne;
they feared me, feared my ability, it was magical.
I could rouse both country and clans with well polished words.
King Eochaid laid on a royal spread, the boards bowed down
with hog’s heads, jugged hare, dressed pheasant
and butts of good strong wine.
Then I heard he held the best wine back.
Who better was he waiting for?
On leaving the place I named my tribute price. His eye.
The only one he possessed. He plucked it
from his face and threw the jellied mess after me,
his blood staining all the waters of the Lough.
I knew then he was more magical than me,
for his blood never dissolved, he renamed the Lough,
Dergheirc, Lake of the Bloody Eye. Sometimes I regret
those forfeit words so lightly tossed. The rest of my life
was not so charmed, I ended by being burned.
To this day the smell of singed feathers frightens me.
Now I have returned I inhabit the body of a white-tailed eagle,
I have no speech just a screeching noise that serves me well.
My cry drowns out the soft whistle of the wind,
rabbits quiver at my presence, fish in the lake
seek escape when my shadow clouds their sky
and I fly withershins above the water, counter to the sun.
The Stubble Field
A tawny fox stands exposed
in the same stubble field
that last year I walked through
as ears of wheat waved and lifted
waist-high about me. Leaving me
stranded half-woman, half swaying
wheat. He trots alert in the reaped
field that stretches hugely away,
sunlight sets the rough tufted stalks
a-sparkle, he turns flailing
at an imaginary crossroad
as if the shorn wheat still billowed
around him. He pauses, sniffs the air
adjusting to the slow accumulation of loss.
We gun the car down the empty early morning
road, tarmac not yet warmed up.
The fox with nowhere to hide shelters
in studied indifference, betrayed by the rise
of fur bristling at his neck. And I recall
pushing through the fluid wheat, ripping
sticky cobwebs from my bare knees,
unable to see my feet in the dense growth:
yet sensing something, some unease
lifting my hair at the nape. We speed by,
leaving the limitations and losses
of the landscape in the mirror
as the fox zig zags across the stippled
field and we all high tail it out of there.
She gave him texts aplenty
But it was one that stood out
Saying “I want you for intercourse…”
He was taken aback
At the mere thought of something more
And the context…
Social, sexual, or something in between
And what to reply?
Talking of ellipsis and splitting infinitives
Is not what this woman meant?
He had to think of the implications
A woman of ill repute?
A move to consider wanton afternoons
Breakfasts without Tiffany’s
And actions without restraint…
An Alice with her rabbit hole
…Perhaps opening Pandora’s Box
He who hesitates is lost…
Let me tell you a story about your life
because you are not able to know this yet
as you and she are making things up
saying, yes we can make a go of it
and then you remembering there is another woman now
and something about this can’t be right
how can you keep this other woman from her
when you are introducing her to your kids next week
I step forward then reminding you the woman on your knee
is nearly four years dead and she is suddenly stilled
and fading like the Cheshire cat
me telling you the truth of it once again
and you still not able to take it in
you tell this story to everyone you meet
though this makes it seem more like fiction
especially when she’ll be waiting for you again tonight
Pointe de Plogoff
A beetle on its back in the path,
twindling a mesh of thorny legs.
I set it right, intrigued by the casings
of its wings, their tortoiseshell sheen.
Soon upside down again, it’s done for.
I hate the thing for making me stamp
on it, reducing by exactly one
the planet’s sum of misery.
The armoured crab in the nerveless sea,
swallowtails skimming over the gorse,
the bottle-eyed cattle that stare as I pass,
hysterical gulls and ranging horses
– all hold their mite of sense within.
Trillions of us, separate
as stars, know agony and joy
and then an exit – one for each.
Sharp as a blade
Sharp as a blade
he’d slipped down the rabbit hole
and hadn’t come back the same.
Too many archetypes
vying for dominion over his kingdom,
he hadn’t learned the art
of allowing them reign one at a time.
He spoke to me in Latin
had a proclivity for Elizabethan English.
Too much Kafka
firing around his brain,
two cups of cold tea
a cone shaped joint
and he was ablaze.
Needs to learn the serious art of Zen, I muse.
‘So’I enquire ‘what’s your diagnosis’
‘don’t know, different with every nut doctor’.
I laugh, sounds normal.
There is a moment, maybe three
when lucidity prevails,
a fine cut of jaw,
in another life.
I have been in his bed by now.
‘You are Athena,’ he states
I hear it in Italian.
An exit opens,
towards it I do move,
‘give me some skin’
‘Yo, ya, ok dood’ all lingo
tossing my hair,
My last words,
Jah lives Jah loves,
softly he closes the door
softly I close the gate
step into the ordinariness of Langford street.
Reply to late rejection
Who in God’s name and I mean this do I have to blow
around here to get a poem published.
Is it you? Is it him? How can you keep someone’s work for
nine months and not publish something?
Make a decision, snap, say yes or fucking no, but nine months
and then say there’s something in all of them.
But there was no space, would there be space if my name was different
one people could recognise? How does that happen?
I can name the usual suspects of new writers appearing in the same anthologies,
these now are old voices, old words, I say it again
Who’s going to stand up, raise their hands and say, I’ll put your name down on
paper, I have the contacts, the telephone numbers.
(Or, I’m so Horny I Could Fuck W.B.)
I think my vagina is depressed.
It hangs dolefully between my thighs
Like a forgotten airplane hangar, the last flight
Long since departed, and which disappeared somewhere
Off the coast of Bermuda. O condors where are you?
My clitoris is claustrophobic.
It needs air, space… freedom!
And, as for my labia?
It has not felt its elasticity tighten
Since the birth of Magellan! I pray for its deliverance,
Each day – though being entirely faithless. Would that I
Could somehow enter some church and ruffle the down
Of some God, whose wing-like hands
Would feather thrust the fire in me, subjugate now.
“I suppose we can’t really judge the past, from our lens.”
Father Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archdiocese, on the discovery of the remains of 800 children, found in a sceptic tank in Ireland, 2014.
He used to come around once a year,
Dressed all in black from head to heel.
He was rather portly, from rich food.
And his clothes were well pressed, his shoes well polished.
Someone was clearly looking after him.
He walked, carrying an umbrella, whenever he collected the dues.
Striking a kind of Dickensian figure, with his bowler.
His briefcase, its brass shining, was full of little empty brown envelopes.
You will always remember that day when you opened the door to him,
Your parents must have been away, as you greeted him,
His gombeen face breaking into a kind of ghastly grimace,
After you told him to go and fuck himself.
You had just turned sweet sixteen.
First published in The Scum Gentry
Triumph of the Barbarians
For Arthur Broomfield
For years we remained hidden, deep within the forests,
Where even the light from the sun couldn’t penetrate.
And within these ancient shades we grew, at pace
With our own laws, never affixed to but the one tree.
One day oak, the next day elm, and so on!
It was with some curiosity then that we looked out
At you so called ‘civilised’ ones in the clearings.
With a mixture of mild amusement and complete
Contempt, we held you in our gaze for inspection.
For, you were our brothers in Soul. You were
The ones who pursued deeply held ideals, while
Simultaneously massacring one another.
How we watched you from our vantage points
With a grim view, while we polished and sharpened
Our swords and knives, biding our time for you.
Now that we are at the gates, expect no mercy!
In this, at least, ‘we’ will remain true.
After all, we have a reputation to live up to.
It felt like there might have been something
on the sofa,
in your eyes
on the sub
as our hands touched across the table,
when I felt your warm
at my back in the all night store
and the cab we poured into
ed out of,
when we kissed in the lift,
in the –conju-gated-bed where we found each other,
and the transitive goodbye where we found our selves.
The Chicken Farm
(Camp Clarke – Irish Peacekeeping Forces Head Quarters – Kosovo 2000/01)
After reveille in Camp Clark
the ground raised itself up,
moved around the ‘Chicken Farm’ camp
of guano that nearly always stank
and bred flies brave enough to attack
our eyes and hovered as if we were
the walking dead.
They assaulted in force from a cesspit trench
dug in the cold dirt outside the wire
and we were unable to eat,
arms crossed over defending our plates
against their swarming dives
while others tried to snatch morsels
from our mouths.
That day the ground lifted towards us
with a million mice, like locusts,
eating all the earth.
Michael J Whelan
Rules of Engagement
(For Peacekeeping soldiers)
You know he’s a bastard,
has done something bad,
that look in his eyes – pushing you,
mocking your inability
to exact revenge
for the people in the village
were the women weep
for the old man killed
and the young terrorised.
You can’t be there all the time
but you could do something now,
hit him, spit on him,
shoot him dead
in your head
then let him go.
It’s not your fight.
Michael J. Whelan
a modern meditation on John Clare
‘In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds.’ – John Clare
The journey through the rabbit catcher’s dingle
was without steering point, rudderless.
Crooked arms of trees palm sunlight in my old tin face
used as a bath for the odd passer by who bathes
in my lacerations milk as I wend through brier and hay
at speed, they blur with in-distinction as Turner’s figments.
The bathers leave coin of a strange magic in the roots
of my tumbledown coat; catch weed, goose grass, gorse and spray,
a daydream in night clothes of a horoscope glowering down at the soil.
I say little except my prayers on Sunday, whispered into an old straw hat
laying on the forest floor, what sustains me is here in all its sodden entirety.
Passing, I saw a marriage in the woods, a church made in a knotty hollow
held the ceremony for Don Juan and the noose necked prostitute whose name is lost
like so many in the registry of the invisible. I saw a mask that was my face
and clawed it until wounded, words were being pulled from my ears,
watchers in the thick trees deposit gravel in my thistle shoes.
The enveloping copse is my dance hall, I sing in full voice the letters of the alphabet
and murmur ships far away to the toothy machinery of the rocks.
I tilt at the wind turbines till my arms grow tired, those enchanted buzzing giants,
ugly and out of reach, translating old language into everybody, acoustics turned to marrow.
The drumming of the forest never forsakes me, the battles of countless years wraiths
plug up my eyelids with cannonballs. Who will lie with the Dead? All.
Discussing the Ethics of the Vacuum Cleaner
When hoovering, your ears plugged with silence,
over volcanoes that blow their tops with
ash, we are like Pompeii preserved beneath.
Me, moving my bovine penny loafers
and the stoney cadavers of my legs.
I can’t help think are you a killer of
thousands in our folded napkin rugs. In
the Murnau back alleys of bare skinned oat-
meal floorboards tucked in like an envelope,
I am witness to the dark ballroom waltz
of the underworld where parading mites
are dressed in their neat Sunday best, do you
destroy this threadbare civilisation
along with bread crumbs and the dog’s split ends?
I want to speak about the kestrel above the hard shoulder,
its magnified vision, its stretched out feathers,
small angels on the hunt for voles.
I want to tell you how common this sight is, the skill
of statued motion in air, how fast those wings beat,
small hearts on the side-lines.
I wonder if they hear the noise of traffic pummelling tarmac,
or if it’s a meditation for them, the regularity of one juggernaut
I want to write about the amazement of spotting a windhover
so often on journeys, their daily challenges as we too hunt
for survival, our eyes often closed.
For the way they die each day
there’s not much to be said
a new sun at dawn dances delusions
on old-town walls
where the moss still fulgent
in silent hues of hubris
they offer bread and olives
and lick your palate
with flavor of reminiscence
hands add ointment to your sores
as eyes count the steps to your throne
in a thousand rooms
curiosity, pulling on a leash
curls restless not far from window sills
and she, an immigrant in your streets
trust ambers under one heel scuffing marble
don’t lead her, don’t dream her…
you merged once on a night’s sharp turn
she lost sight in one eye
you met twice and again on a steep slope
she pick- pocketed irony from your scarred mouth
it fed her
and aged her into textured layers of strong
here she dies and here she lives
a little at a time
more than once on the same road
never at foot of stone statues
disparaged, undressed grandeur
The night’s a barren woman here
prey to cul-de sacs
subdued to hierarchical green
undressing summer to its darkest shade
no river flows between her knees
and a lethargic moon has long forgotten
flattery of its cleavage on sidewalks
those wide boulevards
where you tripped on my eyes
wet with a thousand lies
and I sank to your playground
between the litter and quiescent shame
buoy on distorted shimmer
through Oleander blossoms
in squint of an owl’s dream
Seine…a prayer once
when fingertips dipped in a dare
mastered vowels to your doorsteps
a time I wore my face revised
eyes oscillating between your many tongues
now a mere reflection in blue heron’s iris
a twisting shadow cast on rolled grass
adding curb appeal to pretense
nostalgia sticks to my skin
like a skirt riding up in sweat of suburbs
and blame settles next to apologies
sediments in a passé song
reducing summer to between the lines
and you, an ineffable relapse
A small put put put
then the moment of rush, gush,
Best thing that’s happened all day.
Ann Marie Foley.
brown and mauve
banked against winter.
Ann Marie Foley
That Sort of Lad
The three of us were in the car. Me in the back, John driving and Harry in the front seat beside him. It had that new car smell mixed with bits of cheese and onion crisps that had been squashed into the seat grooves beside me. I’d only met Harry a few days before. An English gobshite who laughed at us like he was something better. I put up with him because he was John’s cousin, and the car belonged to his father. It was a rental they’d got coming over here, him, his dad and the small brother half brother, Steven. Steven was in the boot. I could hear him banging and yelling from where I sat. Some dance shite was playing through Harry’s iPod and John stayed in fifth gear when he took the turns, the roads already wet from heavy rain all morning.
‘Lads’, I shouted as I sat forward. They’d been talking and laughing, I couldn’t hear about what over the music.
‘John,’ I said, this time giving him a good thump on the arm, the sleeve of his white hoodie pushing in to show the skinny arm underneath.
‘For fuck sake, Murphy,’
The car veered to the right as he swung his shaved head around to glare at me.
‘The young lad,’ I shouted, pointing behind me as we missed a BMW by an inch, its breaks screeching and horn blowing.
Harry fixed a grin of perfect, straight white teeth back at me, running a hand through his boyband blonde hair. I couldn’t stand the prick.
‘He’s alright,’ said Harry.
‘John,’ I said, ‘he’s roaring back there.’
I looked away from Harry and met John’s eyes in the rear view mirror instead. They narrowed to mean slits.
Harry had laughed as himself and John lifted up Steven, pushing him into the boot.
‘We just want to see if you’ll fit,’ Harry had said. I’d stood back, pulling hard on a John Player, my free hand in my tracksuit pocket. I wouldn’t have any part in it, but I didn’t try to stop them either.
Steven was only seven. I felt sorry for the young lad, he looked so happy when Harry’d first invited him along with us. Even their father, John’s uncle, raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. He didn’t give a shite anyway. Himself and John’s already half cut father were going down the pub. There were pints to be drank.
John and me had been best friends since we were only kids. We started national school on the same day, John crying as his mother left him. I was the only kid who went over to him. And then Mrs. Glynn, our teacher, said we were to be class buddies and put me sitting beside him. John’s skinny legs got kicked black and blue by the older boys in senior infants and first class every lunch time for two days. He was just that sort of lad. He bawled crying every time but never told on them. I liked that about him. On the third day before they got to him I went and punched one of them, the biggest lad, right in the face. I hit him so hard that I heard a crunching noise when my small brown fist made contact with his big pigeon nose. My parents were called in and they roared at me all the way home. I thought my father was going to belt me rightly then. And he would have too only for Kylie, my little sister, screaming at him not to. Kylie is two years younger than me, born with Down’s Syndrome. She is always sick with chest infections or something, and my dad can never refuse her anything. She told him I was her best friend and he wasn’t to give out to her best friend. Then she squashed me into a hug. She was fairly strong for a three year old back then. Stronger now but still that three year old.
Since that day John and me were friends for life.
We played hurling together too since we were seven years old. I was midfield because I ran faster than a greyhound, so Mr. Roche said anyway. But it was true that once I got my hurl on that ball there was no stopping me. John never once made the team. Not when we played under tens, under twelves, then under fourteens and he hadn’t a hope in hell for the minors now. John was small and looked like a breeze would knock him over, he’d looked like that since he was five. Even as all us lads got lanky and taller John never did. He always looked way younger than the rest of us. But that wasn’t why he never made the team. It was because he was afraid of a tackle and afraid of the ball. I still played midfield now in the minors, I’d see John on the bench, slouching back like he wasn’t bothered about any of it. I knew he was and could never figure out why he bothered playing at all when every time he was just left in the dugouts like an ejit. He went to every training session, even if it was pissing down John was still there. You’d have to give him credit for that.
It was the same way at discos, when we used to go to the No Name clubs, he’d sit or stand around, somewhere near me. Might chat to one or two other lads. But never said a word to any of the girls. I was thirteen when I got my first hand job. Lucy Sullivan, she did half the lads in my year. I’d say she even would have gone off with John if I asked her to. But I knew he’d freak out. I don’t think he’s ever been with a girl. Ever. And now we look old enough that we get into the pubs in town, well I do, John sneaks in behind me, and usually the nightclubs too, depending if the Gards have been around. The girls in there are seriously fucking up for it. And not just the ones from our school either. But John doesn’t even speak to them. Neither of our parents say much about us falling in pissed a few nights a week. Mine because they are usually busy with the latest Kylie problem and they just don’t want the hassle with me. And once I keep hurling they won’t say much anyway. My dad was a big hurler in his day and they think I’ll make county this year, if I don’t fuck up. John’s parents don’t say anything about him out drinking because they don’t give a flying fuck what he does. No nicer way to put it.
‘I said he’s alright,’ Harry said now from the front of the car. The flashy white smile was gone from him this time. John wasn’t John with Harry around. Last summer that prick was here too, but I’d been forced into a week at the Gealtacht so I never met him then. My mother had been on some mission that I wasn’t to waste the summer sitting around doing nothing at home, so I went to the arse end of Connemara and did nothing there instead. But I saw how John was different when I got back. Like he thought he was hard stuff. It soon wore off though when we started back to school in September. John was smart but he hated school, mostly because he was afraid of half the people in it. If it wasn’t for us being friends I didn’t think he’d speak to anyone at all. The other lads in our year, my other friends, they only tolerated him because he was where I was. And they knew I’d flatten them one if they started on him.
I sat back in the seat, pulled the sleeves of my hoodie down over my hands. John’s chin was pushed out, he could hardly see over the steering wheel. If the Gards stopped us we’d be fucked. Harry’s big English head was jerking back and forth. I’d the urge to smash his face out through the windshield. The vibrations of the music were bouncing and fizzing through the seat under me and through the soles of my converse. It was only a Kia, but it drove fast with John’s foot pushing the peddle right to the ground.
‘Let him out,’ I shouted to John in the front of the car.
‘What the fuck is wrong with him, John? Is he a fucking pussy? Want a go at little Stevie is it?’
I felt my fists tighten as the prick made kissing noises back at me. John’s face pleaded with me in the mirror. He knew I wouldn’t take much more. He slammed on the brakes, made a hard turn into the side of the road. I was nearly smashed against the door of the car, the two heads in front flopping to the side. We were barely in off the yellow line. John turned off the engine, pulling the keys out as he opened the car door, storming out, his head dropped looking at nothing but the wet road.
‘Tell me you’re not listening to that soft twat? John, come on, you prick. We’re only having a laugh. He’s fine.’
I got out of the car and followed John around the back, the cold air outside hitting me hard. The shouts from the boot were as clear as day now. Harry stood out from the car, the passenger door slammed shut behind him.
‘Jesus John, this guy your fucking wife or something? You always do what he says?’
I could see John’s face twitch. He was clenching his jaw, a habit he’d done all his life, right before he changed his mind about something. I grabbed the keys off him.
‘That little shit is going to annoy the crap out of me all the way back. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Paddies.’
I pressed the button on the zapper, the boot clicked and I lifted it up. I expected Steven to jump out, happy he’d been rescued. Instead he just stared at me wide eyed, pushing himself back further in the boot. His face was wet and red from crying. I smelled the piss before I saw the dark patch running down between his legs.
‘It’s ok, Steven, come on. You can sit with me in the back,’ I said.
John stood there saying nothing, eating his fingernails. Another habit he had. He’d done the same thing that very first day of school, then and every single time the team was named before a match.
The dark shadow of Harry approaching killed the bit of sun on the back of my neck. The cars whizzed by us, every one making my ears buzz.
‘Oh my lordy.’
Harry leaned into the boot beside me. I tried to push him away with my elbow but he had a good two stone on me.
‘Oh little baby Stevie pissed his pants.’
Harry roared laughing, his hand over his mouth, the other reaching back to John’s shoulder behind us. John had lit a cigarette. I smelled it before I saw it.
‘Looky here, Johnny boy. See what the little rat has done.’
Harry pulled John up to the boot, John turned his head away, pulled on the cigarette burning between his thumb and finger. In fairness to him, John was embarrassed for the lad. Not that he’d the balls to do anything about it. I felt the wind to my right as another car shot by.
‘Fuck off, Harry,’ I said as I leaned in and took hold of Steven’s arm, as thin as John’s was under the white hoodie.
‘It’s alright, Steven,’ I said as Harry kept on laughing. I was surprised how rigid Steven was, how reluctant he was to let me help him out. He shot a terrified look at Harry.
‘You’ll sit with me in the back,’ I said.
‘Oh watch out now Stevie baby, looks like Paddy Irish here wants to fiddle with your bits in the back seat.’
Steven was wide eyed, pulled his arm away from me.
‘You sick fuck,’ I said as I stood up straight turning to Harry. Anger was racing through me. My back was to the road, and I felt the whiz of a lorry go by inches away from me. Harry spoke but all I could see was his white teeth flashing, his words lost over the noise of the lorry’s engine.
‘What did you say?’ I said, moving in closer. Every bit of me was ready to pounce. There was barely a foot between us.
John stepped nearer, as if he might fill the space, stop whatever was going to happen. But I knew better, John was always terrified of a fight.
‘I said, you are a fucking child molesting wanker. Want little Stevie to sit on your dick?’
Before I could pull my arm back to punch him with full force, I felt the crippling pain of his clenched fist in my gut. I stumbled back. It felt like I’d been hit with a sledge hammer. My kidneys, my intestines, my stomach knocked back out through my back. I doubled over, yelling out before I could stop myself from showing him he’d hurt me. The pain was making me dizzy. When I looked up I saw Harry’s mean scowl change in slow motion as his face fell to horror. Beside him John rushed towards me. I tried to speak, tell him I was alright, but the breath had been knocked out of me. From the open boot I saw the small ginger head of Steven peering out, his mouth hanging open. Then I felt John grab my arm, pulling me then pushing me down, knocking me to the ground right by Harry’s giant Nike runners. In those seconds I hated John. Hated him so much that I thought this is it, I’m done with him. How could he take that prick’s side? Knock me to the ground after all the years we’d been best mates? All the years I’d fought for him? I thought that next time someone looks at him funny, makes jokes about him, I’ll join in, I’ll stand there laugh at him with them.
I looked up from the ground, ready to fight both of them now, angrier then I’d ever been. But then I saw Harry’s giant hands flying up to his face. I jerked around to the road, not registering the stones and dirt that cut through my palms as I did, only hearing the sharp screech of brakes. John stood on the road from where he’d pushed me. He was looking at me, his eyes wide. The same way he’d looked at me a thousand times before something bad was about to happen to him. His lips parted, as if he was about to say something, his hand moving out to where I was.
Then smash. Thud. The sound of four thousand pounds of metal slamming into John’s small one hundred and thirty pounds of flesh and bone. John’s eyes never left mine, not until his head was flicked back, and he flew twenty foot in the air. Arms and legs spread wide, he was like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He landed thirty feet up the road. The car’s tyres burned black skid marks on the road, its engine still running as the driver stumbled out. A fat bald man with his hands covering his mouth. Then he bent over and vomited. A small white lump lay in the road up ahead. All I could think was John will be raging if he gets dirt on that hoodie or worse, blood. Blood would never wash out of that white.
I was deaf with the high pitched screaming behind me. I sat up, turned around to tell Steven to shut up. But Steven was still sitting in the boot, silent, his mouth hanging open like he’d no jaw at all. Harry’s large hand was suddenly on my shoulder. I looked at it, so strange to see it there, heavy and warm, the big gold signet ring glinting in what bit of sun there was. I wanted to push him away from me, but I couldn’t move, as if I was glued to the ground. Then I felt Harry’s hands under my arms and he lifted me up to my feet. He tried to pull me into him, some weird sort of hug, but I struggled, turning with his arms still around me to watch the white blur of John up ahead, waiting for him to move. Harry was mumbling something, I felt it through my back as he held me to his chest, his face behind my head, his breath on my neck. He was telling me to stop screaming. I wanted to push him away from me, I needed to tell John to get up off the road. A new noise started, the man from the car with vomit on his shirt talking into his phone, crying like a girl. I gave Harry one last push with my elbows and somehow I managed to get out of his strong hold. And I thought wouldn’t he make a great full back, there’d be no getting through him.
Ignoring the voice shouting after me, I forced my legs to run or something like a run, to where John lay. It felt like forever, the ground pounding beneath my feet. I tried not to think of how I hated John in that minute before the car hit him.
‘John get up,’ I roared at him.
But John’s white hoodie was seeping up blood.