There is a huge disembodied thumb and it’s pressing down on my chest. I’m pinned. I open my eyes and stare at a crack in the ceiling.
Big Joe is singing in his sleep, a tuneless whistling kind of snore-song. He is so big the spindly bed looks about to collapse. I find I can move my head from left to right, left to right and wriggle my toes. Some fella in the corner tells me to kindly shut the fuck up as I hum along to Big Joe’s tune. I think it’s the new guy who came in last night: the ruddy farmer who bellowed like a bull and had wads of cash stuffed in his socks. There are eight beds in this prefab, and it is narrow and low. Under the nylon sheets I am cold and clammy. In case we piss ourselves, there is a plastic under-sheet. February in Ireland on the outskirts of a small town shit-hole and it is raining. I can hear the steady drone on the tin roof. The man above hasn’t stopped piddling down since I arrived here three weeks ago. He’s having a laugh, and drowning us.
There are nuns here. They lead the group meetings and the rosary which is said three times a day. I’d rather a screw any day – I mean a prison warden – that kind of screw. A statue of the Virgin Mary sits high on a shelf in the corner of every room, where a wide- screen TV should be, and she is smirking down her nose at the men with their tattoos and swagger. I want to smash her smiling face in.
I am sober now and I have the shakes, the sweats, the colds, the hots, the hard-ons. The tremors, the deliriums, the tremens, the demons, the scratching, the snakes slithering and biting. Seriously, this place, the dried-up auld bodies in their habits swishing along the halls, the lack of alcoholic anaesthesia, the round yellow pills with TV44 scratched into them, all make my pecker stand on end. The little bastard won’t lie down. I swear those old crones know what they’re doing. I swear it is their revenge on the male sex. It hurts like hell.
I’m going to start throwing the pills away. There are tiny yellow faces hiding in every fake palm plant.
I swing my swollen purple feet out of the bed and sit at the edge, clinging on to the plastic. I can move. The cold lino is sweating and sighing beneath the soles of my bare feet. I need to get to the tap on the other side of the prefab and splash water on my face. I sway and stumble, and the farmer dude shouts some more. Big Joe doesn’t stop whistling, even when I crash into the bottom of his bed and curse loudly. I bruise easily these days.
In the gloom I make out the fluorescent green liquid in the dispenser by the tap. Kryptonite. It smells sharp and burns a hole in the back of my throat. I fan my pyjama top out behind me like a cape and punch the air. The stingy soap makes my hands tingle and go bright red. I cover my face in it anyway and splash it with icy water. My ugly mug scowls back at me in the chipped mirror – raw, red now, and old so fucking old. Last time I counted I was eighteen. I already have that bloated stupid face the old man had. Will I end up in the canal, before I’m forty? I cover myself in the green jelly again and I am the Incredible Hulk. I pretend to burst muscles and roar silently.
Reflected in the mirror I see a shape sitting up in bed. I can feel rather than see his black pointed needles-for-pupils jabbing into me. It is the Bull, and he isn’t bellowing now. He’s laughing; a kind of high pitched girly giggle and it is shrill and sharp and stabs me with its edges. The fucker has that kind of leering swollen face, stupid and mean, that kind of face that I know. I breathe in and out, right down to the tips of my toes, like that lady councillor taught me, the one with the lovely smile and the carefully-cared for hair. She told me when I felt like this, out of body, out of mind, to breathe and the world will centre itself. Breathing in crisp cool clean air, breathing out any tension, any anger, any malice. I breathe and I breathe and I feel like I’m working myself up into a fiery dragon-like rage. My breath is coming hot and fast now and short and shallow. Maybe if I hold my breath long enough I will float away. I count down from one hundred, my cheeks puffed out like one of those puffer fish fellas, and I know that underneath the green slime I am bright red. I hope I bust a gut, I hope I implode, or explode right here right now.
Instead, I find I have to breathe out. My body has betrayed me once again. It is a stupid, weak thing, over which I have no control. I have no control. None. The Bull in the Bed is still staring and I stalk over to him and punch the air above his head, and he cowers. He is a coward. I despise cowards. I despise that part of me that used to piss myself under the couch, instead of donning my cape and flying to her rescue. I look at the statue of Our Lady and I see her mild face and it isn’t mocking me now. She reaches out a hand and she smooth’s down my cow’s lick, and she rests her hand on my head. I close my eyes. I am blessed. When I open them again, the Bull has burrowed deep under his thin yellowing blanket, and I think I hear him pray. He doesn’t have violence in him, and something warm and fluffy and calm burrows inside my brain. My brain is a warren-hole.
A trickle of light leaks in through the gap at the bottom of the brown frayed curtains. The trickle starts to flow until it pours, and I pull back the curtains and welcome the flood of sunshine that forces my tired eyes to open wide. The rest of the men turn their backs to the sun. It is too bright, too exposing. I blink fast and feel like my blinking is the lens of a camera trapping the light. I’ve always wanted a camera. The lady with the lovely hair encourages us to make art. I have been making pottery: pots and vases and houses. I am shit at art. I got a D-minus in school last year. Mr O’Callaghan delighted in his minuses, to add to the shame. But I am sure my eyes can see things other people don’t see. Yes. I’ll ask the lady for a camera, even a crappy throw-away one. I’ve never owned a camera. I think I might be good at it, capturing moments.
I stand at the streaked window and look out at the mangy vegetable patch, and the playing pitch. Today is visitor’s day, and no one will come. This is the first day I have seen the view, it is the first day the rain hasn’t covered us in a wet blanket of grey. They grow their own veggies here. I’ve only ever had baked beans and frozen peas. Carrots make me want to puke. Rabbits eat them. And the heads of broccoli look like shrunken bunny’s brains, green from too much grass. There are chickens in the coop behind the vegetable patch. Stringy, skinny little fellas and I decide that today I will go and feed them, and maybe I’ll kick a football around the pitch, although it is utterly pointless. The lady councillor said that was exactly the point. There is no point. It is about having fun, she said, I don’t think you know how to do that. Just have fun. She says funny things like “Just be,” and “You are OK exactly as you are. You are loved.” I gag.
“I love you,” the old man would say. “I’m only doing this because I love you so much.”
I rub my stinging face with a brown towel. I wonder why they want to surround us with so much of the colour shit. It’s probably because it hides the dirt, and I look at the towel and see maggot-like germs crawling all over it. Iridescent and hopping. I know this is not real. A great whopping monster of an imagination. I have been told it’s a good thing. It means I am “creative,” apparently. They keep trying to make me put a pen to the page. To put order to the chaos, to let the chaos flow, to make words. I have never been able to make sense of words. Numbers make sense; they line up or down and move in straight lines. Words jump about too much. There are books here and I can’t make head or tail of them. What is the point? To relax, she says, to escape, to maybe see a part of yourself in someone else. That can be a relief, she says, and I know what she means, kind-of, because when Big Joe spoke yesterday about his da, I felt it too. I can’t say it but I can feel it.
The bells of the Angelus ring. It is time for morning meditation. I decide to dress carefully and to try to listen today. I find it very hard to hear what other people are saying, my mind whirs about like a jumbled-up washing machine, which is why they tell us to meditate, or medicate as Big Joe calls it. My mind gets louder in the silence and the sitting. I need to move and be surrounded by noise. I am more comfortable with shouting, than silence. This I something I need to un-learn apparently. It seems like everything I’ve lived with so far is wrong. It is wrong to feel angry all the time, to feel jumpy, to feel like you want to punch a hole in the face of the world. Although, the word wrong is wrong too it seems. The word is acceptance. And love.
I am the first today, and I kneel with all the crones in the big cold hall, and I look at Our Lady and think that’s what Ma looked like, before she met him. The room slowly piles up with half-sleeping men, who as soon as they are settled on their knees sleep again. Soon it is filled with the sound of shallow breathing and whistling. Big Joe is swaying in his sleep. He is twenty-five and looks about fifty. A fifty year old Womble, and I look around me at all the other wet-brained Muppets and I choke on a chuckle. A nun narrows her eyes at me and says, Shuuuuuuuush, and her fat lips look like two wet worms, and I laugh even louder.
“Leave,” she spits, “and say ten Hail Marys.”
I go to the canteen and have a cup of gloopy rancid coffee. There is a yellow piss-like stain covering half the wall. My stomach feels like its lined in acid, and I want to throw up. My shin is throbbing, where I hit it against Big Joe’s bed. I roll up my trousers and see a shiner, and I am reminded of the women in my house, all pretty in purple. I run my hand over the pink-red swelling and press down on it hard. A nun comes in and tells me I have a visitor.
“Your sister has come to see you,” she says.
I wonder why my sister would come to see me. I wouldn’t, if I was her and she was me.
My sister is twenty, exactly one and a half years older than me. She has big blue eyes and tiny fluttery hands. Dommo and Neill both fancy her and tell me they’d “do” her. I tell them I’d murder them first. I wonder will either of those assholes come see me here. I doubt it. So much for The Three Musketeers. Stick a fork in me I’m done fellas. This time I’m really done. Overdone, cooked, done-in.
My sister’s name is Beth. I don’t know anyone else called Beth. Da told me it was Ma that called her that stupid name, and because he loved her so much he let her. He told me that it was himself that called me Kev, after his da. I never knew Kev Senior but Da spoke of him often with watering eyes. I was Da’s favourite. He never hit me, and he gave me money on the sly. He told me all his secrets when he came in stinking from the pub, and he was in a soft gooey mood. He’d wake me up in my bed and say “Son, I’d like to tell you all about how hard it is to be a man,” and he’d launch right into it. He’d hug me hard to him afterwards, and wet my hair with his tears.
So, today is the 17th February 2013. It means nothing to me, although the nuns are fond of telling us the date, the time, the place. They ask me when my birthday is… I don’t remember when my sister’s is either. I don’t think I have ever given her a card. Today I will ask her when her birthday is, and I will write it down. I forget everything, until sometimes I remember snippets now I’m sober, and I want to forget again. I feel some kind of extra whirling in my stomach. They are teaching us to “name” our feelings in here. Anxious, is one word for it, angry another and apparently – vulnerable, although I don’t really know what that means. I try it out. I feel vulnerable, and I don’t like it. It makes me feel small, so I settle for anxious.
“What about happy?” the lady asked me one day.
I see my sister through the round window of the waiting-room. She is wearing a blue dress with black tights, and is sitting on the edge of a plastic orange chair, ready to fly away. She looks like a tiny blue bird.
“Hi Bro,” she says, when I’m through the door.
“You look lovely.”
“Wish I could say the same for you! Jesus, look at the state of you; all skin and bone. What do they feed you in this place?”
“You’ve never eaten a carrot in your life.”
“Nope, and I’m not about to start,” I say imitating a rabbit with my two front teeth, and hands for paws.
She laughs, and looks at the ground.
“How’s Ma?” I ask
“Ah ye know. The same. She doesn’t notice much these days.”
And I think she hasn’t even asked about me, has forgotten all about me.
“I think she misses Da,” she says.
And I think that’s right; there never was any room for anyone else. That hulking baby took all of her. I look at my sister and I can see something reflected in her eyes. That something in her eyes says “I’m not here, not really.” She kind of floats and disappears all at the same time, like a wisp. She has always possessed the special Power of Vanishing. I want to wrap my arms around her and say “I’m Sorry,” instead I pretend to be a rabbit again, and I say I don’t want to turn into Bugs, so I ask her,“Would you go out and buy me a six-pack of Tayto?”
That way by the time she comes back visiting time will be over.
And I fancy a pack of Tayto, I really do.
I notice that her right eye is twitching and there is a raised scar close to the baby blue, and I am back there in the kitchen and I AM HIM. I push her against the wall and punch a hole in the thin chipboard, and graze that eye.
I think she got in my way, or something.
My stomach heaves. It has shrunk and I can feel my ribs sticking through my checked shirt.
“Are they good to you in here?” she asks.
“Apart from force-feeding me carrots and broccoli, yeah!”
“Good, that’s good. Glad to hear it…Right, I’ll be off now. Crisps, anything else? Fags?”
“I can get fags in the shop on site here, just not Tayto.”
“Ok” she says and turns to go. I know that when she comes back there will be no time left, and so I say to her back,
“When is your birthday Sis?”
She turns towards me, and she looks like all the air has been sucked out of her, like vapour, as if she might evaporate, and I wonder will she come back.
And I think ok, that means my sister’s birthday is the 16th February. I take out my pen and notebook and scribble the date. I can do that. I can write numbers and names.
“I knew that! Happy Birthday Sis. Hang on a second.”
I run to the recreation room and I take the clay model of a house I’ve been building. It’s wonky and tiny, and looks like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. I even put little blobs of clay for sweets all over it.
“This is for you.”
She says “Thank you” all formal and polite, and I think she is holding her breath, her shoulders are up around her ears and her face is going red. She does it too, I think, and I imagine her counting down from one hundred.
Lisa Harding came second in the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Short Story Competition 2013 and is currently completing the M.Phil in creative writing at TCD. She is an experienced actress, and has written plays for the stage including STARVING at Theatre503, AND ALL BECAUSE at BAC (as part of the National Theatre’s festival of new writing: Connect Four), PLAYGROUND at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play OVERSPILL, for which she was awarded an arts council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. She is also writing her first collection of short stories.