Trying to thrive in hostile places; unwanted, despised. Some are brazen, resolute in their right to be. Bursting from cracks and last year’s baskets, slithering through flowerbeds like venomous snakes. Others are timid, quietly seeding in shadowy hollows, in long grass. Hiding their delicate leaves, their pale flowers. Trying to live unseen, be unobtrusive. Trying to live.
I never tell anybody about my gift. Nobody really wants to know when they are going to die. I remember when I first happened upon it, not something I’m ever likely to forget. I was thirteen years old, a gawky schoolboy with all that entails, rebellious, playing at being a man, ready to fight with anybody, most especially my parents. I was at Heuston Station, about to catch a train to what seemed at the time like escape, three weeks of freedom in an Irish-language school in West Cork.
As I was about to board, my mother insisted on hugging me and in that moment, I could see it all vividly. The white rental car that my father was driving, the pilgrim coast road, the metal of the crash barrier giving way, a tumbling, and the wreck on the rocks below. Mammy watched my dad die, wondering if she might survive, but she didn’t.
My father’s finger nail bed, picked raw from worry, would’ve hugged the trigger of the gun. After hesitating, maybe not, the finger would’ve curled shut. The gun would’ve erupted, its bullet would’ve split his temple. No matter how long he had planned to end his life, even he couldn’t have escaped the surprise of death, which would have eventually trickled away, the deep crease of his brown unfurling, finally soft.
It had probably been a moan not a shot. A tired exhale.
This is what I thought of, in the middle of the quiet and dark hospital room, as I cradled my newborn son.
It begins with you.
Our story starts in the year 2002. You had just turned 25 years old. You were young and so beautiful (you still are) that you were often mistaken as the actress Joey Wong by passersby. It’s late September, and the leaves are starting to fall. They crunch beneath your black boots and luggage bags as you walk toward the airport terminal. The wind tangles itself through your hair and blows past your jacket. The air is cold, filled with pollution and thick smoke. You cannot see the sun.
I make myself sick three times today before running into her this evening.
The first is in the morning. Standing in front of my mirror, paralysed with indecision over what to wear. I feel this cloying need for comfort, I want to bury my body under thick layers of fabric but my jumpers are worn and old, everything tired and used up and repeated and stale. I stick three fingers down my throat and heave my morning coffee into the toilet. My day begins badly. I brush my teeth again.
I decided not to publish the book I wrote about him. I know you want me to, Eymen, but he wouldn’t forgive me for it. Not when he’s trying so hard to get better, to be better. Not when he’s cooking me eggs with the sunny side up, the yolk just the perfect consistency of a semi-ripe apricot.
He’s approaching me now, his circular, friendly belly leading the way. He’s cut up pears for us. I don’t like pears, but I take a slice anyway. I smile. “Fresh from the trees?” I ask.
As I watch children scurry by my iron gate, I recall how I started doing the same thing when I was their age, nine, maybe ten, hurrying past this same house, pumped full of Halloween sugar, ready to jump out of my skin at any unexpected sight or sound.
At thirteen I summoned up the courage to open the creaking gate – rusty even back then – and knocked on the door, my pals cowering in the shadows. Their loss. The old crone who drew it open seemed pleased to see a brave young fellow coming to call. She put out her hand and, before I could grasp it, a dove fluttered from her gnarled palm. I stumbled backward as the bird flew up the stairwell, then perched on the banister.
The club only ever had two members: Eric and me. There were plenty of other weirdos at school – techno-geeks, nerds, gamers, Goths, those who went geocaching in the woods at weekends or played the glockenspiel in the school orchestra. There were even a couple of stamp collectors and a lone plane spotter. But we agreed that although they were all outcasts in their own way, they weren’t in our league.
Eric and I started partnering up in lessons, mainly because nobody else wanted to work with us.
‘We misfits have to stick together,’ Eric said.
He lingered on the borderlands between the bar and the raucous scrum that resembled the pub proper. His was the liminal space that lay in that strange realm, watching and feigning participation. As always, he was SOBER – that dirty word. He had abstained for five years now and planned to remain that way for many years to come. He was happy with his status. The decision had been made, all that time ago, to live without a drink. His life before, one he often thought of as a strange, fever dream, was like a completely different world to him. There, he had spent the time striving toward drunkenness. His weekend had been awash with booze, often commencing on Thursday evening, forsaking the hope of Friday, and then devouring the weekend like a famished animal. Treating it like an odd hobby, rather than the destructive force that it really represented for him.
But that was years ago.