The Befriender

The Befriender.

 

Daniel was browned off, and rightly so. Here he was, at almost twenty years old, being manipulated by his mother. True, he had reason to be grateful: she could’ve gone to the gardai, and she didn’t. God knows, it had never made much difference before. He smiled as he remembered their neighbour, Sergeant Larry Byrne, coming down to have a ‘friendly chat’ with him, which amounted to ‘ah son, you don’t want to be hanging around with those hooligans now, do you?’ His words had seemed hollow from a man who had an extensive collection of pirated DVDs, confiscated from the Sunday morning Clara market.

I don’t know how she found out anyway, he thought as he pulled on his bootleg cut dark blue Jack-and-Jones jeans. That’s the problem with living somewhere as small as Clara: everyone knew everyone else’s business. He couldn’t even remember where he’d heard that his fourteen year old neighbour Tina Cullen was pregnant, or that Robbie Mills from The Green got done for growing weed in his room. The cornerstones of any tight-knit community, he thought with a pursed smile: sex and drugs. Minus the rock and roll though; there was rarely anything exciting going on. If he could afford it, he’d be out getting mouldy in the Bridge House in Tullamore every weekend. And he certainly wouldn’t be living with his mother.

‘Get down here now!’ came the irritable shout. Daniel lit a cigarette as he sauntered down the stairs, trudging down step by step. He’d hoped she’d calmed down by now. Like everyone in this one-horse town, he thought, all Sandra Reilly cared about was her reputation. Not that it was all that good to begin with: as long as he could remember, Sandra had always been a bit of a player. Daniel would often be left to have awkward morning after conversations, sometimes with strange men, other times with men he knew. The time he had to sit across the breakfast table from his German teacher, Mr O’Toole, was particularly traumatising.

‘What?’ he sulked as he slinked into the kitchen, blowing out smoke.

‘I’ve worked out your punishment,’ Sandra said with a knowing wink. On the table lay a Christmas table centrepiece, comprising of a log with some holly, mistletoe and other greenery stuck into it. ‘You’re going to take this to Mrs. O’Shea down the road.  She has some jobs that need doing. She’s been ever so lonely since that husband of hers died last year.’

‘You can piss off with yourself,’ he retorted, stubbing out his cigarette on the brown ashtray.

‘Fine,’ shrugged Sandra, picking up the phone. ‘I’ll just call the guards then and tell them that I know who broke into Mags Kennedy’s last night, will I? Because I am warning you son, I am this close to washing my hands of you. I won’t have the pigs on my doorstep every night.’

Daniel opened his mouth to say something, then slammed it shut, like a fish. ‘I’ll drop it into her, but then I’m going into town. It’s the twelve pubs tonight. We’re hitting Tullamore.’ He picked up the centrepiece, his wallet and his phone. ‘See you later, ma.’

‘Don’t bother. You’re not coming back until you stop treating this house like a doss house,’ Sandra screeched after him. ‘And don’t think Tom O’Connor is welcome here, neither.’

Now that he was out in the air, he could think more clearly about what he was going to do about his grim financial situation. He hated going to the job club, listening to that Barbara prattle on about interview techniques. He hadn’t heard back from any of the jobs he’d applied for, not even the packing job in Carroll’s meat factory, and the mere thought of sitting at a desk studying all day turned his brain to sludge. All he wanted to do now was throw in this centrepiece and go into town and get locked.

Mrs. O’Shea’s front garden was a tropical jungle of overgrown weeds. She was perceived to be like a modern day Mrs Dubose: cranky and slightly deranged. She hadn’t always been like that: Daniel still remembered how she used to visit his mam every Friday with a homemade apple tart in hand, how the pair of them used to hang out at his front pillar gossiping, how her garden once featured in the garden section of the Midland Tribune. He tentatively stepped over a pile of broken glass before ringing the doorbell, which he couldn’t hear echoing in her hallway.

He knocked loudly on the door, then, sensing an opportunity, cleared some of the decaying greenery from Mrs. O’Shea’s step with his dirty Nike runners and placed the centrepiece down. As he was straightening up, the front door rattled. For fuck’s sake, thought Daniel. No escape now.

‘Linda?’ said a fragile voice. Daniel tried to hide his shock. Mrs O’Shea had once been a stout woman, but now she was angular; her elbow bones almost ripped through her skin, her neck was sagging. Her chest was shapeless in her green and maroon cardigan. ‘Who are you?’

‘It’s Daniel, Mrs O’Shea. You know, Sandra’s boy? She just wanted me to drop…’

‘Come in, come in,’ interrupted Mrs O’Shea, ushering him inside. The hallway smelled musty; the once blue-papered hallway was now yellowed from years of tobacco smoke. There was a faint smell of urine, not fresh. ‘I thought you were Linda, you know,  my befriender? She comes every Wednesday. Lovely girl.’ She fumbled with a cigarette. ‘Excuse the mess. I don’t get visitors often.’

Daniel’s eyes wandered around the unkempt sitting room and noticed a small three foot Christmas tree in the corner, covered primarily in gold tinsel and the odd bauble. He predicted correctly, before he looked up, that there would be a gaudy foil decoration, brightly coloured, stretched from one end of the ceiling to the other. Even though he wasn’t there five minutes, it frightened him how desensitised he was already becoming to the smell, the gloom, the squalor.

‘I just wanted to drop this off,’ he tried again, handing over the centrepiece. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you… in fact, I…’ He turned to the front door, adjusting his coat.

‘Actually, son,’ Mrs. O’Shea interjected, ‘there’s a light bulb in the kitchen that needs changing. Could you…please? I’ve been sitting in the dark for the last few nights. The spare bulbs are in the press over there.’ She pointed at a brown chipboard press above the kitchen counter, under which rested an enormous empty wine bottle, almost filled to the top with coins and notes.

Daniel nodded and retrieved the bulb, trying to stop himself from gagging with the smell. It smelled like decaying food, human excrement and dried sweat, all at once. Mrs. O’Shea flicked the switch on the kettle and took out two greasy looking cups from the press.

‘Do you take tea?’

‘No thanks,’ Daniel said, flicking the light switch. ‘There, that’s working now.’ He pushed the chair back under the table, pretending that it made the kitchen neater.

‘A cigarette at least? Don’t think that I don’t know what you young lads get up to!’ She wagged her finger at him. ‘Just till Linda comes, please. There’s been no-one here all day.’

‘Where’s your daughter?’ Daniel asked. He wished he hadn’t accepted the cigarette; he could taste the smell of the kitchen when he inhaled. He remembered Lucy from old: she used to babysit him on a Thursday night while his mother was in White’s. She had always been a bit of a suck-up; in fact, she stopped babysitting Daniel because she was convinced he was ‘the spawn of the devil.’

Mrs. O’Shea clinked the teaspoon loudly as she stirred the tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, and then a pause. ‘She doesn’t come to visit me anymore.’

Daniel smelled a rat. ‘What do you mean, she doesn’t visit anymore? I thought she only lived on the Arden Road?’

‘She does.’

‘Then how come? Because obviously, you could use…’ He stopped himself and took a sip out of his tea. He hadn’t seen the woman in years, he had no right to comment on her living conditions.

Mrs O’Shea lit a cigarette, letting out a braying cough as she did. ‘It’s not her fault,’ she said, gazing out the window. ‘It’s mine. I treated her badly… I…’ Another cough, hacking this time. ‘I didn’t mean to…I don’t know what got into me. But the bills, they just piled up so suddenly and, well… I figured she owed me, you know? She moved off to live in her swanky house in Tullamore and I couldn’t afford to… so…’ She shrugged.

‘Oh right,’ said Daniel. He didn’t know what else to say.

‘That’s what that bottle is for, you know. I will pay her back one day before I die, if it kills me. I haven’t bought oil in an age, but this cardigan does just as well. And my stomach can’t handle much more than toast now anyway.’ Another cough. ‘I don’t go around thinking the world owes me something.’ Daniel straightened immediately. Was this a dig at him?

His phone vibrated in his pocket: a message from Vinnie. He and Tom couldn’t afford to go drinking in Tullamore, after all. Or as Vinnie so eloquently put it, ‘we’re fucking broke.’

‘Anyway, I really must head on, so…’ He stood up and ambled towards the hall.

Mrs O’Shea grabbed his arm with her cold, bony hand. ‘Thank you for calling in to see me today. It was so good to have a young’un to talk to.’ When she released it, his arm still tingled. ‘I know I’ve no right to ask, but I don’t suppose you’d call in sometime over Christmas, you and your ma? I’ve lovely mince pies in the freezer.’

‘Of course.’ He moved up the hallway, anxious to embrace the cleanness of the cold December air.

He walked briskly towards the Green, lighting a cigarette mid-walk. When he was a safe distance from Mrs O’Shea’s, he whipped the phone out of his pocket and, holding the cigarette in between his thick lips, smiled as he texted Vinnie back:

‘I know where you can get the money. Meet at mine in ten minutes.’

It’s only fair, he thought. An eye for an eye.

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