Short Story: On the Edge

The pale pink light gave the room a heavenly glow. Siobhan lay in silence, watching the cavity of her chest rise, then fall, then rise again. The dripping noise from outside her window had stopped; the rain must have finally subsided. It had kept her awake most of the night, which meant that she was not jolted from the security of darkness to give Aoife her night feed. Michael was supposed to be on duty tonight, but Siobhan had supposed that there was no point in waking him up. He’d have only been cranky, and God knows there’d been enough bloody rows between them in the last few weeks to last a lifetime.

‘You’re crazy, woman,’ he’d said to her at the peak of yet another row where she had threatened to leave for good. She’d even had her cabin-sized wheelie packed beside her, although she wasn’t sure what she had put into it. The decision to leave had been, as in times previous, a spur of the moment one, made because she couldn’t bear those nasty voices in her head. This time had been different, however. She had really hurt him.

‘If you hadn’t wanted your precious baby so much, I’d still be normal and not a bloody psycho,’ she’d screamed at him as she walked away, the sound of her own sobs failing to drown out Aoife’s.

She’d come back of course, hours later, and she knew Michael was relieved, even if he didn’t want to show it. They should’ve tried to talk it out there and then, but they were both tired from the fight. The constant fighting. Fighting to make it through the days, the hours. This had been exactly three weeks before, and now the pair of them were walking on eggshells. It infuriated her how he always tried to say the right thing, always tried to give her space. If he could find it in himself to be as much of a cunt as she had been, then she wouldn’t need to carry so much guilt.

A crappy mother, a crappy wife, thought Siobhan as she peeled off the bedclothes and slid into the tracksuit bottoms that she’d strewn on her bedside locker just a few hours before. She picked up one of Michael’s hoodies from the shelf, not because of sentimentality but because the excess material hid her grotesque frame, the extra pouch that now hung around her waist, like an internal bum-bag. She inhaled as she peered into the cot at her sleeping daughter, longing to feel that special connection. Aoife’s thick lips smiled, something which Kathleen, Siobhan’s mother-in-law had insisted was just wind. Well of course it was just wind, Siobhan had thought. It seemed that Aoife was willing to settle in anyone’s arms but in the arms of her mother. Siobhan didn’t know how she felt towards Aoife, but it wasn’t love. It wasn’t hate, either. It was nothing.

What sort of mother feels nothing towards their own baby? A baby that she had yearned for since she was given her first baby doll by Santa at the age of just five years old? Three years of expensive and gruelling IVF had given Siobhan a daughter more beautiful than she could have ever imagined, and yet at that moment, Siobhan didn’t feel that she was cut out for years of self-sacrifice, of putting somebody else first.

Trying to stop herself sniffling in the dark, Siobhan padded towards the door, watching the sleepy scene. It was almost romantic, like a Cow & Gate ad. A gentle inner voice tried to persuade her to take back off her clothes, to lie down and try to sleep, but Siobhan thought it was too late now. She crept into the kitchen and rummaged through the medicine box, pocketing every painkiller she could find.

Soon this pain would be over.

Soon she would be over.

Despite the high winds earlier in the night, Siobhan hadn’t expected to be peppered with cold, misty rain when she opened the front door. She smiled to herself as she momentarily considered bringing an umbrella. Ha! She thought. People who are dead inside have little call for umbrellas.

She walked over the Whitehall bridge. The road was gleaming black from all the rain, and the usually busy Daingean Road was quiet. She had it planned: she would walk a few miles down the canal, then she would take all the pills until she felt a little delirious. At that moment she would succumb eternally to the murkiness, allowing herself to sink to the bottom. She supposed that people might be sad for a few days – her sister Aine would take it particularly hard – but in that moment she was grateful that her parents were no longer alive to feel the pain. She wished that she was more religious, that she believed that she would be reunited with her mam, whose voice she yearned to hear with every fibre of her being. But she wasn’t.

The wind was gathering pace again, a perfect time to venture nearer the edge. This way, she wouldn’t have to jump. She might have been just out for a midnight stroll when she was blown in. Nobody would have to know. She was just about to step closer to the edge when a gravelly voice behind her startled her:

‘Wild night to be out for a stroll.’

At first, Siobhan thought she was hearing things, because surely nobody in their right minds (she didn’t fall under that definition, she supposed) would be out at this hour? When she turned around, the sight of a shadow startled her. Despite the wind, she could detect the metallic smell of vodka from his breath. Yet this person was not staggering: he was trudging along slowly, as if carrying a great weight on his shoulders. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, ready to go on the defensive.

‘Mind your own business,’ she said at last. Couldn’t he see that she wanted to be left alone? It occurred to her that he could be dangerous, maybe capable of rape or murder. But then again, wasn’t everyone? ‘I don’t have any money. Leave me alone.’

She half-jogged further up the canal path. It never occurred to her to walk back towards home, where there would be somebody waiting to protect her. What she did realise, however, is that she didn’t feel that she was worth protecting. She also noted that while she wanted to disappear, dissolve into the earth as though she never existed, she needed to have control over how it happened. God knows, she thought, it’s the only thing I seem to have any control over at the moment.

Her footsteps slowed, and when she was outside her own head she heard the hesitant footsteps behind her. The aroma of cigarette smoke was infused in the sharp October breeze. She sat down on the hill outside the old Daly farmhouse, inwardly cursing herself for doing so as the wetness crept in, leaving her derriere saturated. The violent wind had subsided; all she was left with was silence and self-disgust.

After a few moments, her companion crouched down beside her. He smelt of sweat, of old urine, of hopelessness. Bloody typical, she thought. Trust me to meet a drunk. Her partner inhaled, which started a violent coughing fit.

‘You ok?’ she asked, forgetting herself.

The man nodded. ‘Be grand in a minute,’ he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘I’m well used to it by now.’ He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long can.

‘You should quit the fags,’ Siobhan said, immediately hating herself for her own self-righteousness. Who was she to talk when she had the entire contents of her medicine box in her pocket, ready to take in one go?

‘I probably should do a lot of things,’ he answered her, his voice quiet. Siobhan heard the snapping of the can, and her stomach turned at the smell of fresh beer, presumably cheap. ‘You shouldn’t be out here so late. These parts can be dangerous for the likes of you.’ The beer trickled down his throat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘What do you mean, ‘the likes of me’?’

He waved his hand, fanning her words away. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’ He rummaged in his pocket. ‘Smoke?’

‘No.’ Her voice was firm. ‘I don’t smoke.’

‘Ha. It must be hard to be so bloody perfect.’

Siobhan was relieved to smell the smoke; sitting so close to him, her bloodhound-like sense of smell detected urine and old underarm sweat, with the slightest hint of shit. She yearned to escape, to be at one with the swirling brown water in front of her. She took a deep breath, then another. Already she felt like she was suffocating. It wasn’t the feeling of comfort that she had been looking for.

‘Perfect. Ha! If only.’ For the first time since they met, Siobhan considered how she must appear in her companion’s eyes: a silly little damsel in distress, a privileged housewife who couldn’t possibly know what real hardship felt like. ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ She stood up, putting her hand in her pocket, feeling safer as she held the pills in her hand. As long as she had a plan, however warped that plan might be, she felt grounded. More grounded than she had felt in a long time.

Her stomach turned to bile as she thought about events earlier that day. It had started as an average day, or at least what she now considered to be average. She found it difficult to believe that just a matter of months before she was the manager of the Tullamore branch of the Bank of Ireland, bringing in quite a generous pay cheque. They’d squirrelled most of it away, of course, being sensible and thrifty. Aoife had been a surprise, a most welcome surprise. Her mere existence was testament to the fact that even the most highly paid and expensive doctors can get things wrong sometimes.

Aoife had awoken at six that morning, demanding her morning feed. Siobhan should have been well-rested; Aoife had slept since half nine the night before. Instead Siobhan had laid awake all night, unable to turn off her brain which was thinking at breakneck speed. What if she had dropped Aoife when she nearly tripped over that loose tile in the bathroom earlier? Aoife’d had a tiny bit of red in her spit-up earlier which Siobhan had assumed was from the strawberry she’d eaten earlier that day, but now she was worried that it was blood. She should’ve checked, and she didn’t. What sort of mother would allow her own child to bleed to death?

Siobhan couldn’t live with the constant inner panic anymore. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Aoife would be better off being looked after by someone more experienced, someone who would appreciate her for who she was. She warmed inside as she thought of Aoife’s blonde eyelashes, the tiny half-moons of her fingernails, the dimples that appeared when she smiled. Aoife was perfect. She deserved better than the fighting, than a mother who didn’t know what she was doing.

Another hacking cough disturbed Siobhan from her daydreaming. She stood up, and adjusted her jacket.

‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you. I really must…’

‘It was this very spot,’ the man said to her, gesturing towards the canal. ‘Where they found her. You know, I come here every night, try to work out why… She didn’t even leave a note.’ He wiped his chin on the sleeve of his jacket. ‘They say she killed herself, but I reckon that’s bullshit. She had three kids… she was happy.’ He lit a cigarette, the blue threaded smoke lingering in the calmness; the wind had passed, as Siobhan had known it would. ‘I’d only seen her the night before. She was smiling, laughing, dolled up to the nines…’

‘Who was?’ She only asked because she assumed it rude not to.

‘Karen. Oh, Karen. Now I’ve made a lot of mistakes – I’m sure that’s obvious – but she definitely wasn’t one of them.’ He pulled hard on the cigarette, as if he was seeking comfort. ‘She had it all, believe it or not – looks, brains – her mother’s doing of course.’ He crushed the empty can into the palm of his hand. ‘You hear stories, don’t you? Tell-tale signs, people losing interest in their lives -goodbye notes – we got none of that. No explanation.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ She didn’t know what else to say.

He shrugged. ‘They say men don’t talk. I don’t talk about Karen. I don’t know… maybe I’m hurt, ashamed… She could’ve fucking said something.’ The trees rustled gently in the breeze. ‘In the beginning, it was so simple. She’d been selfish, a coward – I thought maybe it’d been some silly woman hormonal thing, but they have pills for that now, don’t they?’

Siobhan scoffed. ‘You men are all the same. You think that solutions are so simple. And that we’re hysterical little women who know nothing about hardship. You have no idea what it’s like to have no control over your emotions, having to act all normal when your head is completely frazzled.’ Her voice started to break as she thought of her daughter at home. ‘How it feels to be completely useless and to have someone depend on you…’ Her chest shook with hacking sobs; she could barely catch her breath. The man looked up at her, nodding his head.

‘There,’ he said. ‘It’s out there. You’ve said it. So you’re a crap mum.’ His candidacy surprised her. ‘I suppose you beat her black and blue when she cries…’

‘Well, of course not…’ She was taken aback.

‘Or spend your money on high heels instead of baby formula.’

Siobhan’s fists clenched. ‘How dare you…’

‘Or head off for evenings out and leave bubs home alone. Leave a bottle in the cot, be grand.’

She laughed at the absurdity of the last one. She knew he was joking now.

‘You’d be surprised,’ he shrugged. ‘I’ve seen it. But Karen wasn’t like that, and neither are you.’ He stood up, wiping his hands on his thighs. ‘Go home. Get a nice hot bath.’ Siobhan screeched as he slid his hand into her oversized jacket pocket, taking out the pills and throwing them into the canal. ‘Things will be better in the morning. You’ll see.’

‘How did you know?’

‘Woman, you’ve been rooting in your pocket all fecking night.  This isn’t my first time to do this, you know. After Karen, I swore never again. Not on my watch, anyway. If you wanted to kill yourself, you would’ve done it by now. We’ve been here all night.’ He nodded at the orange rising sun and grinned. ‘For all you knew, I could’ve helped you. Murdered you. Look at the state of me. Wouldn’t blame you for making that assumption.’

‘I guess we can never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.’

‘Nope.’ He started to walk away. ‘Unless we choose to tell people. How can people save us if they don’t know that we’re drowning?’

She watched him walk away, and how he walked with a sense of purpose. She supposed he had nowhere to go. But, she realised, he had done an important thing that night – he had saved her life. She was still shaking when she got to the front door. A white-faced Michael greeted her, his face filling with relief as he beheld hers.

‘Thank God,’ he said as she broke down, wrapping his protective arms around her. ‘I was so worried, I thought you might’ve done something stupid…’ Both their faces were awash with tears. ‘I’m so sorry… I’m so glad you’re okay.’ He squeezed her closer to him.

And then Siobhan whispered the words she had always found so hard to say:

‘Michael, I’m not okay. I think I need help.’

He nodded, and finally Siobhan felt the weightlessness she had been craving.

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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.