Shattered (Short Story)

(This short story was written in aid of World Suicide Prevention Day which takes place each year on 10th September. So I’m a little late. I apologise if this story upsets anyone but it doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the *fictional* character)

 

Méabh smoothed out her silk olive green shirt. It looked baggier on her now, just as she had originally intended it to look when she first bought it. Her silver pendant, with two little pictures of the kids inside, hung loosely around her neck, giving her a look of carefree sophistication. She tousled her hair with her right hand, noting that the persistent greys were more prominent than usual. When was the last time she’d dyed it? She couldn’t remember. This inability to remember things, to retain basic pieces of information was starting to grate on Méabh. Once she had prided herself on being unnaturally organised, taking the jibes from Niamh and Diarmuid as good old-fashioned banter. Now, she felt that things were slipping away from her, but she couldn’t articulate what these things were. Time, her memory, her sanity? She tugged the skin on her face towards her cheekbones. This is what I look like now, she thought, an old turkey with excess skin like a sucked-out stomach after liposuction. That’s how she felt too: sucked out, hollowed, empty.

She threw the dishevelled duvet over the king-sized double bed, Conor’s suggestion of course. What an idiot I was, she thought, smoothing over the corners, just like she felt she was constantly smoothing over their marriage. They’d bought it a few years before she’d began sleeping in the spare room, when the children were still small. She had thought that such an extravagant purchase was a statement of where they were in the world, a sign that their marriage could be rescued. It was certainly a far cry from the old, springy mattress she’d slept on as a child, turning and readjusting so that the springs didn’t rub against her ribs. Conor had promised her that she would never be so neglected again, that she would always have food and a roof over her head. And she strove to be a better mother than her own mum ever was.

Nobody could dare accuse Méabh of being anything less than a wonderful, doting mum. It was well- known among the locals of Tullamore how incredibly organised and talented she was: she had always donated baked goodies to the kids’ school cake sales made from scratch; she had presided over the Parent’s council in Tullamore College for seven consecutive years; for sixteen years she ferried the kids to their after-school activities day after day, and was never without a kind word and a warm smile for those she met on the way. Whenever she spoke of Niamh and Diarmuid, her heart seemed to swell with pride. Diarmuid had just a few weeks before moved up to Dublin to be with his big sister in UCD. She was studying Arts while her brother wanted to be a doctor, just like his father. Indeed, he was becoming increasingly like his father, reflected Méabh: cold, arrogant and unfeeling.
Now that the children had flown the nest, the grim reality of how toxic their marriage had become was truly beginning to take hold. Conor had never been cruel to her in front of the children: distant, certainly, but until lately he had never descended to the depths of calling her names, putting her down, criticising her ironing, her cleaning efforts, her cooking. Perhaps, reflected Meabh, that was owing to the fact that there was always the children to act as a buffer between them. She hated herself for putting them in that position, and became disheartened often by how easily they had accepted it. Just like her Sunday roast dinners with the gravy made from scratch, watching her children referee between her and Conor had become a part of their lives.

At precisely five to eleven, the letterbox jangled. She heard the heavy thud onto the mat in the hall. Another pile of final notices, no doubt. Lately her post seemed to come in clumps, a collection of demanding letters and legal threats. For a moment, Méabh allowed herself to fill with self-pity. This is not how I imagined life at fifty, she thought, rubbing her temples. She’d hoped for a career of her own, something in fashion perhaps, something that would solidify her purpose. Now that the kids were gone and her marriage was on the rocks, she felt deprived of the opportunity to make her own identity. But she was just doing what women did at that time: she raised the children while Conor focused on his career. She hadn’t resented him for it, then.

She sat on the bed, staring into space, hoping to hypnotise herself into some kind of mental paralysis. Her heart was racing, as if she was about to get caught doing something wrong, as if someone would burst through her bedroom door and unmask her as the imposter that she knew deep down she was. Using the palms of her hands, she pushed herself upwards, feeling her cold blood rush to her feet. She didn’t have time to sit around moping. Those buns would not bring themselves to the school coffee morning.

Few things lifted Méabh’s spirits these days like seeing her pristine kitchen glow in the orange September light. The light shone from the marbled grey countertops and the black presses were immaculately clean. Méabh was proud that, at first glance, no-one would be able to tell from looking at her kitchen that she was a keen baker. Once she had all the ingredients organised, she loved to bake: to feel the flour clumping between her fingers, to watch the eggs, butter and sugar creaming in the mixer. The tubberware box in the corner of the counter was the reward for her efforts. Everyone always complimented her on her buns, her cooking. In fact, it seemed that everyone in Tullamore was envious of her full stop. Meabh acknowledged this without arrogance. She knew that her address of Clonminch Road was not merely her home but a status symbol, a statement about her place in life. Once she and Conor separated, where would she end up? What would her new address say about her?

Finally, she grabbed the keys to the Merc and trotted out of the house, wearing her shiny black high heels. She hopped into the car, carefully placing the box beside her on the seat. For a second, she stared into space, trying to remember why she was in the car. The kids probably wouldn’t have approved of her continuing to support school activities but, as she reflected, at least they were not here to suffer the embarrassment of her. Suddenly, her heart froze. Had Niamh really not been home for a whole weekend since the beginning of May, four months beforehand? Meabh was saddened by this realisation, but she knew why. In fact, she and her daughter had only spoke about it two weeks ago.

‘I don’t live there anymore, mam,’ Niamh had said on the phone, ‘so there’s no point in me coming home. Anyway, it doesn’t feel like home, you know what I mean?’ Niamh’s honesty had shaken her. Meabh had always thought that whatever was going on between her and Conor, she had always ensured that the kids felt secure and loved. She also hadn’t bargained for how much she’d miss her only daughter and their cups of hot chocolate in front of the Late Late Show every Friday night, going shopping in Athlone on Saturday afternoons, going for dinner in the Court every Sunday. Once, she had even seen Niamh not only as her daughter but her best friend. Alas, Méabh had let her down somehow. Niamh came from a different generation, Meabh reflected; she didn’t need the approval of a man or any kind of partner to justify her existence. That’s where I went wrong, she thought as she started the car.

As she pulled into the parking space, Meabh felt ashamed. I’ve no right to be here, she thought, watching the other mums walk in together, laughing and smiling. She envied how carefree they all seemed to be, some of them even wearing long shapeless t-shirts and plimsolls. Regina Hogan always came to these events in her tracksuit bottoms, the grey one with the red paint down the left leg. It annoyed Meabh that she never made an effort; some days, the woman barely looked presentable. And yet, Meabh noticed, Regina seemed happy. In fact, she was everywhere: at fundraisers, community events, sponsored walks. She waved as Meabh got out of the car, revealing a wet patch of sweat under her arm.

‘Well, pet,’ she drawled as Meabh walked towards her. ‘Aren’t you very good to take time out of your busy schedule and come up here with us commoners, eh? They look gorgeous,’ she said, opening the box in Meabh’s hands, then leant in closer to her, releasing a raspy laugh. ‘I bought mine in Flynn’s this morning. Was never one for this baking lark.’

‘No.’

‘Not for me. I’m an ‘ater, not a baker. We can’t all be as talented as you!’

Méabh was becoming irritated now. ‘I wonder how many will turn up,’ she said, quickening her pace, her high heels clacking behind her. The smell of old gym sweat, of cheap deodorant and cheese and onion crisps hit her as she opened the door, holding it open for Regina.

‘Thanks, pet,’ Regina smiled at her, flashing her yellow- brown teeth. ‘By the way, haven’t seen you working in the shop for a while. You still there?’

‘No.’ Méabh was tired. ‘Ah, it was just something to get me out of the house now that the kids are gone. Turns out I have plenty to keep me occupied!’ She held up the buns as Regina smiled and walked down the corridor towards the gym. It surprised her that Regina had noticed that she was not working in Centra anymore. Did anyone else notice, she wondered?

She wished she had the courage to tell people the real reason: that up until a few weeks ago, Méabh had spent the majority of every day in her pyjamas. That she had found every single task to be physically exhausting, from brushing her teeth to making a cup of tea. Conor had been gone for a month on one of his so-called business trips to Dubai, but Méabh wasn’t stupid. She knew that there was another woman involved, and that there had been for a long time. When she was in the house, alone, there didn’t seem any point in cleaning, cooking proper meals; mostly she’d lived on beans on toast or micro meals. It wasn’t her usual style: Meabh had once been a great believer in the benefits of healthy eating.

Frightened that she was starting to lose her mind, Meabh had gone to the doctor two days beforehand. She knew she wasn’t right: she’d even had two cigarettes the day before, despite not having smoked in nearly thirty years. It had killed her to confess that to the doctor.
I don’t feel like myself at all, she’d said.
Dr Murphy rubbed his head with his pen. You were fifty last week, yes?
Meabh had been insulted. I don’t think that’s relevant, Doctor.
Perhaps it’s all part of the menopause, he said, looking blankly at the screen in front of him. You ever been on Prozac, or Valium? It might help. Do you feel anxious? Meabh conceded that she did, that as long as she could remember, she had always been what her mother called ‘highly strung’.
Calm down, he’d said to her. Try some mindfulness or meditation. There’s apps for everything these days. He wrote her a script for Valium and held it out to her.
One more thing, he said, still distracted by the computer. Have you ever had unwanted thoughts? Méabh had frozen, feeling as if Dr Murphy had caught her unaware in complete nakedness. She felt invaded, exposed.
No, she’d replied, giving a small laugh at the absurdity of the idea, then, as an attempt to inject some humour into the tenseness, she added: Don’t worry, I love myself too much to do away with myself! She’d snatched the prescription off the table, not looking back as she’d walked out, holding her head high.

Now, Méabh sat in the car, watching the windscreen wipers move back and forth, squeaking slightly as they rubbed against the window. Squeak swish, squeak swish. This noise, she reflected, represented where she was right now: just going back and forth, going through the motions but not actually going anywhere. She was tired from her efforts of making polite conversation with other parents when really what she had wanted to do was crawl back into bed. The rain pelted loudly against her window, demanding to be let in. The six foot walk to her front door seemed impossible, then. If she got up, walked over and turned the key, she would then have to make dinner. Then she would have to clean up after and be in bed before he came in. And she would be doing this same thing, over and over, until they separated and she ended up in a grotty little bedsit on Church Street. That was assuming she could afford the rent and bills, of course, not to mention the bills that were waiting for her now, neatly stacked on the pristine counter.

Méabh’s entire body felt heavy.

This is it
, she said. I cannot do this anymore.

She turned on the radio in anticipation of having to drown out the floods of tears that she wished she could cry. Still she felt nothing. Not sadness, not anger: nothing. She opened the box of Valium and took one, and told herself she felt better. Then she took another, and another. The loud radio hummed around her, like a choral chorus, hemming her in:

…and it’s not a cry, that you hear at night;
It’s not someone who’s seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah….

The music became increasingly muffled. Then, silence, the silence she’d been looking for. Diarmuid would find her slouched over the steering wheel, her silver pendant broken and the two kids grinning up at her from her lap. In these photos, they would never get older, and neither would she.

Absolutely shocking, they would say, later, after the news broke. She had so much going for her. Those beautiful children, God love them.
How’s Diarmuid going to cope now? Sure a couple more suited to each other I’d never seen!
…and she was so talented and all, ah wasn’t she just a lady?
Now Ann Kelly told me the other day she thought she might’ve got fired from that shop that she was working at…
Sure what is this town coming to, everyone killing themselves, what is the story?

Méabh would soon be yesterday’s news, and her neighbours would go on as before: smiling at each other, giving a friendly wave, or avoiding each other’s gaze, hoping nobody would ever discover their pain. All they had now was pointless speculation, and a ‘For Sale’ sign where she used to live.

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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.

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.