There’s a guy walking on a cobbled shore. The sun silhouettes him. All I can see is a shadow. His head is down like he’s deep in thought. He picks up one of the flat stones, runs his thumb over the smooth edge and breathes the salt in the air. For a moment he stops and looks at the stone between his thumb and forefinger. He throws the stone into the water. It bounces along the surface. It goes under. He picks up more stones. They all fall through the water. He stays there until the sun starts to go down. He keeps throwing stones into the water. None of them will bounce. I can see him better as night takes over from the day. His hair is long, curly and brown. He’s naked and very skinny. He turns around. He’s me.
When I wake up the dream feels real. Like I’m still on the beach. It gets muddled and lost. Then the pain kicks like a mule. It’s coming mostly from my face and back. I’m aware of still being half in half out. If I wake up fully I’m going to have to deal with whatever my eyes show me. I’m not ready for that yet so I try to sink back into sleep but it’s a waste of time. I’m awake, in a green and white room.
It’s easier to sit up than I thought it would be. My back makes a cracking sound that reassures me. The back cracks have been there for years. I was sixteen and into that WWF stuff. The wrestling slash dodgy soap opera programme. My favourite wrestler was a face. That’s a wrestling term for good guy. Heel is a bad guy. Wrestling’s kind of like those old morality plays. Like Everyman or Faust. Where a guy has to choose between the devil and god and blah, blah, blah. Point is they’re incredibly boring. However when you add two muscle bound ‘roid monkeys and plenty of testosterone the struggle between good and evil becomes way more entertaining. Jeff Hardy was the best of them. He had this slick finishing move called the Swanton Bomb. He’d climb up the turnbuckle and raise his arm into the air. This meant there was a Swanton on the way and the crowd would go crazy. His opponent, the terrible heel, would be lying face up on the mat. Jeff would dive off, head towards his opponent. It always looked like he was going to break his neck but then in the last second he’d flip and land on top of his opponent with his back. The crowd would flip too. Thing is, it was easy to forget about the ‘don’t try this at home’ segment at the start of the show.
So I’m at a party when I’m about sixteen. Being young and Irish I’ve already been drinking for about three years. Not professionally or anything. I’m still getting langered on about two cans. My friend’s folks are out of town and he’s got this weird-ass hedge in his back garden. It’s extremely bouncy when jumped at from a height and I’ve just found a ladder. I’ve also had about two cans...
What I don’t know is that my mate Bobby is trying to tell his neighbour he’s sorry about all the noise. Thing is Bobby’s had about two cans so the apology is shaky at best. Meanwhile in the back garden I’m ascending the ladder and enjoying the attention I’m getting from all the other sixteen year olds. Especially the attention I’m getting from Ellen McCarthy. Everyone screams to do the Swanton Bomb but Ellen just smiles. I’m smitten man, for sure.
Bobby’s just realised his neighbour is going to tell his parents when they get home. That means he’s getting lynched. He needs to take this out on someone and there I am; about to attempt a neck-break manoeuvre with a hedge and ladder as my partners. In my mind this memory plays to that tune Adagio for Strings. That’s just a fancy name for the Platoon theme. It wasn’t raining that night but in my memory it’s lashing. I’m so wet small beads of water are dripping from my eye brows and everybody’s breath is swirling in the dark. Bobby rushes out from the back door. His feet hit the grass with shotgun thuds. Everything happens in slow motion.
I take a breath in and get ready for the jump. I hear Bobby shouting before I realise he’s coming straight at me.
“Stop making all that fucking noise!” but in slo-mo so it’s like:
“Ssstttoooooooooopppp mmmaaaaaakkkkiiiiiiinnnnnggg aaaaaaallllll ttttthhhhhaaaaaaaaatttt fffffffuuuuuuuuuuukkkkkkkkiiiiiiiinnnnnnnggggggg nnnnoooooooiiiiissssssseeeeee!!!”
He crashes into the ladder but it’s too late. I’m already entering the jump only I’ve got nothing to propel myself from. I twist upside down and fall. My friends all gasp. Bobby grabs his face with his hands realising what he’s just done. He shouts at the clouds.
*Bobby’s realisation at what he’s just done is at 5:15 on the track.*
Then the lull: I lie, curved around the ladder, abashed and confused. Blood bubbles bursting as I cough. “His spine” someone mutters before looking away. Bobby grabs my hand. Tears stream down his face.
I place my hand in front of his mouth.
“Men like us...we have no time for apologies.”
His tears drip onto my bloodied mouth and with my last bit of strength I whisper:
“I never even had the sex.”
The rain pelts down, he screams again. Ellen whispers a simple “why?” to herself. Her tears get lost in the rain.
The actual event was much less epic. It ended with everyone laughing as I made constipated sounds and Bobby freaked out thinking he had broken my back. Ellen was all Florence Nightingale. I was able to walk grand but I kind of milked it a bit. It’s not like I was being an attention whore I just wanted to be able to talk to Ellen alone for a while. Bobby could totally see what I was doing but in fairness he never tried cock blocking. He gave me a wink and said:
“Feel better Alex (wink part) I’m sure ya will!”
It was just Ellen and me in Bobby’s parent’s room. We talked for hours, nothing else. Don’t get me wrong I wanted to kiss her. I thought if I tried she’d think all I wanted was tail. It didn’t seem right or something. Maybe it was because we were lying on the bed. I didn’t need to but she was lying beside me so I was pushing the sore back thing. I guess we weren’t ready for the big S.
Back then no one used to ask about my dad. I’d hear people saying it sometimes but no one ever said anything to me. I had a lot of friends, not super popular or anything. I played rhythm guitar in a band. People knew me, I don’t think they all liked me but whatever. So me and Ellen are sitting there and just blasé she’s like:
“I heard about your dad. How’s that?”
I didn’t know what to say for a second. No one had ever asked me. Not even ma. It was just a thing that happened. Dirt under a rug. People would occasionally stop talking when I was walking by. They’d give me that nod, half smile. That hurt like nails but no one ever said “Hey check out that pink elephant!”
“It’s okay...I don’t know. He’s still going through the courts so...”
“My uncle went to jail for a while. Assault or something. My dad doesn’t really like him.”
“He’s not exactly Rambo and he might wind up in jail. Fucking retard.”
“You don’t really think that.”
“I don’t know. We would’ve had money either way. Everyone’s supposed to pay taxes right?”
“Maybe he did it for you and your sister.”
“We don’t drive the Lexus.”
Then she slapped me in the arm.
“You couldn’t drive a car anyway with your broken spine!”
I jumped up to slap her back. Not in a domestic abuse way or anything. We were both laughing until she started laughing really hard. I didn’t know what was going on.
“What’s up with you?”
“Haha what’s up with your back faker?!”
My cover was blown. Damn stupid hormones. I didn’t know what to say. Inside my head I was just like: “Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.”
“It’s still kinda sore.”
This just set Ellen off even more. I was getting embarrassed. Probably going red. I go super red when I’m embarrassed. It must have been obvious because she stopped laughing and grabbed my hand.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else. Even if your back isn’t broken.”
I smiled. That’s one of the only times I’ve felt the way they look on TV. When two people are all soppy and happy and wretch, wretch, mbleh. But right there I felt like I was going to laugh or cry or vomit or faint or something. We looked at each other. For ages. My head was screaming at me: “Pull the trigger! Kiss her!” But I didn’t. I wanted to but I totally chickened. She smiled at me and then we both lay down on the bed. It must have been late or early or whatever because no one was making noise anymore. She turned into me and smiled then put her head into my chest. I kissed her on the top of her forehead and said “night”. That was the first night I fell asleep with a girl in my arms.
There are about five other people in the room with me. Three of them are old, one of them is an African woman who’s been on her phone since I woke up. The other one is a girl in her early twenties. She looks really pale. White almost. She sees me looking at her and I look away. I hate that, when you’re looking at someone and they catch you. I always feel like they think I’m some sort of pervert or something. I lift up the sheets and look at my chest. There are big rings of purple on my side. I touch one, the pain is crazy. The pale girl must see me pull my ‘ouch’ face.
“Never mind your ribs man, you should see your face!”
I look at her and smile.
“Don’t worry about me Casper.”
We both laugh for a few seconds before the doctor walks in. His hair is bright red. It looks funny against his white coat. He comes up to my bed and looks at my chart. He keeps doing this little drum roll with his pen and finger.
“How are you feeling Alex?”
“Sore but I think I’m okay.”
“Do you remember how you got here?”
“I guess the guards must have brought me but I don’t really remember any of it.”
“Okay can you tell me who the President is?”
“Umm...McAleese right? She’s always President.”
“Correct and can you tell me where you live?”
“34 Cromwell’s Fort.”
“Very Good. And what religion are you?”
“I was baptised and all but I don’t really follow it.”
“Okay” He says with a slight laugh “there’s a guard here who wants to ask you a few questions. Would that be okay?”
“Yeah it’s fine. Have my ma or sister been in?”
“I sent your mother home about an hour ago. She said she’d call back tomorrow. Your sister and nephew were in with her.”
The guard walks in. It’s a bean guard. You can’t call them that anymore though can you? Soon enough if you open a door for a girl she’ll kick you in the nads. She asks me about the two guys.
“I couldn’t really see their faces. They had tights on or something. There was a skinny one wearing a white top and jeans. About six foot maybe. I think his top was Adidas. The other one was small, he had a black vest on and tracksuit bottoms.”
“Okay and can you tell me what happened?”
“I woke up and they were in the sitting room. It wasn’t the tall one. To be honest he didn’t seem like a bad guy but the small one just went Joe Pesci on me.”
She looks at me for a second.
“Oh sorry, you know Casino? Joe pesci.”
She looks pissed off. It kind of gives me the fear. I remember all the med boxes lying around the house. What if they ask me about that? What if I have to give up Hooper’s name?! Is it illegal to sell foreign pills? Would Hooper send a guy to gangster me up?! I can feel the sweat on my palms and this wave of heat rising up my neck. I keep telling myself to just get through the interview, that everything will be fine.
“He’s violent that’s all, I thought you might have seen the film. He has really hairy shoulders.”
“No the guy that bet me up.”
“Okay, can you think of anything else that might help us?”
“Not really. Just it sounded like the first time the tall one did anything like this.”
I don’t really know to phrase it. It’s like sometimes Batman catches a guy on his first crime. He doesn’t beat him up or anything, if he thinks he’s an okay guy in a bad situation he just scares him. Then behind the scenes he’ll offer him a janitor’s job at Wayne Tech or something. The guy just needed dockets he wasn’t a bad man just in a bad situation.
“I don’t know. I guess it was just mostly the small guy.”
“No his name wasn’t Joe Pesci. He just looked like Joe Pesci.”
“Okay. We might be in contact if we need an ID.”
She walks away and I stop freaking about all the med boxes in my room. I’m left with a hum of fear hanging around me. Not too strong. I guess the best way to describe the fear is like a bottle of Kia-Ora or one of those cordials. When you have a glass of water it’s clear. Let’s say you put blackcurrant Kia-Ora on top of that. At first the purple clouds just rest on the water like oil but once you shake the glass it’s a different story. Before long everything’s purple. I’m the glass and the water is relaxation. Spin us around too much and the fear takes over. Thing you’ll notice about the water is that it doesn’t need a whole lot of shaking before everything goes purple. I’m not sure if that’s a good metaphor. Makes sense to me though.
I ask a passing nurse what time it is. She looks at her watch and says ten p.m. There’s a sign on the wall that says visiting hours are over at eight. Having no one to talk to for the next twelve hours is kind of disheartening. I look down at my purple rings again. I want to see how bad my face looks. Ma must have left my dressing gown here when she visited. She brought some grapes and 7-Up as well. She conforms to hospital etiquette quite well. I pull on the gown and head to the bathroom. My legs feel strong. I think it’s because the rest of my body is so weak. Every footstep is an angry pulse in my stomach. The floor is wet in the bathroom. Not piss wet but shower wet. I hope so anyway. There’s a small mirror above the sink. I can’t really see myself until I get close.
It looks like I’m pouting and wearing purple lipstick. You’d think I had delusions of becoming a model. Or a cross dresser. The side of my face doesn’t actually look too bad. It feels dodge but I don’t think you’d know I got nailed with a bag of kicks. My nose got out unscathed but my forehead didn’t. It’s bruised and lumpy. I do a monkey smile at the mirror to check my teeth. My face doesn’t actually look all that bad. I expected some broken teeth at least. I take my arms out of the dressing gown and it folds at my mid section. The purple rings are bigger than I thought. They run down my ribs and into my back. There’s a point on my stomach that’s only black and greeny-yellow. It eventually bursts into red and purple. I tap each of the circles and the green is definitely the most painful.
The bathroom door opens and shuts behind me. I hear the lock twist. Damn one of the oldies must have come into the toilet. I don’t turn around at first. I’m scared I might see some weathered balls or something. Her voice is direct. I think it’s the bean guard...
“We need to talk.”
I put my arms back into the gown before I turn around. It’s not the bean guard. Of course it’s not. Why would a guard follow me into the toilet? It’s the pale girl. Her hair is elbow length and dark. It looks dread locked in places. I can’t really see properly, the light in here isn’t great. She’s wearing a red dressing gown. She doesn’t smile when she talks. It’s hard to know if she’s taking the piss.
“You and me have to be hospital buddies.”
“Seriously between all the oldies and the woman who’s sponsored my Nokia I’m losing my rag!”
“So what does a hospital buddy do?”
“First things first, it’s nothing sexual so don’t start getting ideas!”
“Getting ideas? You’re the one who followed me into the toilet!”
“So if a girl wants to talk to a guy in a toilet that means sex?!”
“That’s not what I said. I just meant there’re connotations.”
“Ugghh men! You all watch too much porn!”
“If I followed you in here and said ‘We need to talk’ you would’ve blown your rape whistle.”
“I don’t have a rape whistle.”
“Well you know what I mean.”
“Relax man. I’m only jesting. I’m Zed.”
We shake hands.
“I’m Alex. Zed’s kind of a weird name.”
“Yeah tell me about it. My mam and dad were all LSD crazy. I have a brother called Lobo!”
“From the comics?”
“He’s one of Superman’s enemies. He loves mindless violence and intoxication.”
“As much as he sounds like my brother it’s actually after Roland Kent Lavoie. His stage name was Lobo. You know ‘Me and you and a dog named Boo’?”
“I know the name, don’t think I’ve ever heard the song.”
“Best to keep it that way.”
Zed walks over to the window and opens it. She puts her hand into the gown pocket and pulls out a pack of Camels. She flicks the lid back and offers me one. I take it out of the box.
“Been off them for a few months. Fuck it I survived a fairly nasty beating I can handle cancer.”
“Good attitude man. What happened?”
“Two guys broke into my house. Didn’t end well for any of us.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well I got the shit kicked out of me and they didn’t get a chance to steal anything.”
She flicks the head of a match against the box, holds it straight and tries lighting the fag. It goes out. This happens again before I intervene.
“Show me a second.”
I take a match off her and strike it.
“You gotta hold the head towards the ground otherwise it’ll go out.”
In a few seconds I’ve lit both of the cigarettes. We take turns breathing out the window. There’s a car park outside. It’s mostly empty. Wexford general hospital and Indian culture don’t exactly go hand in hand but for some reason there are two totem poles outside. I try to figure it out for a second but my brain can’t come up with anything. An ambulance goes speeding out onto the road. Zed blesses herself.
“Not really. I just figure it’s better than doing nothing.”
We exhale the last of the fags and flick them onto the car park. Back in the ward all the oldies have drawn their curtains. The African woman is still yammering on her phone. Zed looks at her, puts her index finger over her lips and points to the curtains. The African woman smiles and quietens down a bit. Gradually she starts talking louder and louder until the initial volume is restored. Zed gets into her bed and I get into mine. The sound of moving plastic under the sheets is annoying.
A few hours pass and I’m fairly sure everyone is asleep. I look at the roof tiles and try not to move. I’m fixated on the sound of the plastic. In the silence I can hear it rising and falling with my breathing. I start thinking about how I won’t be able to sleep. How I need a sleeper. I can feel stress and worry waiting to fall in on me. Someone moves and the plastic ruffles underneath their weight. I grab a fist full of sheet. The creasing sound of the plastic only stresses me more. When I hear Zed it almost frightens me.
“Why are you still awake?”
“This fucking plastic is plaguing me!”
“Takes a while to get used to.”
“Thanks for showing me the thing with the matches.”
“You got the match box handy?”
“Yeah, you want another smoke?
“No. Read the back of it to me would you?”
She fumbles around her locker for a few seconds.
“One beetle recognizes another.”
“Heh, that’s a good one. Ever notice how those things always seem to be talking about what’s going on in your life?”
“We’re the beetles then?”
“I guess so.”
“Can I be John?”
“Haha. Night Zed.”
“One more thing Alex.”
“Breath in for seven beats of your heart and out for eleven okay?”
“It’ll put you to sleep.”
“Just try it. Your tossing and turning is keeping me up man.”
I start breathing slow. In for seven beats, out for eleven. It’s hard to think about anything when I’m concentrating on my heart. I yawn and shift my weight. The noise of the plastic doesn’t annoy me as much. I barely even notice the African woman answering her phone.