by Aideen Henry
It started well. More than well. My older brother, for once, didn’t kick up too much about getting supplies for Danny and me. Niamh had a request in the bag too so our little trio, myself, Danny and Niamh went bush drinking up the back of Mahon’s. It’s on a hill, so you can see all comers in both directions. And it’s sheltered from the rain. The cows drift over when there’s a shower, it’s like they’re tethered together by invisible ropes. Once one makes the move they all tug along, squelching in and out of each other’s muddy hoof prints, breathing misty air over each other’s flanks. Flock memory, Niamh calls it.
So Danny, Niamh and myself were chilling up the back of Mahon’s. The afternoon was dry so no four-legged beasts rubbing shoulders near us. Funny, I never mind if they do. Cows are gentle and warm if you press your face into the solid furriness of their sides. They’re vegetarians, that’s why you like them, Niamh slags me. She’s vegan, of course, not one for half measures. Don’t get that. Love the feel of a hunk of meat in my stomach.
So anyways, Niamh pours her vodka into an orange mixer and sips. Danny and me are on the cider. Jägermeister in the brown bag in reserve if the cider doesn’t do the job. Danny’s all chat. Obsessed with his new motorbike and keeps on about it. It’s like me and Niamh are his parents. We just sit there, Danny hunkered between us. Him yapping on and us just looking at each other every now and then and smiling. Then looking at him, the kid. Me, taking swigs from my can and her, smoking and sipping. It’s real peaceful. I am at peace. Different to after I come. Yet that’s the closest thing to it. After a wank, yeah, of course, I’ve just mainlined on a pure natural body high but there’s a tiredness there, a sense that it’s over, something’s already happened, something’s been spent or lost, which of course, in a way, it has. Whereas on that bench, zoning out of Danny’s chatter and tuning in to Niamh’s presence, her looks over to me and the way we hold those looks right into each other, that feels like a high. A high that is ongoing, a high full of possibility, a beginning not an end to pleasure.
A light drizzle starts then, the sun comes out through it and the cattle mooch over beside us to get out of the rain. And we’re cool with that until they fertilise the grass at our feet with their liquid splatter. Danny and myself head in to meet the lads and Niamh heads home to collect her ticket for the social.
It’s weird with Niamh. I treat her like she’s one of the lads because we’ve so much in common. We love the same music. We laugh at the same sick stuff. We tell the truth about ourselves and about other people. We call it as we see it. I love the way she dresses and the way her body moves. She’s like the polar opposite of girls like Katelyn. Dark eye shadow, long hair in braids and beads, Docs, dark loose clothes. A Goth, really. But she’s cool. Robert says me and Niamh are two sad gays and that that’s why we hang out together because nothing can ever possibly happen between us. But I don’t know. There’s something there. Dunno know what, just something.
Usually, when we get to the social, Niamh and myself have a dance together, oh, not close up, bodies touching and the like, I wouldn’t risk that. But in a group, with others. And that’s what I expected would happen. But tonight that never happens as one of her four thousand sisters is with her and they dance for a bit then are caught up in a serious chat, the sister has just broken up with her boyfriend.
Danny’s on his ear, too drunk to make any sense. He’s off dancing on his own, crazy stuff, annoying everyone around him. I’m bored and alone. So over comes Katelyn. I dance with her a bit. Don’t really fancy her but the more we touch, the more the cider kicks in, the more I feel her body against mine, my resistance melts. Bullshit. Who am I fooling? I want it. I’m not fussy. I want her. She’ll do. Then I think, she’s willing and so am I, why the hell not?
We go down to the disabled toilet. She’s pretty plastered but I’m not exactly sober. We’re both up for it. Seems like a good idea at the time, as the fella says. But one minute my dick’s hitting the soft of the back of her throat and her hand’s on my ass pulling me in deeper and the next, she’s bent over the toilet, puking. Some crash landing. Reminds you what toilets are for, I suppose. Voiding, emptying, excreting. What is it with you and your words, Niamh says, always three when all you need is the one.
So there I am, standing beside Katelyn’s curved back staring at her shoulder blades. So sharp they look like stunted vestigial wings. That’s one of Niamh’s obsessions, evolution, we’ll become vestigial, Jack, she says, the human race is degenerating, we’ll become the earth’s appendix. We’ll just die out. Cheerful.
But back to the vomitorum. I hadn’t planned on spending my night out watching some girl spew up her insides. Not what you’d call romantic. Not what I had in mind when she took me in her mouth. But there you go. She’s bent over the bowl, anyways, retching, nearly empty now. I watch the straps of muscle down the sides of her back clench and relax. The bones of her spine curve up like sprockets on a wheel. I decide to rub her back.
I remember when Niamh did the same for me. A little thing. You’d think with all the crap of your guts spilling out before you that you wouldn’t notice. But it’s the only thing you do notice. Niamh started by just placing the weight of her hand there. A small warmth, a light touch. Then she moved it in gentle circles, rubbing from the inner edge of one shoulder blade to the other. I could pick out her thumb as separate but her fingers must have been bunched together because I felt them as one, like a paw. She kept it up even after I’d washed my face and hands and we were sitting outside on a bench, me with my elbows resting on my knees, my head hanging down. A small thing can be a huge thing.
So I start with one slow circle on Katelyn’s back. More jerky than Niamh’s circles. But my circle ends where it began, so that’s a start. I keep on going slowly. Difficult because of her boniness, the pads of my fingers slip into the space between her ribs and she tenses with each heave.
A sheaf of her hair comes loose and falls forwards. I draw it back and grip it in one fist with the rest of her hair. Such thick auburn hair. Reminds me of the YouTube clip on Robert’s iPad. A blow job with the man pulling the girl’s head back and forth by the hair. Kinda sick. Well, no, the sounds were sick. All that squelching and slapping, like dying mackerel flapping in and out of puddles on the pier. Kinda gross, him slamming her head in and out. But what’s really sick is me thinking of a porn blow job while Katelyn spews her guts out.
The heaving stops and she straightens up. I don’t know what to do now so I stay going with the back rubbing.
She grabs toilet tissue and wipes her eyes and mouth.
‘Sorry,’ she says, mascara and makeup streaming down her cheeks in stripes, ‘and thanks.’
She turns to the mirror.
‘Oh God!’ she brings her hand to her mouth.
She tugs at her hair, reining in the wildness, taming all the loose strands back into her hair tie.
‘Do you want to splash your face and rinse your mouth?’ I say, dropping my hand.
She looks at me funny.
‘I didn’t mean … it’s not like …’
‘I’d better,’ she says. She bends over the low sink and splashes her face, gargles water back her throat and swills it around her mouth. I try not to look to see if there are bits when she spits. There aren’t. She wipes her face dry again. No lipstick. Although we are in leaving cert, she usually looks about twenty-two with all the crap she wears on her face. Now she looks about thirteen. She reapplies her lipstick.
‘What?’ she says.
No way am I putting it in her mouth again.
She wraps her arms around my neck.
‘I’m sorry, Jack.’
She’s still pissed. She must have drank a bucket of vodka. She tries to kiss me. I pull her hands down and bear hug her so she can’t reach my face. She isn’t having it.
‘Come on, Jack, come on.’
She tries to kiss me again and when I dodge, she nips at my neck. Surprisingly nice, that. Not my intended response.
‘Hey, Katelyn, don’t.’ I pull away. ‘Let’s get you home.’
It’s a difficult switch from horny to brotherly. I do my best.
‘Jack, don’t tell me you don’t …’ she pushes her chest against me this time, the wire of her bra presses into me. She draws my hips in against hers and her hand squeezes my ass. Groin Central. Sure enough, the one part of me with no ethical dilemmas rises up. It doesn’t care that her mouth was full of vomit five minutes ago. It lives in the here and now. Her mouth is clean now. It doesn’t care that she drank enough vodka to knock a horse. It doesn’t care that she isn’t really into me. Not me, personally. Doesn’t really know me, personally. But for reasons known only to herself, she will not leave our school disco without a boy, will not be seen by her scary girlfriends passing unaccompanied through that exit door. That such is her horror of appearing boy-less, boy-free, boy-down, boy-deficient, at that important moment, that she even settled one night for Seán as her playmate. Seán, the excluded, who is so fully aware of his own uncoolness, that even he asked her was she serious.
‘Are you serious, Katelyn?’ he said.
‘You’re the man for me tonight, Seán,’ she replied. No guile.
Which he and everyone else knew meant that she was really stuck and that he’d do. He’d have to do. Seán was probably happy to not even dabble in the sexual specials on offer. To have been chosen at all was reward enough.
So here I am. My brain says, no way, get the fuck home. And the part of me that brings me most pleasure in the world, the part of me that compensates me for all the mind-numbing boredom of school, the retards I’ve to sit beside in class, the donkeys of teachers, the torture of being around Niamh and not touching her, not ravishing her, not having her. That part of me says, yes, yes, yes. Yes, to a blow job with Katelyn, yes, to sex with Katelyn, yes, to any part of it, forget that, all of it, entering any opening in her body that can stretch wide enough to let me in. That I can squeeze in and out of, over and over. Aperture, there’s a good word. Orifice, another one. He’s a beast, an incorrigible beast. Incorrigible; irredeemable, unrepentant. To be tossed into my stash of favourite words. You and your words, Niamh says. You and your apes, I say.
Katelyn’s thin chest is glued to mine again, she raises one leg and hooks her foot behind my calf while she drives her hips against me so her skirt rides up.
Lord, the waste.
‘Come on,’ I say, pulling her hands down and drawing her skirt over her bum so she’s decent, ‘let’s get you home.’
‘But, Jack– ‘
I grab her wrist and drag her after me. We collect our coats and I help her on with hers. A mistake. She likes that. Without any makeup on she’s kind of cute, nice even. I can see her complexion and her expression. Didn’t know she had expressions. Or maybe it’s that she just looks younger. Oh, so that’s it now. I’m attracted to pre-teens. And there I was thinking I was being all noble, foregoing the specials. Well, some of them. Perv.
She leans against me as we leave the building. It’s cold so I draw her in under my shoulder. There’s no weight in her. Bird boned.
Of course, who’s outside having a smoke, getting the entire wrong end of this, only Niamh. She sucks on her spliff and squints through the smoke at me.
‘Hey,’ I say and loosen my grip on Katelyn. Katelyn clutches me tighter, encircling me now with both arms, lest there be any doubt. Niamh holds in her smoke then blows most of it from her mouth in one long flume. The remainder puffs out as she speaks.
‘You heading?’ She glances away.
‘I’ll just drop Katelyn home,’ I say, knowing that that won’t get me out of this. I don’t dare ask Niamh will she be up late. But I really want to.
‘Hi Niamh.’ Katelyn says.
Niamh nods at her then looks at me.
‘G’night, so.’ She throws down her cigarette butt, grinds it with the heel of her Dr Martens and marches back into the club.
Katelyn and myself walk on in silence. She stops to take off her heels and walks barefoot. Chubby short baby toes. As we walk she seems to sober up a bit and chatters on about different things, the teachers at school, her favourite subjects, the hockey team, my football team. I’m listening enough to say yes and no every so often, so she lets me be. But not enough to be interested. The more she chats on, the more I think of her as a little kid, like a kid sister if I had one. Sweet, girly, childish. It gives me the head space to think back on the evening and how I fucked it up.
We reach Katelyn’s tree-lined street. Light filters through the leaves on the sycamore trees. Always those circles of light reflecting off branches, ever-changing circles that follow you as you walk. Like the eyes of a portrait following you around the room, watching you. I kick the leaves and find it hard not to pick up some really juicy-looking fighting conkers. I pass them by. Pity. Katelyn’s on about Lisa now, that bitch who heads up the hockey gang she hangs out with. Katelyn thinks the sun shines out of that girl’s arse. Reminds me yet again why I shouldn’t be here. Horniness has a lot to answer for.
‘So, Lisa says, “no way would I go out with him”,’ Katelyn says.
‘Kevin Tully?’ Katelyn must watch a shitload of TV – every answer, a question. ‘So Mags goes out with him anyway, and that’s the end of her, as far as Lisa’s concerned. She’s dead?’
I’m not bothered to ask why.
We reach her front gate. Her mom’s left the porch light on. Sweet. Wouldn’t mind being an only kid.
‘So,’ she says, stretching up to kiss me, ‘would you like to …’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’d better, you know…’ I pull up my hood and close my zip to my chin, trying to look virginal, inaccessible. Not sure am I trying to keep her out or something else in. Both.
‘They’ve gone to bed and they sleep at the back.’
‘It’s late. Look, thanks, but …’
I back away. She looks so young and so lonely that I feel mean, so I dive in to kiss her on the cheek.
‘Look, you’re really nice …’ I say.
‘Nice?’ she says.
Wrong adjective. Definitely wrong adjective.
‘Hey, Katelyn, I didn’t mean …’
‘Fuck you, Jack. I don’t know why I’d even waste my time …’ She flounces off up the driveway.
Oh well, annoyed beats hurt any day. At least she gets to keep her pride. So I don’t feel so bad. It’s not as if it was going anywhere. Don’t get me wrong. Katelyn could beat me hands down in Maths or Science and probably even English. She’s a beast when it comes to schoolwork. But outside of that, she’s kinda strange, talks like a kid all about her girlfriends and her horse riding and then knocks back the vodka and turns into a man-eating carnivore, sex on legs and she’s not fussy. Just wants the love and wants it carnal and will take it into any part of her that you’d like to poke it. She’s yours to play with and that’s the deal. Sick, really. Well, the part of me that wants to play doesn’t think so. It thinks she’s a queen, of a particular variety. But the rest of me that I have to live with and agree with and negotiate with and be happy with, he says to me, Jack, let’s keep the porn in your imagination between the sheets of your bed. Let’s not use any girl that way. And of course, I do have my four lusty maidens who await me in my bed every night, and any afternoon if I can make it there and then of course, there’s their gymnastic efforts in the shower … you wouldn’t believe how many wanton beauties can fit all around me in there … probing fingers, capacious mouths and moist tight-fitting apertures, orifices even. Hmm.
My route home takes me through a series of housing estates. Money buys you space. Clearly. Distance from other people. In Katelyn’s estate, if you could call it an estate, the houses are all detached and mature hedges give people even more privacy from their neighbours. Privacy in sight, sound and physical distance. You could butcher someone in Katelyn’s sitting room, saw their bones with a hedge trimmer and throw them into a suitcase without her neighbours hearing even a muffled groan. I bet they don’t call it sitting room either.
I walk through the piss-scented alleyway into my estate. Rows upon rows of terraced houses, front gardens so small there is little point in erecting walls between them. And those foolish enough to plant hedges watch them being trampled by kids racing from one end of the terrace to the next.
Not only can I hear every shout and roar my neighbour makes when watching a match, a Liverpool fan for his sins, but I also get to hear him yawn before he turns off the telly and scrapes his chair back from the table before he flicks on the kettle for more tea. Of course, I’m not spared his intimacy with his wife, if you could by any stretch of the imagination call his rutting intimacy. Every Friday night without fail and some Saturdays if there’s a match on. If she enjoys it, I’ll never know, no sound comes from her. As for him, he is swift and business-like in reaching his crescendo. I have to remove my iPad from the shelf so I’m not concussed at a quarter past midnight of a Friday night.
Instead of going in the front door, I walk down the back alley of the house and in the back gate. Yes! Just as I’d hoped, Niamh’s light is still on. She lives two doors down from me and since her older sister moved home with a colicky baby, Niamh has been ousted to the extension down the back. Suits her fine, though she doesn’t let on, means she’s away from her annoying family and she can play music and chill without the others in her ear.
I stand at my garden wall, looking over to hers, thinking about things, just dreamy, I suppose. My body’s warm after the walk, steam rising off me. I can feel the sweat cool on my forehead and on the small of my back, while my breathing slows down.
I love that moment before you take action. Your eyes get stuck in a daydream, an inertia, they won’t unlock. Your body knows it’s about to move and it enjoys the stillness, knowing it’s about to end as it waits for your eyes to stir. So there I am, standing there, thinking I’m alone, when next thing I see the orange glow of a cigarette brightening and I can just make out Niamh’s face behind it. She’s sitting on her bedroom windowsill facing me.
‘You just going to stand there?’ she says.
‘Hey,’ I say. I clear the walls and amble over to her. I’m so pleased to see her yet I don’t know what to say. Especially because of how we said goodnight earlier. So I rest my weight on the windowsill alongside her and stare out onto the dark lawn. Funny how you can look at grass at night and it appears grey though you know that it’s really green.
‘Good time?’ she says.
She offers me a drag. I pull on it and hand it back to her. She looks at me funny.
‘Want to hear that new song Danny was on about? I found it on YouTube.’
‘Sure,’ I say.
She disappears from the window and I climb in after her, the net curtain tickles my nose. I step onto her spongy bed then follow her to the futon couch. She passes me the second set of earphones and presses Play.
We sit next to each other, staring at the screen, listening to the song. Her breath smells fruity with a hint of alcohol from earlier. My eyes are on the screen but my body luxuriates in her closeness to me, the sides of our calves rest against each other, our thighs touch, hers warm, large and firm. Her right hand holds her side of the iPad and my left holds mine. I feel the light pressure of her shoulder against my arm. The backs of our free hands lay against each other. With each slow indrawing of breath, I can sense the rise of her breasts beneath her black hoodie. I hear her tummy do that funny liquidy sound. Borborygmi. I’m tempted to remind her of the word from biology class. But if I do I know we’d giggle and I’d risk breaking this. And this is bliss like no other. My member swells his agreement. Jesus, how the hell am I going to hide this. And she has no idea.
‘Well,’ she says.
‘Cool,’ I say and try to think of some excuse for prolonging this heaven.
My phone bleeps and a message flashes.
‘Sorry,’ I say, and turn it to silent.
‘Take it,’ she says and she moves to sit cross-legged on the couch facing me, her elbows resting on her knees, her phone in her hand lighting her face up blue. She scrolls down her messages.
I glance at my phone. A message from Katelyn. I return it to my pocket and lean my head back on the couch, closing my eyes. My thigh and calf feel cold having lost contact with hers.
‘Well, that’s my last social, anyways,’ she says.
‘That good, was it?’
She doesn’t answer.
‘You looked like you were having fun,’ she says.
I raise my head and look at her. I’ve no idea what she’s thinking. I can’t see recrimination in her face or hear it in her tone. And yet … I don’t know whether to talk to her as my best friend, Niamh, who I’d trust with any secret, well, nearly any. Or whether I should be careful around her, as she’s the girl I fancy most in the whole world and I’ve felt this way for as long as I know her. Fuck.
‘It was a mistake,’ I say, settling for something in between. Feeble.
She looks at me and we hold that look for a few moments. Then she smiles her wry smile.
‘Yeah, I didn’t think that hockey-playing, horse-riding bitchy-girl gangs were exactly your … kind of thing.’
I groan. She’s letting me off lightly.
‘The first part of the social is always the best,’ she says.
‘The bush drinking.’
‘The looking forwards.’
She goes silent.
‘And then?’ I say.
‘And then it turns into the usual.’
‘A drunken free-for-all.’
‘Bodies looking for bodies.’
‘Mouths for mouths,’ I say.
Silence again. I’ve said too much.
‘Did Danny get his hole?’ she says.
And there it is. Not so lightly.
I look at her. Can’t reply.
‘Didn’t think so,’ she says. She inserts the charger into her phone. It lights up again momentarily and I see a stream of unread messages. She throws down the phone.
I look at my hands and click each knuckle in turn.
‘I’d better, you know …’ I say, standing.
‘Yeah, early rise and all that.’ She opens the window and I climb out.
‘You going to school study tomorrow?’ I ask, facing her at the window.
‘In the afternoon maybe.’
‘Cool,’ I say. ‘See you then so.’
And then that’s it.
At times like this what usually happens is, I look at her and she looks at me and nothing happens and I walk away and then I die. Going over and over all the things I should have said or done. Only this time I look at her and I feel devastated before I even leave her. I can’t leave it like this. And yet I know what she thinks of Katelyn and I know what she thinks of me because I went with Katelyn but I don’t care. If I can peck Katelyn’s cheek to be kind to her then what kind of a prick am I if I can’t even kiss Niamh’s cheek when it’s only the very beginning of the ways that I’d like to be with her?
I love Winston Churchill. Love that man’s faith in himself, his conviction ‘… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ The certainty in his voice and behind it, the fear. Both together. I love it that he faced the scariest thing he could think of and declared himself strong, declared himself unbeatable. Even if it was in that ridiculously pompous English accent.
So with Churchill egging me on, I lunge in and it’s awkward and I nearly trip over the flowerpot outside the window but it doesn’t matter. My lips reach Niamh’s cheek and it’s so soft and it smells soapy and I can’t believe I’ve done this, risked this. Because she is the most important person to me in the whole world. I even told her about that girl in France last year, the girl who forced me into it when I didn’t even like her and didn’t want to do it and how the girl laughed when I couldn’t keep it up and made me feel so small and it was my first time but the girl didn’t care. That’s not something you could tell Danny. He’d think I was being all weird. But Niamh got it straight away.
‘Le viol,’ she said, ‘that’s what the French call it.’ Le viol.
How many people can you be with in this world and just be with them and say nothing and your body just wants to be near theirs and you understand each other without a whole lot of explaining, without any explaining really? None. I’ve never felt this with anyone before Niamh. And I know I won’t feel it ever again with anyone else, man or woman, ever. So it has to be minded, this thing, it has to be honoured and protected.
I duck away from her once my lips touch her cheek.
I risk one look back and even in the low light cast from the back street lamp, I can see the colour rise in Niamh’s cheeks and she’s smiling at me.
I clear each wall with a hurdler’s jump, climb up our flat-roof drainpipe, clamber in my own window and fall into the arms of my four lovelies awaiting me in my bed.
I lie still, encircled by them, my eyes staring at the ceiling, my heart walloping in my chest until sleep eventually arrives to take me. No old words will do to describe how I feel. I’m full to the brim and bursting with Niamhessence, Niamhitude, Niamhfullness, Niamhuberance even, and that’s only the start of it.
Aideen Henry lives in Galway and is a writer and a physician. She has published short fiction and poetry. Her short stories were shortlisted for the Francis McManus Award in Ireland in 2011, 2012 & 2015. Her debut collection of short stories, Hugging Thistles, was published with Arlen House in 2013. Her debut collection of poetry, Hands Moving at the Speed of Falling Snow, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2010 and she was shortlisted for the Hennessy XO Literary Awards for poetry. Her second poetry collection, Slow Bruise, was published with Salmon Poetry in 2015. She read both poetry and prose at selected venues in New York and Connecticut in 2016. She has been awarded a Literature Bursary by the Irish Arts Council and has been writer in residence at the Heinrich Boll Cottage, Achill Island and at Áras Éanna, Inis Oirr, Aran Islands. Her work has been published in literary journals in Ireland, the UK and the US.