Stephen O’Reilly lives in Killeeneenmore, Craughwell, Co. Galway. He is a recipient of the 2019 RTE Short Story Award in honour of Francis MacManus and a Molly Keane Memorial Award. His work has been published in various collections in the UK and Ireland.
By Stephen O’Reilly
Venus falling into a pink smeared west, a hard point of bilious light low down on the horizon. The man looks away, tightening his grip on the rucksack as he crosses the bridge, forcing his head up in the bitter breeze coming off the river, wary of the firmament and all it contains. He is ninety-three million miles from the sun, making his way slowly to the airport bus because it will be too cold to sleep out after midnight and he needs to rest. His pace and demeanour no longer convey purpose and to look weak or alone in the city can be fatal. It makes others want to hurt you.
He bites his tongue and makes fists against a sudden burst of unconnected words that tumble through his head seeking an opening; home-Eden-Lucifer-prize-universe-street.
Gobbets of confused multicoloured thought that want to spill from his lips and spatter the feet of those around him on their way home. The effort to suppress the words causes him to slow and a man behind bumps into him with a grunt of frustration and a mumbled curse. The cold and lack of sleep have taken a toll and he cannot face another night in the open, drifting from one hypnagogic hallucination to the next. Numb, distant feet slip around on the thin plastic shopping bags inside his runners and the cracked mobile vibrates sporadically, complaining about its lack of power and a SIM card, not understanding that there is no-one left to ring. It is used to sip internet from fast-food restaurants and an unguarded office router on the corner of the park where he sleeps. The weather is deteriorating, a moisture laden storm pushing up from the south against the easterly wind, squeezing isobars on the badly cracked screen, honing the wind into a thing that slashes and stabs at exposed flesh.
A group of teenagers pass by, a giddy knot of exuberance, an unexpected warm eddy in the current of people, swept away in the bob of heads and a peal of good-natured laughter. There is an air of excitement at the prospect of snow, the possibility of a long weekend, anticipation in the harried motion of those heading home and the expanding gaps on the shelves of the few grocery shops he frequents.
He has been stocking up as well.
Four tins of beans with small sausages floating inside like diminutive, disembodied cocks; a banana and two bottles of water. His street tan and rucksack make some of the shop staff nervous, so he smiles and makes eye-contact whenever possible, engaging in polite, meaningless conversations about the weather, carefully modulating his volume and tone to demonstrate a harmless civility. Despite his diligence, he has begun to emit some signal others are picking up on. A low hum of leaking coherence reflected in hesitant faces and cool assessing eyes that slide over him. Some new symptom of circumstance expressed in speech or motion.
The afternoon had been spent in the window of a fast food joint, the gaudy yellow seating carefully designed to become uncomfortable after a few minutes and discourage lingering. At some stage he must have closed his eyes, and watched without surprise as his father got on a bus with him. It was late at night and the bus was nearly empty. Taking the opposite seat, his father stared out at the shadowy streetscape rattling by and he could smell stale sweat, cigarettes and Old Spice and below that again, the warm tang of the diesel engine.
“Why?” his father asked.
“I couldn’t help you and I couldn’t watch anymore,” he told him.
“What are you doing son?”
“I don’t know.”
“This is the airport bus,” his father said, looking around him.
He wished the dead had more to say for themselves, and then some giant beaten into a blue suit was prodding him with the aerial of a walkie-talkie, the cuffs of its blazer shiny with grease. Faint chatter came from an earpiece growing out of the side of its naked head while pale rivulets of scar tissue wound through the stubble there. A dromedarian wedge of flesh gathered at the nape, spilled out over the frayed collar of its greyish shirt. The giant informed him that the restaurant was not a doss-house and, lowering its voice, offered to get him another coffee. Told him he must go then. The kindness caught him off guard. Hurt his throat and blurred his eyes.
Back on the street, he considered briefly the coming night and the park, and of soaking his sleeping bag with the bottles of water. Discarding his layers of clothing inside and letting the laws of thermodynamics creep up on him. Let the core finally sputter down, the last bits of warmth surrendered to the sky and entropy’s greedy maw, and avoid old-age warehoused in some dismal nursing home. They were calling them “Memory Care Centres” now as if the residents had popped in for a RAM upgrade. He remembered his father drawing himself up into a foetal position beneath the sheets as the months went by. Lines and creases honourably won, smoothing out beneath a funk of boiled cabbage and disinfectant. The indignity of the nappy and the catheter and a bag pregnant with cold, cloudy piss under the bed you had to be careful not to kick over when you arrived clutching a bag of grapes or cordial like they were the answer to something. Dread congealing in the blood-warm air of a brightly lit room, built to conceal things.
But he is unable to surrender the daily drudgery of survival. Ablutions are carried out in the cramped stalls of restaurant toilets with wash-cloths and baby-wipes. A small magnifying mirror, purchased in a euro-shop, can be blu-tacked to tiles or crudely defaced partitions and allows him to shave regularly. He is grateful that the mirror is too small to encompass the totality of his face and each distorted section of whisker is shaved with a stubborn kind of intensity. Over the last year, he has developed an aversion to his reflection and despises the dark shape that glides past shop windows on the periphery of his vision, dressed in unremarkable black, its head shaved for hygiene and simplicity. Hoping that if it appears normal long enough, it might yet regain sufficient substance for a more conventional existence.
A deprecating rumble from the phone informed him that he had six percent power remaining and while it grudgingly loaded a timetable for the airport bus, he thought about the young couple and their small tent in the park.
There is a perceived safety in numbers and he is never alone in the park at night.
It is usually dark when he gets there and before bedding down, he makes himself check the ground carefully for needles with the light of his phone, hearing the coughs and imprecations and low mumble of conversation from behind the trees and bushes around him.
People with torches occasionally come to count them; some bringing food and warm drinks. The previous night, two Americans in matching puffa jackets, crouched down beside him, excreting empathy, patting him gingerly on the shoulder, telling him to keep warm, to keep his chin up, that God loved him so very, very much. They looked so sane and reasonable and warm that he began to weep, both ashamed of his weakness and grateful for the egg sandwich that was proffered as proof of God’s continued regard. They asked him how it happened, as if it were one thing and not some confusing jumble of events and sensations, and he had to clamp his lips together hard against the tangle of words and images their questions elicited:
A terrible convexity of bank statements and ultimatums from the nursing home, secreted beneath a loose flap of carpet at the front door, until he could no longer bring himself to cross the threshold.
A pulse beating down to nothing under the loose flesh of his father’s neck. The rub of stubble and the dry lips beneath the careful application of his hand.
“I stopped going home,” he said after a while and the visitors exchanged a glance, disappointed with his reticence, but satisfied that his sins were probably pedestrian and easily avoided. Drink or drugs or some tawdry sex thing. There were no original sins left.
“Did he want to pray, maybe?”
The invitation to prayer sometimes came after the bite to eat and admission of fault. Tentatively offered, wary of offending, but a hungry enthusiasm in the eye. The old give-and-take, so as to be fed-and-fed-upon, forever and ever. Amen. He told them that he just needed to sleep and eventually they moved off in a jerky bounce of torch beams to see if they could find someone more receptive to salvation beneath the trees and bushes.
He watches the couple outside their small shelter, cooking with a cigarette lighter in the dome of an upturned coke can. The man’s ulcerated arms roughly bandaged, while she kneels at his feet, tenderly creating new stigmata. Long, dark hair covering her face, brushing against the white of his skin. He wonders about love and suffering and thinks it would be easier to be scourged and nailed to a cross for an afternoon rather than endure years of their accumulated torment. Jesus had it handy enough, he decides.
When the initial euphoria has dissipated, leaving them feeling warm and safe, he tries to speak to them about the storm coming up from the south and how it will meet the hard empty sky and east wind. They should stay somewhere else tonight.
“Where are you going?” they ask.
“On holidays?” There is a slightly accusatory tone.
He tells them that he sleeps in the park and that they have been neighbours for weeks.
“Bring us back something nice,” they say, no longer listening, pulling blankets up around their thin frames and folding themselves back into the tent for a few hours slumber before the craving reasserts and they emerge to forage again with an abject grimness.
A wave of self-loathing breaks on his shoulders as he trudges away from the tent, appalled at his arrogance. He has never helped or saved anyone.
There is a sense of movement in the sky now. Dark shapes gather beyond the orange glow of street lights and as he weaves slowly across the road to the bus stop, a passing white van emits a long hostile honk that dopplers off down the street to be consumed by the wind. He lifts a hand in mute apology to its departing angry red lights.
Others begin to arrive in heavy coats, scarves and hats, shuffling away from him, sensing his difference, establishing a cordon sanitaire, so they can commune anxiously with the blue glow of their phones, searching for weather updates and flight information. The French have phrases for every occasion, he thinks, fumbling with his own phone in a half-hearted attempt to join in. The phone shuts down with an exhausted sigh, leaving him to stare at the fractured shadow of self in the weak diodic light of the shelter. He tells himself that it is not too late and that he can still pass as normal. A solitary bohemian maybe, with a battered rucksack and a tan from healthy hikes up and down hills and forest trails. Or somebody waiting on a cancelled flight coming out of Europe. He can pick a flight number off the monitors and invent a plausible loved one to be waiting for in case he is questioned. The bus will have a heater and at the airport he will slump into one of those stainless steel seats or find a quiet corner somewhere on the terrazzo. The storm will arrive soon and everything will slow, momentum bled away in howl of wind and drift of snow. The bus shelter thrums violently in agreement and the first few flakes tumble across the insipid glow of a nearby streetlight. He will rest beneath the impending soft blanket of chaos.
The couple from the park arrive and have managed to squeeze their entire belongings into two enormous, cheerfully chequered, laundry bags. They are dressed for a casual walk into town on a spring evening and are perished and half-starved and much younger than he initially thought.
“Going anywhere nice?” they ask.
The Land of Nod, he wants to say, struggling to keep his eyes open now. His father called it that, tucking him in at night, back when he was a boy with simple hopes and a torch under his pillow so he could read until the bed warmed up and sleep took him. His father never knew enough to know that it was a place for killers and outcasts. He remembers loathing that stupid child, but the hatred is a diminished thing now, abraded away by the wind or radiated upwards into the sky.
Nod. East of Eden.
It is both his destination and current address and he would tell them this, but is afraid of being misunderstood. He is glad to see them. The words gather painfully in his throat wanting an opportunity to spill out into the air but he must maintain fragile lucidity for a while longer.
He bites down hard on his tongue and the young couple suddenly become more vivid in the glow of the bus shelter and on their faces he can see what remains of a child’s hope.
Smiling around the pain and the taste of blood, he manages to nod.