Shaun tilted his head back, opened his throat and inverted the can over his mouth. The cider flopped and gushed and died out in a fizz of dribbling bubbles. He pitched the empty Scrumpy Jack’s into the Crystal River and the current took it downstream, under a pipe and past a clutch of submerged stones smothered by the hissing waters.
He turned towards the rest of the party. The others were invisible in the darkness of the undergrowth beyond, though he knew they could see him in the lamplight of the riverside path. He could picture himself standing in the orange glare, the black tarmac beneath his feet, glugging the can heroically, flinging it carelessly into the noisy water. He returned towards the clamour of his friends, following a rough track through the beds of ivy.
In a small clearing a dozen teenagers were drinking around a pile of old cans and bottles and plastic bags that marked the winter bonfire spot. It was dark here. A cast of pale orange leaked in from the estate behind and there was the stronger light that came in from the path, but the summer canopy and the thick drapings of ivy shredded these down to just a few scattered beams.
The girls were on vodka mixed with soft drinks or energy drinks. The lads were on beer or cider. Everybody was drunk.
There’d been a fight while Shaun was gone. Someone described it to him, laughing, adding that some yolks should be on the way. Shaun laughed and punched someone on the shoulder for a cigarette. He leaned against a barked tree while he smoked and talked to a girl. As he approached the butt, the girl began to read aloud from the tipex and nail-polish marks on the tree: Tomo NUTGROVE Sarah ♥s Anto Jani Allen Lives.
Shaun flicked the spent cigarette into the ivy beds and took out his phone. He searched his contacts under “F”, found “Fag” and selected “Send Message”. He clicked in, from right to left, f—a—g, and dropped his hovering thumb on the largest button: “Send”.
Two tiny beeps.
Fionn felt the corresponding purr on his thigh and took out his phone, unlocked the screen and read, “fag”.
He picked a can of cider out of a plastic bag that hung on a tree and began to drink. The cider was vilely warm. Someone called out to him from the wall. He went over. Three of his friends were leaning on the wall in a row, their faces obscured. Above their heads, Fionn could make out black loops spray-painted on the concrete. These were the upper flourishes of a fading eight-foot RIP, which was surrounded with the names and messages of forgotten people who no longer drank there: Miss ya Rory xxxx Clara Rory ya Ledge.
Fionn said, “Scoot”, and his friends shuffled to give him space. He leant back against the R and then slid down to his hunkers. His friends followed suit, their shirts scritching on the wall. As they chatted, Fionn peered out into the trees. He could see some of the others moving about there, their dark forms blooming unexpectedly from the silhouetted trunks. The ivy that clogged the woodland caught some of the light from the road below and glistened. Behind the voices of his friends, the intermittent hush and rev of passing cars came and went.
One of his friends began to speak louder, drunker than the rest, he began to shout an anecdote which petered out unfinished when Fionn took out his phone. Fionn read the new message: “faggot”.
He put his phone on silent.
The same friend now talked about going to the graveyard, which was a little further along the ridge towards Spyder Hill. They hadn’t been there since the Council had smeared oil on the perimeter wall. No one wished to go there that night either. When the notion had been firmly beaten down, Fionn said, “Another night man”.
He felt sick.
Calls broke out to the left. They all momentarily tensed until they recognised the voices. One of the voices struck Fionn with a special chime. He rose quickly, feeling his friends dwindle to specks behind him. He stepped away from them and they fell away, shorn from his mind. Desire and something like hope soared through his body. He slugged at his can of cider and then slung it away into the bushes. He watched as a pale dark-haired boy crashed into the light of the clearing followed by two mincing giggling girls. They were greeted by the others who rambled out of the trees cheering. The boy had not seen Fionn yet. Fionn had paused by the edge of the clearing, hidden in a wall of shadow.
Fionn heard a rustling behind him and his friends passed, moving wordlessly from the wall towards the clearing where everyone was now gathered. He stared at the boy who was laughing now. He said to himself, as if taking a bite from the darkness, “faggot”, and stepped out of the trees.
Clustered around a metal bench at the edge of Kilvere field, a third group was drinking. The thick, sweet stench the Dodder took on after hot days drifted through the riverside trees towards them. Someone was playing music on their phone, a small metallic blare. The boys wore shorts, the girls skirts. They all had hoodies on, which made the girls seem top-heavy and off-balance on their bare skinny legs. The teenagers milled and talked, holding cans, someone who was sitting occasionally rising and another taking their place on the bench.
A blond girl scrunched up an empty packet of crisps in her palm and flung it towards the brambles. It sprung open in the air and floated down into the thicket. A boy grasped her hand. She squirmed free without looking at him. The boy moved away and flicked a finger at a bearded redhead on the bench: “Up”.
The redhead rose and went to piss.
At the back of the field, up a steep rise, was the Tesco’s car park. Delivery trucks rumbled to a stop and then beeped loudly as they reversed into position. Bats feasted on the swarms of insects riveted below the security lights. A permanent charred patch from Hallowe’ens scarred the centre of the empty field.
The redhead returned from the bushes and moved towards a dark shape on the grass a couple of feet behind the bench. He bent down and tore a half-submerged strip of carpet from the soil, spilling, like rice from a split bag, dozens of scrabbling flakes of life: earwigs, beetles, ants, worms, woodlice. The segments and legs writhed and twitched on the drooping blades, then fell and flowed back into the high grass, were swallowed up, like water.
“Faggy!” Shaun watched the screen until the sending arrow froze and then disappeared.
He looked up and saw two lads away by the path drenched in the orange glow of the sodium lamps pissing together into the river. Distant, noiseless men, orange on the black tarmac. A girl clung to one of the lampposts beside them and swung around it with increasing speed. The chatter in the clearing rose about Shaun’s ears. He was drinking beer now, someone else’s he had kicked up while walking through the ivy. He felt very drunk and a sourness had clouded his mind. He saw a girl’s bare meaty shoulder and pinched it hard. The girl screamed and slapped his arm away, “Fuck off Shaun! That hurt!”
Shaun stopped. He felt a clap on his shoulders and someone stood in front of him. He was offering his hand. They shook solemnly as Aaron said, “Congratulations for that. Just congratulations”.
Aaron went to pinch the girl’s shoulder, but lightly. She slapped out. “Fuck off Aaron! Seriously!”
Aaron turned and thrust his knee towards Shaun’s groin. Shaun flinched. Aaron stopped short and said, “Two for flinchin’!”
“Sap,” said Shaun and sat on the ground. He poured out his beer. He was beginning to feel dizzy when he closed his eyes...
Shaun sprang up and jabbed a fist just short of Aaron’s face. Aaron flinched and looked genuinely frightened.
“Two for flinchin’ mate,” Shaun said calmly.
“Yeah, yeah,” Aaron replied. “Quits so, quits so.”
They both laughed and hugged.
Shaun sat down again and took out his phone. He peered into the sink of pale light in his palm. F—a—g, he spelt out.
Fionn felt the flush of a hand on the inside of his thigh. Shay’s face was close but unreadable, a pale denuded oval in the gloom. His longish black hair merged with the darkness behind.
It was not a hand. It was a text.
“Cool man, sounds cool.” Fionn was acting casual. He lifted a hand but sensed, even in this heavy shadow, that he should not lay it on Shay’s shoulder as he’d intended.
“Yeah, it’s grand, grand yeah.” Shay’s voice was without lustre. The pale splotch of his face palpitated gently in time with the words. But when he shifted his posture, he broke into a shaft of light and Fionn saw that he was smiling. As soon, he moved again and a thick nap of murk blotted out his face.
“I need to piss,” said Shay.
Fionn, emboldened, asked, “Do you need a hand?”
Shay laughed, walked a few feet into the ivy beds and began to piss. Fionn strained to hear the crashing on the leaves, though it was much louder than the chatter of the others, which came to them from a little way off. He felt a vibration on his thigh and then another: the texts accumulated in his pocket like heavy stones.
Shay had finished pissing. A pale stripe of light shone on his back. All around him the ivy gleamed. Fionn thought he could smell the boy’s cock in the darkness, a tang of urine and sweat that cut through the pungent must of the soil and the sour odour of the nettles. His fingers dreamed of combing down through the short tufts of pubic hair.
He waded through the ivy until he stood behind Shay. He fingered up the boy’s T-shirt and put a hand on the soft flesh above his hip.
“Ehhhh, you’re touching me man,” Shay said.
Fionn felt another shiver, another text.
“Just checking your pulse.”
“Ehhhh, you’re not a girl man.”
“Yeah, a girl: they’ve got tits man, tits.”
Fionn lurched inside.
Shay pressed on: “Let’s go back to the others.”
Fionn couldn’t drop it that easily.
“Tits? I don’t need tits to suck you off man.”
He rubbed his hand around onto Shay’s belly. Shay spun round free: “Jesus Fionn, get a-way, you’re such a —”
Fionn’s phone vibrated against his thigh: two long shudders.
Wrenching and twisting, she broke away from the bench, and then the blond girl she kicked earth and sprinted away across the orange field. A fox sped into the bushes behind Tesco’s. A lamp at the edge of the field dimmed and began to buzz. One of the boys gave chase.
The girl and the boy swirled in long arcs over the field, tracing strong smooth scribbles back and forth. The girl’s face was set blank. She seemed oblivious to the boy pursuing her. The boy was suffering, dogged but asthmatic, his cheeks pink, an expression of determined worry just perceptible behind the fatigue. He was loping almost and chugged his arms low and dangling, like an exhausted middle-aged jogger.
Without warning, the loops and curves of the pursuit froze into a straight line heading downriver. Soon the two were almost out of sight at the end of the field. Then they were gone, engulfed by the high bushes that bordered the path there.
The others all paused and turned to face downriver. In their hoodies, they resembled a congregation of druids, wearily gazing at the bushes, listening to the trees.
One of them called out without stirring, “Derek!”
The body went into the Dodder under Pearse Bridge. The water closed over, sealed itself with ripples. Like a glove, broad and strange, the river held the body, and floated it downstream along the dark stretch at the backs of the houses, out to where the road bordered the water. The pale wobbly limbs glided beneath the orange orbs reflected in the river’s surface, beneath the dangling black feet of a swan, neck tucked in, revolving slowly in sleep. Someone jogged by on the concrete. Someone walked their dog beneath the streetlights. On the darkened faces of the riverside homes burglar alarms blinked blue. A dream catcher hung in a window. All the cars were asleep.
Upstream, towards the hills, the shadows along the river swarmed with life. On a wooded hillside above the Dodder Valley, Shay was talking to two girls. One was fingering his black hair. The greased graveyard wall stood crumbling beside them, dutifully guarding its hoard of the dead: Protestants, Catholics, Fenians and Vikings, infants the whooping cough had pumped into silence. The ancient belly of the suburb. A half-acre scattered with drunken gravestones, leaning, tilting, mired in up to the waist, fallen flat, or completely submerged inching relentlessly towards the Earth’s glowing core.
Further upriver, about the metal bench in Kilvere, drunkenness had ceded to tiredness and nausea. They had started too early. Someone was puking in the brambles, their face masked by the heavy cloth of a hood. Nobody spoke.
But towards Templeogue and all the way to Firhouse other sessions were only beginning, adding to those in full swing or almost over. Cans being fished out of the shallows where they had been set to cool. Feverish cross-texting as groups of twos and threes trailed across greens and along roads zoning in on the spot. Some kindled fires in spite of the warm night. Gardaí flashed torches into bushes and warned for quiet. Strange men smoked hash behind tumbles of gorse. And this was all along the river, from Firhouse to Ringsend, hundreds of teenagers were marching through the undergrowth, below standing trees, or past trees that had fallen and were rotting gently back into the landscape, teenagers were stumbling, raking up the glistering ivy beds with their dreamless feet.
Dodder water eddied, cupped in the drowning mouth, tinged with beer and a peaty flavour from its dark boggy headwaters above the Glenasmole Valley. The lungs inhaled and the stomach swallowed billions upon billions of silent molecules. Three pillars of water lodged in the abdomen like three fists, one clenched and round, the other two with their ten thousand fingers stretched creeping along the shattered fractal paths to the alveoli. Intermixed, having flowed down from the hills over smooth stones scrabbled from the bedrock, the Crystal’s water, laced with urine and loaded with silt, paid its tribute to the drowning. It carried with it green Alder leaves from the woods up by Moyville where Shaun still lingered, smoking, his friends grinding their jaws from the yolks, texting again and again, by the rush of the river or in the loud crowded clearing, “fag”, “fog”, “faggot”.
From above, these two rivers and their innumerable ditch-like tributaries appear like black veins in the pale orange flesh of the suburbs, the night-time flesh of countless lamp-lit estates and cul-de-sacs, long roads, roundabouts, Centras and Silvios, empty car parks and bus stops, fields, lanes, trees, gates, railings, all basting in a sickly orange glow. A suburb asleep and aflame, the stars drowned out of the sky.
Invisible, a dot encased in the largest slice of black, the body meandered.
The body in the river rose, face-down, the buttocks planting a bloom of ripples where it broke the surface. The roar of the weir was close. A can of Scrumpy Jack’s drifted alongside in the black water. The drenched fabric that covered it moulded perfectly to the firm shapely dead ass.
Suddenly, ass and can both plummeted, swooped down with the spume of the weir, and were flushed out below where the river seethed white. The flat sheen of the Dodder dropped again and again over the weir’s edge, stretching and then shattering to foam the orange orbs reflected in its surface.
A late-night fly-fisher saw a shape bobbing against a shoal. The river was settled where he was and the grey stones were bright against the black of the water. In a metal bucket beside him were three dead fish. He covered the bucket and pushed past the tall grasses and weeds on the bank into the water. He waded in his wellies towards the shoal, too old to hear the clicks of the hunting bats that flashed by. The face of the dead boy was pale, the expression unreadable for his old eyes in the gloom.
Shaun felt there was news before he heard it. He was at the edge of the clearing talking to Aaron who was picking at the bark of a tree. The others had drifted into the heavier wooded darkness on the far side of the clearing. That moment past a strange shift had come over the others. Now their dark shapes gathered close. A greater regularity of tone followed as three or four conversations merged into one. The sporadic beep of texts underlay and somehow held up the increasing energy of the voices.
Aaron paused and looked up from the naked woody flesh he had exposed.
Shaun said, “They’ll come over now, they’ll tell us now.”
Aaron thrust his fingers under Shaun’s nose: “Smell”.
Shaun inhaled a sweet green fragrance, a plant smell fainter but headier than that of crushed leaves. It was the scent of his street after rare nights of high winds, when branches and countless twigs and leaves littered the ground.
“Nice,” he said.
Aaron dropped his hand as a shape entered the light of the clearing and crossed towards them, waxing into human form. Laurna stepped right up to Shaun and put her face in front of his. He looked down at her wet mouth, the smooth bumps of her cheekbones. Her eyes were wide. She was excited.
“One of the lads down on the Dodder seshes is after going into the river and drownin’. He’s dead. Actually dead.”
The others were trailing into the clearing now, shrouded shapes emerging from the darkness. They slowed and settled by the pile of cans and bottles with a great hush, like a flock of sheep coming to rest. Shaun felt each silent presence, the disposition of each motionless body, how the weight of each torso was held by a cocked hip, how the huge arms hung loose or were folded or hooked around clasping a shoulder. His friends, they were chatting to each other.
“Oh shit!” Shaun said and forced a laugh, did really laugh. “Oh shit! Maybe ten was a bit heavy.”
He looked around. No one was listening to him. He had been speaking too quietly. His face was weak and open. A shaft of orange light poured into his mouth. “The fuckin’ faggot,” he muttered in disbelief.
It was pitch black in the undergrowth. They lay on a blanket of ivy. Shay by Fionn, Fionn by Shay. Fionn snuggled closer and laid his head on Shay’s shoulder. Shay let him. Fionn placed a hand firmly on Shay’s breastbone, a hard ridge in the cotton of his T-shirt. Shay did nothing. Fionn felt, or felt that he could feel, the spasmodic nods of an erection. He slid his hand down towards Shay’s belly but Shay interrupted him. “Hey there,” he said, gently, dreamily.
Fionn questioned himself: leave hand on belly or back to chest? Back to chest. He’d play it safe. He wouldn’t scare him off this time.
Back to chest, but then up to collarbone which he caressed with his forefinger as he held down Shay’s collar with a thumb. Shay murmured with pleasure or dissent. They were in a good place.
Fionn watched the shards of light in the canopy shift and flow as the wind raked through the high branches. He listened to the others a stone’s throw off having fun, loud. A motorbike zipped by on the road below. He was lying on a stick. The stick poked into his side. He suddenly felt that he was in the belly of a strange reality, sunk in a giant chamber that echoed endlessly with noise, light, odour, vibration. He sensed the presence of the trees around him, that in a lull in the march of this migrating forest he and Shay sheltered briefly by their gnarled toes. The weeds too he sensed, their unknowable silent tumult as for millennia they flared across the landscape, lapping at the knees of their larger brethren. And the relentless deep dark green of the ivy. He could not see it in this darkness but visions of daylight came when visible the glossy ivy crawled along the ground, crowned stumps and deadfall, dripped in long tendrils from the higher boughs, a sombre green drenching the woodlands everywhere.
Fionn’s desire emptied out of him. He held Shay like a teddy bear. He felt sleepy and frightened and somehow at peace.
Shay shifted and pressed closer to Fionn. Fionn did nothing but, effortlessly, despite the clarity that rung through his mind, desire was again plucked up within him, was drawn out like a soft pulp pulled gently from a shell. And it was more urgent now than ever, now that he saw their naked bodies as these fragile things, brief sensual gatherings of glowing coloured elements, uniting slowly and then melting away, the infinitely energised tears of a universe furiously weeping.
He clasped at Shay’s erect penis and tried to pull down the rough fly of his jeans.
Shay lowered a hand to stop him. “Ah ah,” he scolded but drew Fionn’s hand back to where it had rested on his chest. They lay silent.
Was Shay falling asleep?
A noise. An eruption of beeps, rattles and clicks came from the direction of the wall: texts. The voices of the others quietened. More beeps, sporadic. Then a swell of chatter.
Fionn could not tell whether it was he who tensed or Shay beside him.
Someone called out. “Fionn! Fionn!”
Another: “Shay! Man! Shay!”
Fionn clutched Shay’s shoulder as if to restrain him, to restrain him. He did not want Shay to use this disturbance to break the connection that they had made. What he feared more though was that the others would come looking, trampling through the ivy to find them. It was not the being caught he feared but his powerlessness over Shay in their presence. He did not think Shay was even gay.
But the others did not insist. The shouts ceased, revealing a dull monotone of chat beneath. An immense rustling arose and the voices died down: they were leaving. The voices stopped and the rustling rose to crashes, tearing noises: they were running, clattering down the hill towards the source of the silent flashes of blue light that plummeted into the woods, splashing the dark trunks, the weeds, the ivy. Their noise grew fainter. Fionn could imagine them loping downhill, slowing to a gingerly step for the old rusted farm wire, and finally grasping roots where the hill was too steep to even walk. Then rushing out from beneath the trees gaining speed as they hit the field, leaping over the grass-choked millrace, and dashing towards the road.
They were alone.
Shay leant deep into Fionn. “Blowjob,” he said.
Shaun flicked his cigarette into the ivy beds and took out his phone. He searched his contacts under “F”, found “Fag” and selected “Send Message”. He clicked in a message, longer than usual this time. Pressed “Send” and watched the sending arrow flow skywards again and again until its disappearance, followed by a beep, told him that the text had reached Fionn.
Shaun stepped back across the clearing to the girl he’d just met. He could see a streak of red dye on her fringe from the light of her phone. She looked up from the screen when he stepped to her. She was gorgeous: short, a little plump, round face. He could smell her skin beneath her dress.
She smiled at him. He smiled back.
This girl, he would truly.
Fionn MacAuliffe woke into brightness. His mind was bleary. He was fully dressed and the blinds were up in his bedroom. He looked out the window. The day was overcast in all the back gardens of the estate. Formless grey clouds overhead. Scattered drops of water on the pane.
He saw his phone on the sill and picked it up: “11 Unread Messages”.
He read them.
Fionn felt a lurch, like his brain had dropped into his stomach. His hands felt light. He had no desire to cry.
He fumbled on his runners and jacket and stepped out onto the landing. The house felt empty, a morose Sunday emptiness. He went down the stairs and out the front door.
Outside, there was no one on the street. The greying pebble-dashed houses silently watched their meagre gardens. He walked on past, beneath the cold pale bulbs of the dormant streetlights. He walked through the estate that morning, he walked through the whole suburb. He saw a green bush and he saw a white pillar and he saw a red car and he saw a blue car and he saw a pram and he saw a shop. He saw a beer can and a mom and a cycle lane and a blue car. He saw an old man and a pub and a grey wall. He saw a footpath and a green bin.
He saw the black grit between the dead boy’s teeth.
He saw his own hands.
“The fuckin’ faggot”
“Dereks dead. Sry mate. Drowned in dodder 2nite”