UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
In The Darkness
The boy, Jimmy, had been sleeping until he felt the narrow mattress shift away from him, and then suddenly he was wide awake, understanding everything. He had listened to the other boys talking about this, about how
He'd listened, feeling a sickness in his stomach, while the older boys told their tales, tried to describe how it had felt, first the touching and then the pain when all that touching led to other things. Some of the boys tried to be brave about it, laughing like it was nothing at all really, and they'd talk about afterwards when they'd squeeze their Half Crown rewards in their palms hard enough to set an imprint of the coin's markings into their flesh. You could get a lot for a Half Crown, of course, enough Gobstoppers, Peggy's Legs and Dolly Mixtures to last you until next time, if you rationed them out with a bit of care. They laughed about that, but the laughter didn't reach their eyes at all, and it didn't soften that catch of pain and fear that quivered uncomfortably in their throats.
"Don't worry," they'd say, those who displayed the most bravado, as they studied their huddled audience from behind the masks of frozen gagging smiles. "You'll all get a turn. The old boy likes to share the Half Crowns around."
Tonight, Jimmy's turn had come.
The mattress banked, and for a moment he was sure that he would roll from his right side onto his back, and that maybe he'd keep on rolling, right out onto the waxy linoleum floor. But the sensation must have been heightened in his mind because he didn't roll, didn't really move much at all. The weight set itself carefully down, aided by a hand pressing on his upper arm, and then settled, but still Jimmy lay there, on his side, hardly breathing, keeping his eyes closed and thinking about what the other boys had said, how they described what happened.
He didn't have to look to know that the priest was there. That familiar smell was irresistible, the cloying mixture of drink and something sprayed, a fruity perfumed scent that seemed a little like apples but wasn't, and there was the faint buzz that tinged every slow exhalation. Father Moriarty was old, in his sixties at least, and he had fat cold hands that liked to touch the cheeks of his boys and to pat their shoulders as he spoke to them, sometimes liked to catch their hands and hold them tight while he urged them to confess their sins, insisting with that persuasive way of his that full confession was critical for the well-being of their souls, and that they shouldn't dare to keep anything back, especially the things that shamed them most, the impure thoughts, the way they liked to touch themselves sometimes, because God saw, heard and knew everything, and their efforts at deception would only serve to sadden Him. "Go on, boy," he'd say, his small yellow-flecked eyes hooded by the long red lashes and his wet mouth pursed into a pull-down smile that revealed a lower row of tiny rotten teeth. He looked like no one else that Jimmy had ever seen, that oversized head laden with milky excesses of flesh, a bluish rope of vein so prominent at his left temple, his small nose constantly flaring its nostrils. The smattering of red hair lay thinly across his pate in greased too-long strands that he rubbed into place a thousand times a day. He was God's messenger, he often told them. And God's messenger was never to be denied.
Every drawn breath kept a perfect tempo, each sigh matching the next and the last exactly, the canting squeak holding its place over and over, swinging steadily against the beat. Even with his eyes closed, Jimmy could imagine that frail buzz frosting the air of the cold night dormitory, spinning gossamer curlicues, and that pink tongue lapping wet the prayerful lips. But as the blanket began a slow descent he pushed the image of Father Moriarty away and tried to focus instead on how it had been last summer on that lovely week when his uncle from Scotland, his mother's brother, Brian O'Neill, had come to visit. Every morning by ten, Uncle Brian would be there in the hallway by the front offices, tall and thin, sallow-skinned, with a crew-cut of jet black hair and a shadow of beard that showed even an hour after the closest shave imaginable. A stranger made familiar by want as well as by blood, a man in his thirties who would look Jimmy over from head to toe and back again, smiling with pride and sadness in a way that wrinkled those deep green eyes almost shut, and then he'd hold out a hand with the promise of a day at the seaside, or a trip to the cinema, or maybe a walk in the woods. Brian knew everything there was to know about trees and wildlife, it seemed, but he knew all about boats too. He was a Marine Engineer in the Royal Navy; this week in Waterford, he explained, was so that he could reconnect with a few things he missed and maybe also put a few past troubles to rest. Jimmy was the spit down off his poor mother, apparently. Brian said this over and over, that she had the same eyes and the same way of smiling, shyly, with a flash of pink rising across her cheeks and with her head tilted ever so slightly to the side. "I swear to God, Jimmy. I'd have been able to pick you out of a crowd of a thousand once I saw you smiling like that," he said, and Jimmy, listening to the comparisons being drawn between himself and a woman he knew only by name, had felt as though his heart was about to burst from his chest with pride and joy.
The beat of the breathing behind him shifted, the wheeze becoming more pronounced, and the big cold hand was at him, no longer merely resting on his arm but touching him thoroughly, first through his clothes and then, when that was no longer enough, pulling at the waistband of his underpants, wrestling it down around his bare thighs. Without the blanket to cover him Jimmy could feel the hard caress of the chill night air lapping at him, drawing his flesh rigid and mottling it with a rash of goose pimples. The elastic of his underpants had twisted and was pressing an uncomfortable knot into the side of his left knee. He could have reached down and straightened it but didn't, and instead the irritation grew and grew. Later, in his nightmares or when he thought back on tonight, this first time, that piece of elastic would hold a lot of his mind's focus.
A moment of stillness stretched out, interminable and compromised only by the chase of his heart beating something that was equal parts terror and confusion high up in his chest, clenching at his throat muscles and nearly choking him, and then the hand was back, even colder than before, and more determined, and now there was nothing to protect him at all, not even the thin veil of cotton, not from God's messenger.
Guttural whispers flushed against the left side of his face, sometimes shaping his name, mostly settling for nonsensical urgings as the hand continued to forage. Tonight, God knew his name.
Uncle Brian talked a lot about growing up. There were only certain words now that hinted at his Waterford roots. He had left home at sixteen, he said. The Navy was some life, all right. "They made a man of me, Jimmy. Educated me, trained me for a life at sea, helped me to build character." He was tall and thin, but it was a wiry thinness, exuding strength. He had a girl, he said, Kathleen. She lived in Glasgow but of course they wouldn't live there after they were married. He'd want to be by the coast, he said, but not a city. A small town. Maybe Scotland, maybe even Ireland. Kathleen's blood was Irish, she had lovely long black hair and blue eyes. The grey photograph that he pulled from his wallet didn't give up much in the way of details but Jimmy could see that she was pretty, beautiful even, and it was easy to imagine the rest. "A city is no place to bring up kids," Brian said, tucking the photo safely back into the leathery folds of his wallet, in beside some identification documents and some crisp English pound notes. "After we're married, we'll settle in a small town by the sea and set about starting ourselves a family. And Kathleen is a nurse, so she'll never have trouble finding work." Jimmy had started into dreaming just about then, building in his mind a fantasy jigsaw-puzzle world of how it could be, not just for the loving couple but for them all. That grey photograph showed a kindly face, the trace of a smile stirring every feature to life. A motherly smile, he assured himself, one full of compassion, and of course he'd be no trouble to them at all, he'd be on his very best behaviour from now on and he'd never give them a single cause to worry about him or to regret giving him the chance of a family life.
For six days he held such thoughts as strictly secret until the Sunday, the final day of Brian's stay before returning to Scotland, Kathleen and the Royal Navy. They sat at one of the stained oak picnic tables set just off the strand at Ardmore, shielded from the worst of the breeze by the low dunes, and Jimmy was unfolding the tinfoil wrapping of the ham and cheese sandwiches while Brian measured out tea from a red flask into two small paper cups. They'd taken the bus from Dunmore East, sitting side by side, with Jimmy in the window seat and smiling at everything, unbearably happy, and Brian pointing out various passing things of interest, such as the horse chestnut trees that lined the roadside, the breeds of cattle in the fields, a stream that he knew to be especially good for trout, even the ruins of a round tower with the tubs of fallen stone blocks poking like bleached headstones up through the stringy waves of grass, and when finally they arrived at the beach Jimmy had run straight to the water, pulling off his shoes at a hopping run that looked awkward and ridiculous and pitching them away one and then the other, before wading out to knee-deep into the freezing tide. Brian sauntered after him, laughing heartily at the shrieks of how cold the water was, and he stooped, gathered up the discarded shoes then dropped lazily onto the sand, now and again flapping the air around his face to ward off the irritation of a couple of scrambling flies but mostly fixing his stare on the horizon and the single slow drift of a trawler at work. It was a typically sunless day with temperatures in the mid-teens, and the cloaked light shifted as restlessly as the tide, waxing in and out of dreary gloom. None of that mattered to Jimmy, though. And after an hour or so of wading and splashing, the coldness of the water finally became unbearable and they decided that now would be a good time to eat the sandwiches.
"Could I come and live with you, Brian?" He hadn't meant to blurt it out so plainly, had rehearsed in his mind how he would work the question into conversation after he had made it clear how much sense it made, and how much of a help he could be to them. "After you and Kathleen are married, I mean," he added, shyly.
"Well," said Brian, after he had carefully chewed and swallowed a bite of his sandwich. Some of the sandwiches had mustard, some didn't, and a speck of yellow freckled the corner of his mouth. He swabbed at it with his tongue, missed, and gave up. "Would you really want to leave Ireland? I mean, all the friends you have here and all?"
"I would," Jimmy said. He had dreamed of this conversation going differently and there was a sense that he'd lost his grip on things. But then something in his uncle's face seemed to soften.
"I'll discuss it with Kathleen. She doesn't know you, of course, but she's a lovely soul. I'll tell her you're my nephew, explain to her about your situation and about my poor misfortunate sister, the Lord have mercy on her, and it'll be fine, I'm sure of it. But you do understand that with me being tied up with the blasted Navy my time is not my own. It will be a year anyway before we can get married, maybe even two if house prices keep going up the way they're going. I expect to be away from home quite a lot for the foreseeable future, trying to get as many hours served as I can, do some serious saving. But it'll be no longer than two years, that much I'm sure of." He gave a wry smile that seemed to say, I doubt Kathleen will wait any longer than two years anyway. Then he finished his sandwich with a flourish and asked Jimmy how that sounded. Jimmy, trying to pick the best threads from the wreckage said that sounded just fine, and there was plenty of time in the weeks after to play the conversation over and over in his mind until it found a different slant, with all trace of negativity having fallen away.
"And in the meantime, we can keep in touch. You can write a letter, can't you?"
What else could Jimmy do but nod that yeah, he could write just fine.
The other boys were right about the pain, but what they had said didn't even begin to describe it. Father Moriarty leaned in, one arm wrapped tightly around Jimmy's stomach, his breath spinning up in sharp, frenzied gasps. The night felt full of music, the iron railing of the bed frame's head keeping an unsteady time against the wall while the priest unfurled a relentless canticle of moans. Helpless to move, every riven thrust sending pain tearing through his body and his mind, Jimmy held his breath and tried to think of anything but what was happening now. This was late September and he had written three letters since the summer without yet receiving a reply. Uncle Brian was probably at sea, putting in the long hours, saving for their future. Tears squeezed from his clenched eyelids and slipped sideways over the bridge of his nose. Then the music of the night increased and he felt something break, down below and deep inside, and he opened his eyes to the conch of the bone-white moon that filled the upper corner of the dormitory's casement window, and waited for the end to come, for death.
The moon glowed in the frosted glass, but he understood that ten year old boys didn't die, not even from this. It was dark now but soon it would be morning, another day of lessons and hurling. Maybe he'd be excused sports, maybe not. Another day, a day like all the rest. And another day meant other nights. The priest began to whisper something, that big sweating head pressing down into the crook of his neck, that mouth with its sticky too-red lips lapping at his flesh, but he found a way to block all of that out by focusing on the weekend. He'd take his Half Crown down to Mrs. O'Donoghue's and spend the whole thing on bars of Fry's Cream chocolate and a bag of Iced Caramels and he'd eat them all at once, right there on the street, just gorge until he was sick.
Billy O'Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Southword and Versal. A 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee, he has won the George A. Birmingham Award, the Molly Keane Short Story Award and the Lunch Hour Stories Prize. A collection of his short stories, entitled 'In Exile', will be published by Mercier Press (Ireland) in the summer of 2008.
© 2008 Underground Voices