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Lazy

"There's a place by the canal where secrets are kept."

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They say everyone has something to hide, and you can only tell the truth when you look someone in the eye.

*

Shelley Withams-Glennie claims she’s an only child, but last month I read an article about her paraplegic brother in the local newspaper.

Davis Currie was in youth detention for shoplifting, but says it was his twin, Frankie, who stole everything. Frankie never uses the urinals at school, and instead locks himself in a toilet cubicle. Nobody asks why.

Amy Micah won’t admit she’s dyslexic. For a while, she pretended to faint whenever the teacher asked her to read.

Alison Foster doesn’t have a boyfriend but often comes to school wearing a scarf to hide bite marks on her neck.

Dermot Monaghan secretly stared at me.

*

Secrets, my mother told me, should be kept.

My name is Kevin and I’ve kept them since approximately forever; at least since I was aware of the things my parents tried to hide.

My father hid his anger. His religion was a cloak that shrouded it. He used to walk me to church each Sunday, and to make sure I hurried, his fingers pinched the nape of my neck all the way there. We sat in the pew second from the front. When my father fell to his knees in prayer, I watched the bald patch on the crown of his head, as small as a penny, or as big as a full moon in the night sky, and wondered what it would feel like to hit him.

On the way home, Father would tell me what he had prayed for: absolution from the sins he counted on his fingers: greed, unfaithfulness, deceit and sodomy. Our tea towels at home carried statements about the mercy of saints, and models of Jesus on the cross hung at various angles in every room of our house; a crucifixion scene even cast judgement over us in the bathroom. In an old tobacco tin that sat on a kitchen worktop, Father kept a selection of rosary beads. I don’t know why he needed so many; maybe he had a lot to confess.

Once, when I thought everyone was out, I took out one of the rosaries, and wore it on my wrist. I put on my mother’s shoes and took her lipstick into my bedroom. But somehow my father knew, as if he could read my intentions. As I stood in front of the mirror, pushing the lipstick across my pursed mouth, I saw his reflection. As I turned, he struck me with the back of his hand. It opened a wide wound; I still have the scar on my eyebrow.

Father said he would take me to hospital, but he didn’t. I knew he wouldn’t; I understood him better than anyone. That night, and many times since, I’ve lain in bed and considered the possibility that we were one person, constructed from the same sinews. I was ashamed of us both with equal intensity.

God was not the only person my father worshipped. My mother, with her unblemished skin, white as a canvas, and red hair that surrounded her head like a fire, was an object of idolatry. He brought her chocolates and flowers almost every day. Yet his eyes followed her around the house with a persistent, watchful suspicion. My mother ran away twice.

*

Although Dermot Monaghan had joined our school only weeks before, he was quickly popular. The boys liked him because he seemed to have limitless access to drink and drugs. The girls adored him because he was the best-looking boy they had seen. His only imperfection was perfection: the architecture of his bone structure, his beach tan, the dimple that blossomed when he smiled, the brown eyes that could ease their way into you like a trowel.

*

My mother started to drink about the same time my father began hitting her. When I came home it wasn’t a surprise to find her vacant and loose-limbed on the sofa, with a bottle poorly hidden nearby. I made her drink coffee before my father returned.

*

I did not speak to Dermot. But that didn’t matter, because our unspoken connection would resolve itself in time. None of us in that class were who we presented ourselves to be, but only I was privy to the secret he carried. It confessed itself in the way he looked at me. Not all the time, and not so that anyone else saw, but towards the end of the day, when the teacher was scribbling on the whiteboard, I’d glance to my right and catch him studying me with his mouth slightly open, his lower lip jutting out like a step into his mouth. He watched me with an unflinching steadiness, even when I, in full knowledge of what he was signalling, returned his stare.

In those few weeks I am recalling now, it seemed that our class lived through a succession of beautiful spring afternoons. Day after day, the sun came through the windows at an angle that seemed calculated by celestial trigonometry to intensify the glow of his skin and maximise the destructiveness of the way he looked at me.

*

Mother began to wear makeup and kept it in a plastic case with RIMMEL written on the front. It sat next to the rosary tin. Behind both, I placed our class picture: Dermot, far right, back row, grinning as if he knew the extent of his power.

*

I had no plan to approach Dermot that particular day. I had followed him out of class, and it was watching the fragile way his dark hair curled over his collar that prompted me to say something to seal our secret. To his back, I heard myself tell a lie.

I said, “I have some gear you might be interested in.”

Dermot turned. I cleared my throat and lowered my voice. “And there’s something I want to tell you. Could we meet?”

Dermot looked doubtful, as if he had the choice of a thousand glittering alternatives in this town on a Thursday night. “You have gear?” he said, furrowing his brows.

“Meet me at the canal lock. I’ll explain. Eight o’clock?”

Dermot shrugged, which I took as a positive.

*

When her red hair was lank, or when her eyes were puffy, or when her skin was violated by islands of pink, Mother would not answer the door to callers. She crouched under the letterbox and opened her mouth in panic. I had to watch from the top of the stairs and tell her when they’d left. She was so grateful it made me sick.

*

If I’d had free choice, I’d have chosen to meet Dermot at midnight. That was the time people met in movies. But the eight o’clock option rushed out of my mouth because I knew Father wouldn’t be home until nine.

That evening, the rain that had been falling consistently over the last few days eased; the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. When I arrived at the canal lock, the ground was blanketed in a sheen of frost.

Just in front of the lock stood Dermot, in a hooded North Face jacket, looking vulnerable and invulnerable in the same moment.

*

My mother wore sunglasses out, even when it was raining.

*

“Where are we headed?” Dermot asked. “It’s a stupid time to be down here – you could slip into that canal in a second.”

We’d walked along the footpath for more than a minute before there was any sign of other human life, and that was on the other bank: a girl passing, walking her dog.

“Did you bring any stuff with you?” Dermot asked, his breath misting in front of him like the candy floss you got at fairs.

“One moment."

I hadn’t been along here for ages. There had once been a public toilet down this way, and a bench in front of it, but they had been demolished a time ago and only the foundations were left. We came up to it now, a shadowed pile of rubble.

“Let’s sit here,” I said.

*

My father tried to stop my mother's drinking by starving her of money. He hid her purse and when she found it again he cut up her bank cards. He took me to do the shopping with him in the evening. He only weakened when it came to Mother’s hair, the only part of her, it seemed, he felt he could preserve. Every month he handed her three twenty-pound notes and told her she was beautiful. She sat there in her sunglasses and thanked him.

*

Dermot sat next to me on the rubble. He brushed dirt, real or imagined, from his jeans. “What’s this secret you want to tell me?”

In my dreams of what might happen, this part hadn’t featured.

“It’s not my secret,” I said, eventually. “It’s yours.” The boldness of my words made me almost light-headed. I leaned back, clutching a couple of bricks on either side of me to steady myself.

Dermot’s breath puffed out in front of us. “Kevin, what in God’s name are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about us,” I said, and when Dermot didn’t say anything I added, “I mean, the thing between us. I think you feel it too. A connection.”

I lifted my left hand and placed it on his knee. My fingers clawed around his kneecap in a useless, spidery movement.

Dermot looked at my hand before he jerked his leg away.

“What are you talking about, Kevin? What connection?”

We were both silent for too long, then Dermot began a soft chuckle that spread like a cancer into a laugh and he began to rock back and forwards. “You and me? Oh, wait until everyone hears this. They’ll die.”

He carried on, wheezing and laughing in peals and it took a little while before his rocking slowed.

I gulped. “You keep looking at me in class.”

He gave two little snorts, then a great sigh to gather his breath and he tilted his head to one side, as if trying to comprehend the final clue of a puzzle. I looked up at the stars, scarce in the sky, the moon a white blade.

“Tell me you’ve noticed, you idiot,” he said.

“Noticed?”

He turned. “Look at me, Kevin. Look at me for a long time.”

I looked into his deep brown eyes, which had turned beautiful black in the night air. At first, his stare drilled into me into the deepest area of my soul, the way it had in class. But moments later, it seemed to divide, the focus of one eye casting itself adrift, losing its mooring, moving a little over my right shoulder.

“You see it, Kevin? I’ve got a lazy eye.”

*

On the day Mother went to the hairdressers for the last time, she was waiting for me in the porch when I came home. She had locked herself out and was standing in her underwear, smoking. When I came up to her she hugged me in gratitude and started to weep. My body stiffened against her.

Her hair had been cropped and was as dry as stubble. It smelled burnt. She wanted me to like it, to reassure her before father came home. I said it was a mess.

She told me she’d got it done at a new place across town. “Don’t tell your father: it only cost me a fiver,” she said.

She laughed, which made her hiccup. She took a drag of her cigarette and ash fell on the porch tiles.

She said, “This hairdresser. He's very cutting-edge. Doesn’t believe in hairspray. Says it's a con.”

“What does he use instead?” I asked.

“Air freshener,” she said.

*

“It happens,” Dermot said, “when I’m tired.” His head fell back. “I was never looking at you. Oh God forbid. Oh, this is classic, if you thought – ”

A prickling heat rose up my spine, swelled across my shoulders, throbbed in my head and came down my arms to my fingertips. A fury that left me unsteady. My hands reached out to steady myself again.

“This is too good,” Dermot went on. “I mean everyone’s had their suspicions about you Kevin, but I didn’t realise you were so stupid. You poor, miserable sod.”

He was rocking again, gripping his knees this time. As his body rolled backwards, the moonlight exposed a face crumpled with cruelty; as it went forward, I glimpsed the pale white dot of the crown of his head, and furious desire took hold.

I lifted my right arm, though it seemed weightless to me. It swung in front of me, towards him. I saw the piece of brick in my hand and the slow progress it made, like a meteor across the night sky. If my arm was weightless, the brick had no form or volume, I almost thought it had fallen out of my grasp at the moment it connected with the back of Dermot’s head.

*

On a Sunday morning a year ago I found Mother at the foot of the stairs. As I sat on one of the lower steps looking at her limbs, disordered like driftwood, Father came through from the kitchen. “She’s dead,” he said, in the disappointed tone others might use if the downstairs lights had fused. He returned to the kitchen and turned the radio on. I heard Mozart’s fortieth. Back came Father, his voice rising above the music. The police would be round soon, he told me, and when they come – he curved his hand behind me and pinched my neck in that crab-like way of his – you’ll tell them that I was downstairs all the time, won’t you?

*

No part of it made much noise. Dermot pitched head-first and came to rest on what must have once been the tiled floor of the toilets. He began to snore. Where the crown of his head had been, there was now a neat and defined indentation. I can only liken its appearance to that of a car door that has been hit side-on. There wasn’t much blood.

He stopped snoring, which made the silence louder. There was nobody about. It was only six feet or so to the bank of the canal, and I tossed the brick, underhand, into the middle.

I sank back on my haunches. A cool sweat had settled on me and the tide of rage that had controlled me a minute earlier had ebbed.

The patch Dermot lay on was glazed with frost and, gripping the shoulders of his jacket, I dragged him closer to the canal bank, laying him on the footpath, where the footsteps of walkers and their dogs had turned the ground into a strip of mud. I stood and took handfuls of small stones from the rubble pile, then knelt and shoved them into Dermot’s pockets. I rolled him over and slid two bricks into the hood of his jacket. Now I sat so that Dermot lay between me and the canal. I pushed him with my feet until his body rolled over the edge and disappeared, like a seal dropping into icy water.

*

Out of my bedroom window, I saw two police officers arrive early the next morning; one male, one female. The male I recognised as the one who’d dealt with my mother’s fall the year before. Father was speaking to them at the door and the officers looked almost apologetic as they took off their caps and entered our home.

When I was called through, the officers were already at the kitchen table; my father was stirring two mugs of tea.

“My son will know nothing,” he was saying. “A quiet lad; not the sort to get involved in shenanigans.” He placed two mugs down. “One milk, no sugar; one black.”

I sat across from the officers, a bottle of ketchup in the no man’s land between us.

One of them, the one who’d been round before, said, “Kevin, I’m afraid we have bad news. A classmate of yours, Dermot Monagahan, was found in the canal last night.”

“You didn’t tell me he was dead,” my father said. “What can this have to do with Kevin?”

The male officer kept his eye on me. “You knew Dermot?”

I shrugged. “Not much. He was new.”

The female officer spoke now. “Did you see him last night?”

I looked from one officer to the other.

“It’s only,” she continued. “It’s only that a girl from your class was walking her dog and said she saw you both walking along the footpath a little after eight o’clock.” She looked down at her notes. “A Shelley Withams-Glennie. She’s pretty certain about the time.”

I looked at my father who had picked up his tobacco tin and opened the lid. "She's a liar," he said.

“He asked me to meet him,” I said.

“And why was that?”

“I didn’t know. I wondered that myself.”

*

My mother once said that happiness and sadness create each other. And truth and lies, and love and anger are limbs of the same body.

*

“Go on,” the officer said.

“We walked along the footpath for a bit. Dermot asked to sit down. So I did. He touched my leg.”

My father was behind me now. One hand on my shoulder, edging its way inwards towards my neck, the other, I knew, would be grasping his beads. Father said, “The boy obviously made an unwanted advance to my Kevin.”

“Let the boy speak, sir,” said the officer. “So what happened, Kevin? In your own words.”

“Just what I said. He touched me, I pushed him away.”

“Kevin isn’t like that,” Father said. “Not one bit.”

“Please." The officer held up his hand. "Did you push him into the canal, Kevin?”

“I walked away. He was shouting behind me. He said he couldn’t live without me. That he’d rather drown himself. He was bending to pick up bits of rubble and I realised he was trying to weigh himself down. Before, you know…"

The officer sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “Here’s the thing, Kevin. We won’t have the coroner’s report for some time, but it does appear that Dermot suffered a serious blow to the head.”

Behind me, I felt the grip of Father’s fingernails and heard his beads working their way through his fingertips.

I said. “I don’t know. Maybe he hit his head on the canal edge.”

“When he jumped?”

I nodded.

The officer pushed his chair back. "Your jeans, Kevin. Those the same ones you were wearing last night?”

I didn’t answer.

“There’s a fair bit of mud on them. Would that be from the canal? Did you get that when you were walking away?”

I wiped my hands in a circular motion on my knees. “I came back,” I said. “I tried to stop him.”

“How?”

“I grabbed him. You know, to hold him. We struggled. I fell. That’s when he jumped.”

The male officer shook his head. “And that was it? You didn’t try to save him when he went in? Didn’t call for help? Didn’t think to report this?”

”It’s not what you think,” my father and I said. Both of us: the same words at the same time. It gave the words a stereo effect that made the officers look at each other. The male officer sighed and closed his notebook, raised his eyebrows and looked at his watch. They both rose slowly out of their chairs and thanked Father for the tea.

The female officer said, “We’ll need to get you down to the station later, Kevin, for a proper statement. On your own. Don’t go anywhere, will you?”

The officer who had been here before nodded at my father and they left.

My father’s grip eased. We remained in silence in the kitchen; he returned his rosary beads to the tin without speaking and passed behind me. He headed upstairs. I rose and followed. He slowed as he climbed, and at the final step, he turned and looked down at me. We both knew everything.

The thought came to me then: how easy it would be for one of us to push the other and end it all.

Then a second thought: he would be thinking the same thing, considering the same answer to the same question.

Still, I took a step further.

Published 
Written by Pnin
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