Bogged Down by Ciara Duffin
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our short story competition, Legends of the Fall. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Bogged Down:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Bogged Down is a very well paced, pyschologically convincing, and moving story. The character of the father is particularly well-drawn. All the relationships - father-son, mother-son, boys in school - are well observed. It’s a tightly constructed, nicely focused, story which lingers in the memory long after it’s read. Powerful.
Donal Ryan: This moving story serves as a cipher for society: helpless witness being borne to injustice, blame being assigned almost randomly. I love the narrative voice, angsty and sweetly earnest, a perfect evocation of teenhood.
“Can I give you a lift, James?” said Mr Kelly, as I walked out the school gates onto the main road. “Nah thanks, I’m grand walking,” I said cheerfully. “Are you sure?” says he. “I’m going that way...save your legs?” I looked down at my worn Reeboks with the soles hanging off them and felt my cheeks redden. “I could do with the exercise,” I said then, and he seemed to understand. He meant well, Mr Kelly. I’d taken a lift off him before, when it was raining so bad you could hardly see the road. His car always smells of cheese or fast food, and the seats are so full of crumbs you have to shake yourself off getting out. He isn’t a very clean man, Mr Kelly, but he is a kind one.
It would take me a good 30 minutes to get home, but I was glad of the interlude. “Do you think I have the money for petrol for chauffeuring you places?” my father would say. “Gone are those days, boyo”. I know those days are long gone. I know we haven’t the money we used to. Nobody does. Even the rich farmers are suffering. I heard Tommy Whelan saying they’d no money to take on the foreign lads they usually do to help with the silage this year, and he was recruiting his mates to help out for free. Gobshites. You wouldn’t catch me working for that Whelan upstart even if you paid me, never mind doing it for nothing. Him and his Honda Civic with the luminous green spoiler, you can see him coming for miles if you don’t hear him first. He sped past me then, his car full of school mates, all jeering at me as they forced me into the ditch on a bend. I could feel wet muck seeping through into my socks as I climbed back up through the nettles and weeds.
I passed Mrs Mahon outside the newsagents on the way. She was watering the hanging baskets above the shop, standing on one unsteady leg, balanced on a chair. She said hello to me and waved, almost toppling herself. I nodded back at her, keeping my hands in my pockets. She looked guilty then, I thought. Felt sorry for me, I’d say, with my torn jeans and wrecked Reeboks. I miss that paper round something rotten these days. I was up and out of the house early then, just me and the bike and a big sack of newspapers. I always did the same route, start with the Kennys and end with the Ryans. It meant I could cycle past Siobhan Moran’s house on the way back. Sometimes I’d see her out playing with the dogs on her front drive before school. I’d give her a salute as I sped past on my bike and she’d smile, and look embarrassed. I think that’s a good sign. That I embarrass her.
I could hear my parents arguing from the bottom of the driveway when I got home. It wasn’t unusual. There was always a row over this bill or that, the cost of living is something ridiculous these days. We didn’t get oil for just half the winter last year and I thought I was going to die of the cold. This year we may have to go the whole winter without it. “That’s what jumpers are for,” my father would say, when my mother or sister were denied their request for the electric fire he kept in his wardrobe for emergencies. I hoped to sneak past them all unnoticed, and leave them to their quarrelling, but my awkward body language stood out. “Don’t bother taking your coat off,” my father said to me. “We’re going out”. My mother gave him a look I’ll never forget. She said nothing to me and started folding laundry in the corner of the kitchen. My father held the back door open for me, waiting. “Where are we going?” I asked, trying to sound casual. “The bog,” my father said, without meeting my eye.
In the car my father started whistling, so I turned on the radio and he grunted, but said nothing. He isn’t much of a conversationalist, my father. He would never ask you what kind of day you had or inquire if you had a girlfriend yet. His topics of interest are limited to hurling, card games and the weather. He watches the weather forecast every time it’s on the telly, as if he’s playing some pathetic game of spot the difference. He also watches it to check out Úna in her gúna, apparently to see what “kind of a holy show she’s making of herself today”, but I see the glint in his eye when he sees her. And so does Mam. She can be quite pass-remarkable herself about Úna, says her hair is too “severe looking”, whatever that means?
“I thought you finished harvesting our plot last week?” I said to my father then, as we swerved all over the bog road, avoiding the potholes. “That’s right,” says he, unflinching. “So what are we doing here then?” says I, confused. “You’ll see,” he grunts. We didn’t park in the usual place. My father camouflaged the car between two rows of trees and turned off the engine. Silence. An unbearable silence. “What is this you’re planning?” I said, unable to resist, “some kind of ambush?” I laughed. My father looked at me solemnly, then looked at his watch. I could see little beads of sweat appearing on his skin and his neck was turning slowly scarlet. I became anxious then and started looking around for clues as to who we might be waiting for. I didn’t want to be part of it. Whatever it was. Sensing I was about to get out of the car, my father grabbed my shoulder firmly. “Just do what you’re told for once, will ya?” he ordered. “Fine!” says I, resigned to my fate. “Put the radio back on then,” I said, disgruntled. He put on some local station, probably hoping to catch the weather forecast, but instead there was some fella bawling about how he’d just come home from his holiday in Spain to find his whole house had been burgled. I mean, his whole house. They had even dug up his floorboards to rip out the copper piping to flog. His home was like a building site, he said. Poor fecker. What kind of low life would do a thing like that, the man wanted to know? The presenter of the show said it was a “sign of desperate times”. The whole thing agitated my father even further and he switched it off, declaring there was too much talking shite on the radio these days. Back to that unbearable silence.
My father kept his eyes firmly on the road in front and his hands gripped on the wheel, as if he was still driving. I must confess, at this point, I was starting to get the feeling he might be losing the run of himself, and wondered if this could be some kind of middle-aged episode. I looked at him then with a duty of care and asked, “Is everything okay, Da?” He looked back at me, bewildered, as if trying to recognise his own son. Or maybe himself. In that moment, the annoying, familiar sound of that blasted Honda Civic filled the air, and that vulgar green spoiler zoomed past, unaware of us, heading away from the bog. Shitehawk, I whispered, under my breath. My father turned on the engine. Are we going after him, I thought? I almost got excited at the thought of taking him on with my Da at my side. We’d wipe that smug grin off that ugly Whelan mug of his before he’d glanced sideways. It was too good to be true, though. We were going the other way.
Then I saw it. The Whelans’ trailer, loaded full of turf, alone on the side of the road. My father manouevered the car like he was embodying Schumacher, reversing our car so we were positioned closely in front of the trailer. “Get out and attach it,” he says, without blinking. “What?” says I, confused. “You heard me,” he says. I opened the car door slowly, then looked at my father as I realised what he was asking me to do. He just nodded at me, grinding his teeth. “Get a move on!” he said then, as I took my time walking to the front of the trailer. Tommy had left it there after loading it. Why would he just abandon it like that? And then it dawned on me. Sure he couldn’t attach that thing to his outrageous yoke of a car without risking scratching his precious spoiler. His father probably would have collected it later, if we hadn’t gotten there first. My hands were shaking, trying to get it done. I kept listening for that engine sound I’d always dreaded, the one that made my pulse quicken and my stomach tighten. I got back into the car without saying a word. “Good lad,” my father said, as we sped off down the road towards home.
The next day, my mother made me a proper breakfast before school. Eggs and bacon, the works. I didn’t ask why. I knew what it was meant for. I couldn’t even taste it, as I thought of Tommy’s questioning face at school that day. My father was nowhere to be seen, nor was the trailer full of Whelan’s turf. I didn’t ask after him. I didn’t want to be reminded of it. I thought about staying off school but I’d have to face everyone some time and I didn’t want to do anything to arouse suspicion. The walk in was too short that morning. I felt I looked guilty, like I had a sign on my head that said so, and I tried to walk as tall and casual as possible through the school gates. I managed not to freak out when I saw Tommy’s car, parked in its usual spot, sparkling like a polished stone in the morning sunlight. A few of the lads were hanging around chatting, but no one seemed to be discussing any stolen turf, so I started to relax a bit. They paid no attention to me as usual, so I went to class hoping there would be no more said about it.
It was lunchtime before my bubble burst and Tommy brought the subject up. I think he was too embarrassed to mention it before. The other lads had broken their backs helping him cut and load the turf so it was bad news for them too, in a way. Tommy’s father had given him a thump for being such a “half arse” and leaving it there. He seemed more annoyed about that than anything else. I felt guilty and happy all at the same time. “Who would do a thing like that?” asked Davie Brennan, sounding like the man on the radio whose house was burgled. “Sure that’s lower than dirt!” said Ronan. Then it happened. Tommy said he’d heard there were Lithuanians living locally who had a scam going doing just that sort of thing. They all looked uncomfortably over at Jurgis, who was eating lunch on his own in the corner as usual, something that smelled foreign that his mother had made him in a flask. He was unaware of the accusing looks and mostly was used to them. “He might have overheard us,” Ronan said, “before we left school for the bog!” Tommy looked at Jurgis with renewed contempt. “Always thought he was shifty?” he says. I tried to follow them then, without seeming obvious, but they looked at me with the same judging eyes they always had for me and I went the other way on cue. I’d no idea what they had planned. If I could have stopped it, I would. If I’d known things would go so far. Whelan was a hothead with a false sense of self-importance, but I didn’t think he was capable ... I hate that he proved me wrong. Again. He’d love that.
The next day at school, Jurgis’s seat was empty. My stomach knotted at the thoughts of him maybe lying somewhere, bloodied and beaten for an act I had committed instead of him. Tommy came in then. I knew by the look in his eye as he passed Jurgis’s vacant desk that he was guilty of something. He glanced down at it, shoving his hands into his pockets but I had time to glimpse the tell-tale cuts on his knuckles. I felt the colour draining from every part of me and started to feel faint. Mr Kelly walked into the classroom and at the same moment I ran past him covering my mouth, headed straight for the bathroom. “Are you alright James?” he called after me, but I couldn’t answer him. I hurled my breakfast and my dinner from the night before, I’m sure. I felt like I’d been there, witnessed the brutality of it. I could hear the sickening thuds of each thump and kick poor Jurgis had endured. I heard his plea of innocence, denying any knowledge of a stolen trailer full of turf, and I imagined it falling on deaf ears. I couldn’t face returning to class so I slipped out of the school, and started the long walk home, my head spinning full of demons.
I saw Jurgis’s parents at Mass that Sunday. The sight of them gave me heart palpitations and my father seemed to notice, shoving me in to the nearest pew. Their normally deep, sallow skin seemed thinner and whiter, and you could see a look of desperate worry in their eyes. I thought I was going to be sick again but my father gave me the same look he gives the dog when it’s thinking of doing something it shouldn’t, and I knew I was trapped. Fr O’Rahilly marched to the pulpit and everyone rose to their feet. It was obvious what his sermon would focus on – the “terrible stain on the community” that resulted from “that horrific act of violence”. It was similar to the talk we’d had at assembley in school a few days after it happened, but that was more about how “racism will not be tolerated at St. Andrew’s”. Every word crushed a tiny piece of my tormented mind into a further crumbling mess. My parents seemed blissfully unaware they had any part in it. I couldn’t tell them. It would break my mother’s heart if she knew. She had worked with Jurgis’s mother picking strawberries last summer and had grown fond of her. They shared recipes for soups and probably complained to each other about their husbands. I knew my Mam would talk to her after, and offer an expression of sympathy to the poor woman. If only they both knew. How different would that conversation be?
My right leg started to wobble uncontrollably. I had to hold on to it to stop it. At the end of the sermon, we all prayed that Jurgis would awaken from his coma, and prayed for the Petraitis family at this “difficult and worrying time”. When Mass was over, my father and I walked silently to the car, while my mother and sister went to console Jurgis’s parents and ask after his current condition. I knew by the look on their faces that there had been no change or improvement. My father started tapping the steering wheel with both hands, playing it like a drum. He was impatient for the women to stop gabbing so he could get home to watch the match. I was irritated by his lack of sensitivity to the whole thing. Why couldn’t he figure it out? It was him got the idea off the Lithuanians in the first place. I think he was capable of connecting the dots; he just didn’t want to see them. “Do you think they’ll catch whoever done it?” I asked him. “Hah?” he gasped with an irreverent slap of the wheel. “Whoever attacked Jurgis?” I added. “Ah sure, probably not, they rarely do in these things,” he said unapologetically. The women returned to the car and the whole way home my mother was full of questions for us all about why would someone do something like that to a harmless young fella like Jurgis? Nobody answered her.
Tommy didn’t tell his parents about Jurgis. I don’t know if he figured out he had the wrong man, or he was just afraid. As a result, his father had accused almost everyone in the village of taking his turf. The whole community turned on itself, each family pointing a dirty finger at the next, reporting on various signs of untrustworthy behaviour observed of late. Even my father had been accused and for a moment I hoped the whole wasps’ nest would be disturbed, and we’d all be stung by the aftermath, like we deserved. As usual, he talked himself out of it. He tried laying blame on the Lithuanians himself, even saying it was probably “one of their own” who’d assaulted Jurgis. The next time I saw Tommy, I gave him a look that said “I know what you did” but I doubt it was registered. I don’t know what I would have done, if he’d given that same look back to me.
Ciara Duffin works as a freelance drama facilitator, having trained with the National Association of Youth Drama, but always had a desire to be a writer. She recently wrote a play for youth theatre and is working on her first attempt at a novel.