The Girls and the Dogs
‘She wanted me to stay with her on the mattress. And Evan the Head said he agreed with her, and Suze agreed, and that was the start of the trouble.’ A short story from the new collection, ‘Dark Lies the Island’, by KEVIN BARRY
I WAS LIVING in a caravan a few miles outside Gort. It was set up on breeze blocks in the yard of an old farmhouse. There were big nervous dogs outside, chained. Their breathing caught hard with the cold of the winter and the way the wind shuddered along their flanks was wretched to behold. I lay there in the night, as the dogs howled misery at the darkness, and I doted over a picture of my daughter, May-Anne, as she had been back in the summertime. I hadn’t seen her in eight months and I missed her so badly. I was keeping myself well hidden. Things had gone wrong in Cork and then they went wronger again. I had been involved with bringing some of the brown crack in that was said to be causing people to have strokes and was said to have caused the end altogether of a prostitute lad on Douglas Street. Everybody was looking for me. There was no option for a finish only to hop on a bus and then it was all black skies and bogger towns and Gort, finally, and Evan the Head waited for me there, in the ever-falling rain, and he had his bent smile on.
“Here’s another one I got to weasel you out of,” he said. “And me without the arse o’ me fuckin’ kecks, ’ay?” He jerked a thumb at a scabby Fiesta that wore no plates and we climbed into it and we took off through the rain, January, and we drove past wet fields and stone walls and he asked me no questions at all. He said it was often the way that a fella needed a place and he would be glad to help me out. He said that I was his friend after all and he softened the word in his mouth – friend – in a way that I found troubling. It was the softness that named the price of the word. He said things could as easily be the other way around and maybe someday I would be there to help him out. We turned down a crooked boreen that ran between fields left to reeds and there were no people anywhere to be seen. We came to the farmhouse and the smile on the Head’s face twisted even more so.
I never promised you a rose garden, he said.
You would have hardly thought it held anyone at all but for the yellow screams of children escaping the torn curtains and the filthy windows.
Evan said he had rent allowance got for the house on account of his children. He had bred six off Suze and a couple off her sister, Elsie.
These were open-minded people I was dealing with. At least with regard to that end of things. We went inside and the kids appeared everywhere, they were shaven-headed against the threat of nits, and they were pelting about like maniacs, grinding their teeth and hammering at the walls, and the women appeared – girlish, Elsie and Suze, as thin as girls – and they smirked at me in a particular way over the smoke of their roll-ups: it is through no fault of my own that I am considered a very handsome man.
“Coffee and buns, no?” said Evan the Head, and the girls laughed.
The house was in desperate shape. There were giant mushroomy damp patches coming through the old wallpaper and a huge fireplace in the main room was burning smashed-up chairs and bits of four-be-two. The Head wasn’t lying when he said I’d be as well off outside in the caravan. He brought me to it and I was relieved to get out to the yard, mainly because of the kids, who had a real viciousness to them.
Now of course the caravan was no mansion either. The door’s lock was busted and the door was tied shut with a piece of chain left over from the dogs and fixed with a padlock. The dogs were big and of hard breeds but they were nervous, fearful, and they backed away into the corners of the yard as we passed through. Evan unlooped the chain and opened the door and with a flourish bid me enter.
“Can you smell the sex off it?” he said, climbing in behind.
“Bought it off a brasser used to work the horse fairs,” he said. “If the walls could talk in this old wagon, ’ay?”
It had a knackery look to it sure enough. It was an old 16-footer aluminium job with a flowery carpet rotten away to fuck and flouncy pillows with the flounce gone out of them and it reeked of the fields and winter. There was a wee gas fire with imitation logs. Evan knelt and got it going with his lighter.
“Get you good an’ cosy,” he said. “You any money, boy-child?”
“I’ve about three euro odd, Ev.”
“Captain of industry,” he said.
The gas fire took and the fumes rose from it so hard they watered my eyes. I asked was it safe and he said it’d be fine, it’d be balmy, it’d be like I was on my holidays, and if I got bored I could always pop inside the house and see if young Elsie fancied a lodger.
“For her stomach,” he said.
I am not lying when I tell you there was a time Evan the Head was thought to be a bit of a charmer. He was from Swansea originally and sometimes in his cups he would talk about it like it was a kind of paradise and his accent would come through stronger. I had known him five years and I would have to say he was a mysterious character. I had met him first in a pub on Barrack Street in Cork called the Three Ones.
It wasn’t a pub that had the best of names for itself. It was a rough crowd that drank there and there was an amount of dealing that went on and an amount of feuds on account of the dealing. There had been shootings the odd time. I was nervous there always but Evan was calm and smiling at the barside and one night I went back to the flat he had in Togher and I bought three sheets of acid off him at a good price – White Lightnings, ferocious visuals – and he showed me passports for himself that were held under three different names. I was young enough to be impressed by that though I have seen quarer sights since, believe me.
Evan used to talk about orgies all the time. He would go on and on about organising a good proper orgy – ’ay? – and he told me once about an orgy in a graveyard in Swansea that himself and an old girlfriend had set up and that’s when he started taking down Aleister Crowley books about the occult and telling me he suspected I might be a white witch.
Magick, said Evan, should be always written with the extra “k”.
I emptied out my bag in the caravan – it held just a few pairs of boxer shorts and T-shirts and trackie pants. I had little enough by way of possessions since Fiona Condon had turfed me out, the lighting bitch. I had not arranged to collect my stuff. I would not give her the satisfaction, her and her barring order, and I was dressing myself out of Penneys. She hadn’t let me near my daughter; I hadn’t seen May-Anne since that day in early summer I had taken her out to the beach at Garrettstown. Evan watched me as I unpacked my few bits and I felt by his quietness that he was sorrowful for me. At least I hoped that was what the quietness was.
“Have you any food, Ev?” I said.
“You not eaten?”
I told him I’d made it from Cork on the strength of a banana and a Snickers bar.
“Poor starving little wraith,” he said.
He said I could come in later. He said there would be a pot of curried veg on the go. And that was the way our routine began. I would come in, the evenings, and I would be fed, and I would watch TV for a while and help with burning the four-be-twos before going and dry-humping Elsie on a mattress in a back room that smelled of kid piss and dried blood.
Elsie the third night told me that she loved me.
Now Elsie to this day I do not believe had original badness in her. It was just that she could be easily led and her sister had badness in her sure enough and as for Evan, well.
I said, the third night:
“But Elsie you’re fleadhin’ Ev and all, yeah?”
“What’s fleadhin’?’ she said.
“Fuckin’,” I said. “It’s a Cork word for fuckin’.”
“Business o’ yours how?” she said.
Elsie and Suze were from Leeds – Leeds-Irish – and they had people in south Galway. Their father had been put away for knocking their mother unconscious with the welt of a slap hammer and they turned up on the doorstep of the Galway cousins and they were turned away again lively.
Their eyes were too dark and their mouths were too beautiful. They were the kind of girls – women – who look kind of dramatic and unsafe. They were at a loose end arsing around Galway then, fucking Australians out of youth hostels and robbing them, and they met Evan the Head in the Harbour Bar, was the story, when there still was a Harbour Bar, before the Galway docks was all cunts in pink shirts drinking wine. Evan was loaded at that time having brought in a trawler full of grade-two resin from Morocco – he came into Doolin with it, bold as brass, stoned as a coot in the yellow of his oilskins – and that was 10 years back and if one of the sisters wasn’t up the spout off him since, the other was.
“Evan an’ me is over,” said Elsie, “but I’m not sayin’ he isn’t a wonderful father.” At that moment there was the loud cracking sound of wood snapping – shhlaaack! – which meant that Evan the Head had lain a length of four-be-two along the bottom steps of the stairs and taken a lep at it from the banister. He was a limber man and he enjoyed breaking up the firewood in this way.
See him perched up on the banister, with the weird grin on, and he eyeing just the spot where he wanted to crack the wood – then the wee lep.
In Cork I had seen Suze sure enough, lumbering under children and dope smoke on the couch of the Togher flat, but I had never seen Elsie though I had heard her, once, in a far room, crying.
“Does Suze love him still do you think?”
“No,” said Elsie, “but he has the spell on her, don’t he? I can beat the spell.”
So it was – so simple – that we became a kind of family that January in the old farmhouse outside Gort. But of course I could not say I was ever entirely comfortable with the situation. I kept going out to the caravan at night, to be alone for those cold hours, for my own space and to think of May-Anne, to look at her photograph, and to listen to the dogs, the strange comfort of them. Elsie thought this was snobbish of me. She wanted me to stay with her on the mattress. And Evan the Head said he agreed with her, and Suze agreed, and that was the start of the trouble.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to tell you about Elsie and what she looked like when she came. She wouldn’t allow me to put it inside because there’d been complications with the last child she’d had bred off her for Evan and she didn’t want another kid happening. I said fine to that. I have never been comfortable with being a father. I love May-Anne – my dotey pet, I always call her – but it makes me frightened just to think of her walking around in the world with the people that are out there. See some of the fuckers you’d have muttering at the walls down around the bus station in Parnell Place, Cork. You’d want a daughter breathing the same air as those animals?
“Get in there!” Ev cried from the hallway into the back room where Elsie and I lay on the mattress. “Get in!”
When she came Elsie had a tic beneath her left eye – at the top of her cheek there was a fluttering as if a tiny bird was caught beneath her skin. The dry-humping made me feel like a teenager again but not in a good way. We lay there – a particular night – with Elsie’s tic going, with me all handsome and useless, and Evan leapt on the four-be-twos off the banister, and the eight mad kids bounced off the ceilings and bit each other and screamed, and the wind howled outside, and the wretched dogs cried a great howling in answer to the wind, and then Suze was at the door, and she said:
“Why don’t we make this interestin’?”
Yes it started like that – the trouble – it started as a soft kind of coaxing. Sly comments from Suze and sly comments from Evan the Head. And I got worried when the winter stretched on, the weeks threw down their great length, the weeks were made of sleet and wind, and it became February – a hard month – and the sly comments came even from Elsie then. She was easily led and bored enough for badness. I started to feel a bit trapped in this place and I thought about moving on but I had nowhere to go and no money to get there. Given the way things had turned out in Cork, I would be shot or arrested if I went back, no question. I missed May-Anne so badly but I thought the best I could do for her was to keep myself safe until the troubled times had passed over.
Then, late one night, Evan the Head came into the yard – I heard him hiss at the dogs – and without so much as a knock he was in the door of the caravan and he sat on the foot of my fold-out bed. He lit a candle and I saw him by its soft light. He had his twisted smile on. First words he said to me:
“Suze is the better comer.”
“Know what a geyser is?”
“I do, yeah.”
“That’s Suze if she’s in the form. You see she’s got one eye a dark brown and one a dark, really dark green?”
“Yeah, kinda . . . ”
“Yeah kinda noticed that, ’ay? Did you, boy?”
“Yeah well that’s a good sign,” he said, “for a comer.”
I did not reply because I did not like the way he was smoking his roll-up. The hard little sucks on it and his eyes so deep-set.
“She’s inside,” he said.
I said nothing.
“I said she’s waitin’ on you, boy. Are you goin’ to keep her waitin’?”
“Ah please, Ev.”
“You don’t want to get that lady riled. Suze? Not a good plan, boy-child. I said you don’t get that fucking lady riled.”
“Evan, look, I’ve the thing with her sister, haven’t I?”
He stood then – he loomed in the candlelight – and the words that came were half spat, half whispered:
“You’ll get in that fucking house and you’ll fuck my wife and you’ll fuck her sister or you’ll get the fuckin’ life taken out of you, d’ya hear me, boy?”
“Evan get out of the caravan, please!”
He leapt up on the bed then and he danced about and he laughed so hard.
And he kind of poked at my head with his feet, kind of playful, as if he was going to stamp me, but he let it go, he stood down, and he left without another word. Then I heard him turn the padlock on the chain outside.
They kept me locked in the caravan for days and nights I quickly lost the count of. The windows were rusted shut and could not be squeezed back and I was so weak because they brought me no food and no water. I was in a bad state very quickly. The dogs outside I believe sensed that I was weakening, that I was dying, and they called to me. We were held on the same length of chain. In the daytime the girls came and whispered through the door to me – awful, filthy stuff that I would not repeat, for hours they whispered – and I knew that Elsie hadn’t the better of the spell any more. Evan came by night and he crawled over the roof of the caravan and he made little tapping noises. I roared and cried myself hoarse but there was no one to hear me out there and after a few days I was slipping in and out of a desperate weird sleep – full of sour, scary dreams, like bad whiskey dreams – and I felt the cold of the fields come into my bones and once in the afternoon dusk I woke from a fever to find Evan the Head outside a window of the caravan and in each of his arms he held a child to look in at me, and I knew it was the first time ever that I had seen those children calm. I have never had religion or spiritual feelings but lying there in the caravan in the farmyard outside Gort I knew for sure there was no God but there was surely a devil.
But if I gritted my teeth against the fear and kept my eyes clamped tightly shut, the sweats would seem to ease off for a while and I would see clearly my day on the beach with May-Anne, at Garrettstown, in the summer. It was a windy, blustery day, but the sea and the sand made us high, we were soaring, and we ran about like mad things on the beach.
Afterwards, before the bus back to town, I bought her a 99 at a seaside shop. The shop had all sorts of beach tat for sale and she asked me about the pork-pie hats that said “kiss-me-quick”.
“It’s just a seaside thing,” I said. “An old saying. From England I think.”
“Kiss-me-quick kiss-me-quick kiss-me-quick,” she said it in a duck’s voice from a cartoon and I pecked her on the cheek, really quickly, peck peck peck, and I nuzzled the nape of her neck – she squealed.
I don’t know how many days I had been locked in the caravan when I crawled the length of it one morning and under the sink found two tins of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup from years ago, probably – from the days of the brasser I would say. I opened them and I drank them cold and if I did not come to life exactly it felt as if my thoughts came for a short while in a clearer, more realistic way. Then I went to the closet to throw up.
I hated to use the chemical toilet in there because of the smell but I had no choice – my gut heaved and emptied itself. I wrapped myself around the tiny plastic loo, tears streaming. I saw then that the spillage over the years had worked away at the floorboards beneath. They were rotten to the extent that some had been replaced with a piece of ply.
I waited until the night. Elsie and Suze had come out just once in the afternoon to whisper their filth at me, and Evan had on the roof for a while made his tap-tappings and I believed he was working at some kind of spell – something from an Aleister Crowley book, maybe; magick – and when he went away I waited, waited, until all in the farmhouse was darkness and quiet, and there was just the feeling of the dogs outside.
I unhooked the chemical loo and lifted it clear and the ply beneath came loose so easily it was unreal, it was like wet cardboard in my hands.
The hole I quickly made was no more than two, two and a half foot wide but that was enough to squeeze through, and I scraped past an axle, and I was crawling along the wet ground of the yard then beneath the caravan. All of the dogs huddled close to the ground and peered at me, oh and their eyes – so yellow – were livid, but they made not a sound, they were quiet as the air was cold.
I wriggled out from beneath the caravan and sat with my back to it to ease the beating of my heart. No lights came on in the farmhouse and the dogs in perfect silence watched me as I found the strength to walk to the Fiesta and climbed into it. I lifted off the panel for the wires to come loose and I knew well enough which wires to rub together.
I was no more than halfways down the crooked boreen when the lights came on in the farmhouse and there were roars and screams and the sound of doors and footsteps and with my eyes pinned ahead I steered along till the boreen gave on to road and I missed the verge and the tyre ripped on rocks but I kept going hard into the night. The way the ripped rubber of the tyre slapped along the back road had a rhythm to it – three beats, again and again and again – and I heard it as kiss-me-quick, kiss-me-quick, and I drove it until the screaming of the voices – oh May-Anne – and all that was behind me had faded – my sweetheart, my dotey – to nothing, just nothing at all, and I was at a high vantage suddenly and beneath me, on a plain, were the lights of Gort.
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry is published on April 5th by Jonathan Cape, €14.99