Under 30, under pressure

Under Thirty, a group that wants to chart the globalised, recesssion-tinged lives of Ireland’s twentysomethings and teens, has launched its first book of short fiction. We publish one story from it: Scratch, by Ben Simmons

     Photograph: Lisa Ison/ISP/Getty

Photograph: Lisa Ison/ISP/Getty


It is hard living in a small town. Sometimes you get romantic. I was sitting on the bench outside the bank. It had started to rain, not too hard, but I could hear the clustered rhythm of the drops on my leather jacket. (I’ve always loved that sound.) I had about four or five copies of my CV in my hand, all folded like a mini-accordion. Then I put my head in my hands and started to cry. I wasn’t afraid of anyone seeing me. I knew I was invisible. People don’t look around when they walk in the rain; they just bury their heads under their coats and brollies. It was the third time I had gone around town looking for work. And nothing. Not a thing came my way.

I had finished university with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy, and what a degree that was. Between the cheap beer and bags of weed, I had never thought about so much shit in my entire life. You know that guy who’s always arguing with people at parties ’cause he just knows more crap than anybody? That was me. I could quote passages of text from all over the place: Weber, Thomas Paine, that German guy . . . Habermas. I even had my own philosophy for a while, but it just made me depressed, so I gave it up.

Life was even going pretty well when I finished up my degree. I managed to hold a small job near the university campus, in the office of some TD asshole in Dublin. Most of the guys working in that office had the same brainpower as their constituents’ house pets. They didn’t even understand the policies they introduced.

The lieutenant I worked for, Mr Brennan, wasn’t a bad guy; just stupid. He liked me a lot after I explained how the housing tax worked, using the plastic spoons in the coffee room. He never got his head around capitalism, though. After I tried to explain that it wasn’t a secret organisation but an economic and political system, he just used the word all the time. He’d say, “Hey, Jerry. Isn’t that car so capitalist?” and, “Hey, Jerry, my wife was such a capitalist last night.”

As it turns out, his wife proved that she was a better capitalist than he was. After a quick separation she had everything: kids, house and a new man with an IQ above 40. Somewhere along the way, Mr Brennan lost his marbles among the streams of paperwork too complicated for him to comprehend. I was without a job and my only referee was in the nuthouse. So I went back home to the parents. There were other reasons for heading back: my housemate, in his infinite wisdom, decided to use rollerblades instead of slippers. This ruined the hardwood mahogany floors, along with any chance of retrieving my security deposit.

A perfect morning
That morning, before I started crying like a little boy in front of the bank, I was busy painting the shed. It was a small shed built of wooden planks. I used a warm, thick, oily, red paint; it was like painting with ketchup. The day before, I sanded down the wood until I had removed the dark wood stain that was crumbling off. It was a perfect morning, perhaps the only one I had seen all September. Nobody else was at home, so I opened the living room window and put on the old record player real loud. The needle must have been dirty, because I could hear that scratching sound all the time but it didn’t matter.

The record was Hotter than July , by Stevie Wonder. I love that album. There was something about the ceremony of putting on a record that my MP3 just didn’t have. That thing would just keep playing and playing, but I’ve always loved old songs, old records. The short rotation of the record before the song starts always reminds me of dancers. I imagine a couple facing each other. They’re looking at each other, waiting for that first beat. Those moments are almost better than the song itself, if you’re a romantic. I was just finishing the first side of the shed when my phone started shakin’ it up with the loose change. I could tell from the picture and the jingle it was Bee-Bee. I enjoyed the next moment, just watching the phone wriggle in my hand; I could already hear her voice in my head.

It was a short conversation. She told me she had got the job she had told me about. (I couldn’t remember at the time.) It was an assistant position to some designer for a small, hippy-clothes label that she really liked. She was so excited; it almost made me laugh. I said we should celebrate, but she had to go to Dublin to catch a flight. I told her to send me a postcard instead.

I got a card a few days later with a picture of the white cliffs of Dover on the front. She went there for a weekend to collect a chalk that they used to dye the clothes, or something like that. She wrote that she was staying with friends and that I should visit when she found a place. With Bee-Bee gone, everything just felt small. She had always made life feel wide open; like the moment was all you needed to reach the horizon. We were never a thing, nor did we ever have sex, but she had enough patience to put up with my rants about a half-baked proletariat, and I thought she was the best friend since the snooze button. I was alone.

The first half of the record finished with As If You Read My Mind . The drums in that song are on the money, but I didn’t care much for the rest. The scratch of the needle kept hissing long after the brass section had stopped.

By the time I had finished the first coat of paint it was lunchtime. I couldn’t shake Bee-Bee’s voice out of my head. After a quick shower, I changed into my favourite blue shirt and a pair of clean jeans. The shirt was plain, with a rough texture, and it fitted me really well. I grabbed my jacket and the CVs that I had left in the kitchen and began walking into town. I could see the clouds coming in from the sea and fill the horizon. It was four kilometres from my house to the petrol station outside town. Normally a neighbour would drive by and offer me a lift, but it wasn’t raining, so I guess they didn’t feel I needed one. The last kilometre was an uphill walk, and it seemed tougher than usual. The clouds had started to arrive; they were swollen and yellowish white. I came to a stop and stared up into the haze. I knew it would rain soon. The sky was floating, a freshly painted ceiling, with the second coat slapped on too soon, quick and thick. It was watching droplets of paint forming like condensation waiting to fall.

It was a Friday, so I went to the post office first. There were three people in the queue from the desk to the door. At the top of the line was a blond girl from my secondary-school class. I could never remember her name, but she always asked me how long I was in town for. I guess she thought I was living somewhere else, and wanted to be polite. No, she just wanted to talk about something besides being on the scratch. (I hate that name for it.)

Lying and cheating
It’s not so bad in the countryside. When I was on the dole in Dublin, all they wanted to do was make you feel like shit, like they’re trying to shame you into signing off by losing your paperwork, telling you that you failed to fill in the right form that you’re lying on. I understand the policy. I’m sure there are people cheating the system; I just don’t know anybody who is, and I resented being treated like I was. But like most anxieties, they’re in your head.

The last interview I got was for a food-and-beverage-assistant position in a hotel. The longest distance I had carried a plate was from my kitchen to my bedroom, but I thought I could try. He simply said, “No”. The man who interviewed me was built like a rugby player and was crammed into a three-piece suit that Uncle Lurch had left him in his will. I knew he was trying to like me but just didn’t. He kept asking if I had learned anything practical in college. These people amaze me. Something about a university degree makes them uncomfortable, so they think they need to compensate by drawing attention to all those things “they don’t teach you in college”. And they’re right, I don’t have a lot of those skills, and maybe they are essential for getting on in the real world, but I didn’t open my mouth.

I don’t mind that he didn’t give me the job. I knew that he only hired women anyway. It wasn’t sexism, it was just a business strategy, and I hated the fact that he had to make it into a life choice. As if, in the land of waiters in three-piece suits, a college degree becomes something that denies you access to some part-time work.

The whole point is that I was having a lovely morning until my best friend phoned to say goodbye. In an instant there was a weight that I had never known before. It pressed down on me and forced all my thoughts into a swell of doubt.

When I reached the counter at the post office I handed over my card, signed my slip and left. It feels good to have the money at first, but that doesn’t last. I had already started sorting out my budget in my head. As I walked back along the main street I saw a poster at the bank with a picture of the manager. It was something about loyalty to customers, I can’t really remember why, but I walked over and stood in front of it for about 10 minutes. Beside me, people walked up to the ATM, prodded it for cash and then left again.

I felt dizzy. This wasn’t surprising, because I had skipped breakfast. It was like listening to the scratch of the record needle for too long, like waiting for the dance to begin for so long that your partner’s eyes start to overflow. She’s crying, he’s crying, or worse; their eyes have turned away. They’re bored waiting, and you can’t touch them till the song starts, until the scratching that was once winding up to something isn’t anything more than a small irritating noise.

I sat on the bench and cried. I felt like shit and it was raining. It must have been one side of a record before a hand settled on my shoulder. It was Bee-Bee’s dad.

“You’ll get sick if you sit out here,” he said, before he sat down. I couldn’t tell if he knew I was crying. He told me that I shouldn’t hang out in town, that there was no point because nothing happens. He wasn’t wrong.

He was picking up some travel cosmetics for Bee-Bee that she could take on the plane. I told him it was great news about her job and that he should be proud. “I am proud,” he replied. “Do you want a lift home?” I nodded and followed him to the car. On the passenger seat was a cassette copy of Chet Baker Sings , recorded in 1954. Now, that’s an album.

Ben Simmons, a graduate of NUI Galway from Donegal, began writing in his early teens. H is first published work appeared in Dogs Singing: A Tribute Anthology , published by Salmon Poetry in 2010