Vicious Circular by Kieran Marsh
Ten stories have been shortlisted in our Legends of the Fall short-story competition. We will publish two a day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Vicious Circular
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne Frank and searing slice of life, revealing what it means to be completely down and out. Good details. Very moving. A brave attempt to rise to the challenge of describing the worst tragedies of the recession.
Donal Ryan Vicious Circular is really well done. Gut-wrenchingly bleak and deeply unsettling. I couldn’t look away.
The boys lie sleeping. Stephen wets a towel. There is no hot water – the boiler over the sink has never worked – so he uses the kettle to make it warm. He wraps it around his face. It feels welcoming, but he cannot breathe through it at all.
And the boys lie sleeping. He grips the towel tightly, standing over them.
“The choice is yours,” says Yellowhair.
Stink, humiliation, rot, helplessness. All these elements dance through his tightly coiled brain, screaming. Nausea overwhelms him. There is a moment, a movement. He closes his eyes and is engulfed by the procession of senses that mark his day. The front door from the street, coming into the ever-present reeks that rush into his nostrils like vomit. Musty dampness, cigarette smoke, a rotten pungency of boiled cabbage. The inevitable Spaz O’Toole perched on the stairs, bumming fags. The trail to his “flat” out the back door, past the cat shit and discarded televisions, to the half-rotten prefab that is his home.
“Should have asked me,” Spaz had said, a couple of days back. “You know, like, when Bento showed you the flat. I’d have said run a bleeding mile. Place is cursed.”
“Place stinks,” said Stephen.
“Anyway, Stevie, my man, you wouldn’t have a fag, would you? I sent me butler out for some, like, but he’s taking his time.”
He felt in his pockets, handed one over. Spaz took a sniff of the length of it as if it was a fine Cuban and, with a big grin, slipped it into his shirt pocket.
“Any luck looking for a job?” asked Spaz.
“Not a fecking thing. Security, warehouse work, nothing.”
“Mug’s game! Give it bleeding up, enjoy your freedom and stop fecking about with that stuff, if you want my advice.”
“Nah, couldn’t do that. Worked every day of my life since I finished school.”
“There you go, you see. All those days working, where’s it got you? Same fecking palace as me, earning the same as me, and all. Except you give half to that bird as fecked you out? Waste of time, Stevie.”
He looked up at the man on the stairs; you would have taken him for mid-50s, but he was in his early 40s. An ex-Belvedere boy, if you could believe him, got expelled, then spent his teens and 20s on the streets, touting for drugs. Three times in hospital on life support. Clean now, but his words were hollow.
“I’ll see you later, right,” said Stephen.
“Oh, you will that, and all.”
Somebody had put another old fridge out the back so that Stephen had to squeeze past it to get to his door, which was unlocked, open an inch. He had an awful feeling, but when he pushed it open the place was undisturbed.
Inside, he was freshly assailed by the smack of mould, and several insects made a dive for cover when he switched on the bare bulb in the middle. He lay down on the sofa. There was a bed, but the roof leaked and it was rotten with mould. There was a telly, huge old thing that wasn’t worth anybody’s time to nick, no Saorview or cable, though.
“Have a good day?” asked Yellowhair.
“Kids still coming?”
“Yeah, they’re still coming.”
“You shouldn’t have them here. It’s not right.”
He looked around. Chaos and decay.
“They’re my kids.”
“Putting yourself first? That’s what I always did.’
“We’re not that different, you and I.”
He turned away from her. He tried to think of better times, but the smell kept dragging him back.
He was woken next morning by a loud thumping. He sat up quickly as Bento came in. He shivered, convulsed. The cold had set into his bones.
“Stevo, y’ould bugger. Up and about with ye.”
“Ah, look, can you not be letting yourself in, like.”
“No bovver, Stevo, I’m out of your hair soon as I has me rent.”
“I need a bit of time, Bento, me kids are coming round.”
“Sorry, Stevo, I don’t take kids as payment.”
“No look, I’m still waiting on the rent allowance and . . .”
“Look . . .” Bento reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of notes, counted out six 50s and two 20s. “Here’s your bleeding deposit. Out you go and we’re all square. Can’t say fairer.”
“I just need time . . .”
“Buckets of it, Stevo, in your own place. Show me what you’ve got.”
He pulled out his pocket. There was €30 and some change. Bento was on it like the plague.
“That’ll buy you till Thursday.”
“Ah Bento, I’ve nothing for food, like, for me kids.”
“Do a bit of begging, or a bit of dipping. Or give them bleeding Vincent’s a call. They like a good sob story, bloody do-gooders.”
Bento was gone, and so was the money. So was Stephen’s hope he might have something to take the kids out. He snatched up a footstool, swung violently at the television but then pulled away at the last second, panting.
“No money, no food,” said Yellowhair. “Not a good day.”
“Ah, feck off.”
“You maybe need to put your kids off.”
“You maybe need to get a life.”
His phone rang. Number blocked. He answered. It was the St Vincent de Paul. He explained the urgency. Two hours later, a couple of folks were at the front door. He led them in through all the crap in the yard. They looked about and shook their heads.
“So how can we help you?” asked the man. He might have been 50, 60, the woman maybe 70. They sat down uncomfortably amid the mess.
“I’ve nothing. My kids are coming around, and . . .” He sobbed; could not help it. Tears began to roll. That pissed him off; hated looking weak. “I’m sorry, I don’t . . .”
“No, no. Take your time. Let it out.”
So he started talking. Five years. He had run his own business, had six, sometimes eight guys in vans, a string of customers lining up. A stunner of a wife that loved him, two beautiful children, boys. They had just bought a house in Clondalkin, a fixer-upper. All gone. The house and vans back with the bank, the staff laid off, savings spent, and then, in the end, his marriage.
All he had left were his kids, but he had nothing for them. They looked around and shook their heads again.
“Your boys will stay here?”
“It’s not really suitable.”
“It’s all I can afford. Can’t even really afford it.”
“You get jobseeker’s?”
“Yeah, but they missed a couple of months when my missus kicked me out. New address, like. And I got to give her a few quid for the boys. Had to go to the money lenders, you know.”
“Stay away from them.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Not through yet.”
“We’ve brought some food,” the woman said, handing over a Tesco bag with mostly boxes and cans. “We know it’s not much, but, well, folks don’t have much money to give.”
“And some vouchers,” said the man. “McDonald’s. You can take the boys for a treat.” He handed Stephen an envelope.
“Sorry we can’t do more. We can come back, say, next week.”
After he had shown them out he went through the bag. Cornflakes, bread, beans. There were tea bags but no milk, so he headed to the corner shop. When he got back the door of his flat was open again. The food was gone.
“Sorry,” said Yellowhair. “Not much I could do, being dead and all.”
Stephen punched his fist into the plasterboard wall, and left a hole. He had the vouchers at least, had shoved the envelope in his pocket without thinking.
He got up at seven to go see his mate Joey. As he was unlocking the door, Marcin bounced down from his flat in the attic, nearly bumping into Spaz.
“Hey, my friends,” he said, grinning. “Today is working, yes?”
“You have work?”
“Oh, yes, all good. I . . .” He made a motion with his hand, maybe twisting a spanner. “I plumb.”
“Great stuff. Good luck.”
“Bloody Poles,” said Spaz. “Taking our jobs.”
Stephen walked down to Dorset Street. Joey used to work for him: a good lad, sharp. Still got work fairly readily, and liked his few beers after, so you had to call early.
“Great to see ye, bud.”
“Joey, looking good!”
“Any work, Stephen?”
“I got nothing. You heard of any?”
“Sorry, buddy. I’d call ye, ye know I would, but.”
“Listen, Joey. Me kids are coming round today. Ye wouldn’t have a few quid?”
“Aw Jaysus, Stephen, I’m skint, so I am.” He pulled out his pockets to show him. He hauled out anything he could spare from his presses and made up a bag for Stephen, threw in a few fags. Stephen gazed around the kitchen. A year ago he would have called it pokey.
On the way back he passed Mountjoy Prison. He looked up at the glass block windows. One of the lads upstairs from him was in the ’Joy last year. “Bleeding holiday camp”, he called it. No justice.
Home. There was that smell of smoke and cabbage again, and there was Spastic O’Toole like a bad penny on the stairwell.
“Stevie, old pal. The ould arthritis is something awful again. Can’t make it to the shops. Any chance of a fag?”
Stephen tried to barter for food. Spaz brought him down a can of beans and half a pack of crackers. It was the same brand of beans the Vincents had brought him last night.
He had almost no phone credit, didn’t have a fiver to buy more, so he sent Jeanine a text. “Can u call plz?”
“What is it? Don’t tell me ye’re fecking backing out of it now?”
“No, Jeanine, it’s just . . . I can’t afford the bus. Is there any chance you could, you know, drop them over? Or if you gave me the money for the bus I’d walk over and collect them, and all.”
“Ah feck’s sake, Stephen. I’m not fecking traipsing up to the bleeding North Circular.”
She shouted at him for a bit. The anger was still raw. She blamed him for so many things, some of them justified. They had been young and happy once. She was 14 when he had first kissed her. Nineteen when she had Kyle, and 20 with David.
She relented. At three o’clock Mark’s Toyota pulled up outside McDonald’s on Dorset Street. Mark was the prick who had moved into Jeanine’s cold bed when she had chucked Stephen out. He stopped with a scream of brakes.
“Too busy working, and all, Steve?”
“Thanks for bringing them, Mark.”
“More than ye fecking deserve, mate. Wanna see your kids, get yerself bleeding sorted, like.”
Mark ruffled the boys’ hair, as if he gave a toss, then roared off.
“How are yez, boys?” He went to hug them, but they wriggled awkwardly away. “Come on, let’s get some burgers.”
He had to watch what they are ordering in case he hadn’t enough vouchers. He just covered it, getting nothing himself. He nicked a few chips.
“How is your ma, lads?”
“Getting on okay with Mark, like?”
“You doing good in school?”
He loved the smiles on their faces as they finished the curly fries.
They went to the park to kick ball, then walked down to Parnell Street to look in the windows. The boys had little interest, but he wanted to keep them out late, as the nights were getting dark and he had feck all credit left on his electricity card. Bento was charging eight quid a card for a fiver’s credit. He took Joey’s bag of food with him.
He hated bringing them home. The boys held their noses and made poo noises when they walked through the door. They were right: it smelled shit. He lit candles, to make it homely, he said. He tried to chat to them again, but he did not know what to talk about.
“So, how are your friends?”
“Your ma taking you on holiday somewhere?”
“Dunno. Probably. Does the TV work, like?”
“Nah. Yez wanna play cards?”
Kyle played his DS, a new game Mark bought him, and Dave watched him and bugged him for a turn. Stephen sat in silence, gazing on, for two hours.
He put Kyle on the sofa and piled up cushions for Dave, who was small for his age. As the boys settled, he sat against the wall. There was nowhere for him to sleep unless he wanted to lie on the mouldy bed, beside the dead junkie. She smelled completely foul tonight, though.
So he sat and watched, watched as the boys fell into sleep, shifting on the uncomfortable cushions. The tears came again; he held his breath so as not to retch out loud. Stink, humiliation, rot, helplessness.
He opens his eyes. He is standing with his towel, over his boys.
“It makes sense, Stephen,” says Yellowhair. “We can all be happy together. No more money worries. No smell of vomit and cabbage. You’ll have your boys forever and that prick Mark can’t take them off you.”
“You and me, Stephen. I’ll love you like she couldn’t.”
“Nah, you won’t. You’re just a selfish junkie that killed herself ’cause she wasn’t bothered struggling to survive.”
“Why bother, Stephen? For what? You’re one of the lost now, the dispossessed. Nothing but a burden. You’ve no money to start another business. And when there’s work to be had again for the likes of yourself, there’ll be a queue of fellas 10 years younger in front of you. You can’t emigrate because of your kids. Smelly flats and bastards nicking your stuff: that’s your future. You can have peace, like me.”
“It’s just like going to sleep. Your children won’t suffer, I swear.”
“An end to this wretchedness. I promise.”
“Promise . . .”
He stands over his boys, the wet towel getting cold in his hands.
In the morning he meets Spaz in the hallway.
“What’s with the bags, Stevie, my man?”
“Moving out. Try to get into a hostel or whatever, like. Can’t be worse than this shithole.”
“Ah, there you go. Told you. That shed gave me the creeps, I swear to Jaysus, since that junkie topped herself in there. How’s the kids?”
“Fine. Gone. Gone home and all, you know, early, like. Their ma came and . . . Well, anyway.”
“Ah, Stevie, I’ll miss ye. Tell you what: let me give you a goodbye fag, for ould time’s sake, like.”
He pulls a cigarette from his pocket. It is the brand that Stephen smokes.
Kieran Marsh’s fiction has been read on Arena, on RTÉ Radio 1, and published in Southword Journal and Writers’ Forum Magazine. He blogs at gooseberryseason.com