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
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