The summer my mother died Heff became my best friend. His name was Heffernan, that’s why he was called Heff. Heff could tell you what song was number one the week you were born and do the Rubik’s cube in fifty-three seconds. He had a pool table in his bedroom. He was tall and great at telling jokes. For much of that summer the last things I was in the mood for were jokes but when Heff told one I laughed. He played basketball too. That’s where we first met – at the courts.
A few weeks after becoming best friends we made a list each of our favourite women. After wading through photographs of pop singers and supermodels in magazines, after countless close studies of girls who bounced around our neighbourhood, we confined our selections to mothers living along our road. This was Heff’s idea. This was a list that hadn’t been made before, he said. In our friendship, as well as being the joke teller, he was the ideas man.
Very quickly we both had a top five. We differed on numbers two, three and four, but we agreed on number one.
Mrs Cassidy was gorgeous. She was young for a mother, had brown hair that curved into her neck, her lips were moist and plump. She wore singlets with glittery writing and short denim skirts. She had a tattoo on her right shoulder. Her husband was a car salesman and looked like a toad. ‘What is she doing with him?’ Heff demanded to know. The way he asked it I thought he wouldn’t sleep until he was given an answer that satisfied him. It was a question that had no answer and my friend agonised restlessly.
Shortly after I began calling for Heff, Mrs Cassidy smiled at me when we passed each other in the street. It was a lovely smile, friendly and kind, and her lips pouted just before the smile, as though she was considering whether or not I deserved one. I wanted to stop and have a conversation with her. Get to know her a little better. See what sort of a personality she had. But I knew I would be tongue-tied.
I said nothing to Heff about my encounter. I wanted to keep the vision of that smile all for myself, and assemble an entire personality around it. Usually, if you said a girl had a good personality that was code for saying she looked like the back of a tractor. That was Heff’s phrase. He had one for every occasion. But after receiving that smile from Mrs Cassidy I knew the codebook could be torn up. Her smile, and the obvious things about her, made her the perfect woman. That was another thing Heff had going that summer. According to Heff, to be perfect a woman had to have three things. A good face. A good body. And a good personality. ‘He drives a hard bargain,’ my father said when I told him Heff’s terms. ‘You haven’t seen Mrs Cassidy recently,’ I whispered, which was true – that summer he had barely set foot outside the door of our house.
At night I lay awake and thought of Heff and his lists and Mrs Cassidy and her smile. Then I thought of my mother. She had always been making lists. She’d had a useless memory, so she used to buy yellow notepads that had a sticky strip on one side. On these notes she would write her lists and then stick them to the fridge door or the kitchen wall, wherever there was space. She wrote lists of little things she had to do. Pay the ESB. Order oil. Pick up a Walsh’s loaf, which my father and I quickly devoured. One time she forgot to bring home the Walsh’s loaf. She had stopped off at a telephone box to make a call and she had left the loaf behind her. At the time, a notorious member of the IRA was being held in the town barracks before being sent up north. Release him or there’ll be trouble a message had been phoned in. And when my mother remembered where she had left her Walsh’s loaf and returned to pick it up, the phone box was surrounded by soldiers with guns. Meantime, two members of the bomb squad were kneeling just outside the phone-box and were prodding the Walsh’s loaf with long metal wands. We often laughed about that.
Her big list was a list of places she wanted to see before she died. The Grand Canyon. The Great Wall of China. Berlin. She wrote it all down, said she was going to cross off each item one by one after she got to see it. I kept her list. I had it in my top drawer. I thought that maybe some day I’d get to one or two of these places. Then I could cross them off.
Mrs Cassidy’s first name was Maria. She lived next door to Heff. If it was sunny she stripped into a yellow bikini and sunbathed in a full-length deck chair in her back garden. Sometimes she wore a white bikini. I liked the white bikini. Heff liked the yellow. We disagreed on some things and bikini colour was one of them. Because we were best friends our disagreement didn’t come between us. ‘Let’s go and look at our favourite woman,’ Heff would say if a little tension crept in to our discussions. He always knew how to resolve things.
Maria Cassidy had brown skin. It was smooth and lovely and watching her from Heff’s bedroom window was both great fun and painful. I ached when I looked down at Maria Cassidy. She was the most beautiful thing. She wore sunglasses, and made herself a fizzy drink with a straw and set it down on the grass beside her. From time to time, she reached an arm over, grabbed her drink, brought it to her plump lips and sipped through the straw. She rubbed sun-tan lotion all over her arms and legs. Her legs went on forever. The sunglasses made her mysterious.
‘I’m going to throw myself into that chair and rub my face all over it,’ Heff said as soon as Maria Cassidy got up and went inside. I hadn’t reached that far. I was still with her smile. It had stayed with me after passing her on the street. And I continued to think of it as I passed her house on my way home at night.
It was quiet in our house that summer. My father sat up late. He watched news reports, sometimes a late film. Often he sat by the open fire place holding his head in his hands. I found it harder and harder to talk to him. It was always late when I came home from Heff’s house and I hoped my father would be in bed by the time I got in. But he was almost always still up.
As I lay in bed I said her name into the darkness. Maria Cassidy. I thought her name was very exotic. I pictured her on a yacht somewhere, lying out on deck in her white bikini, clear blue waters shimmering, that lucky sun gazing down on her all day. Making her smile.
After a while I tried to think of my mother’s smile. It wasn’t as vivid as Maria Cassidy’s and the pain that came was different to the pain I felt when I thought of Maria Cassidy. As more summer nights passed, thoughts of my mother and the pain that came with those thoughts began to fade. At first I thought this was a good thing. Then her smile began to fade and I wasn’t so sure.
When Maria Cassidy took some time off from sunbathing Heff and I watched Kevin Ford’s driving tricks. He drove a Honda and it had a souped-up engine, go-fast stripes and spoilers. We sat down on the curb and watched his performance. Little Stephen Cassidy and his sister Ciara sat down beside us and watched too. They were always together, running up and down our road, chasing Mrs Redihan’s dog, sometimes crossing the road one after the other, and making for the muck hole at the top of the grassy bank. Ciara was always first across the road, and Stephen always followed her. ‘He looks just like his mother. He’s going to have a great time when he’s older,’ Heff said about Stephen.
Behind the steering wheel of his Honda, Kevin Ford was soon busy. He revved and spun around and skidded and reversed and did another handbrake spin around. Eventually, Maria Cassidy or one of the other mothers came out on to the road and told Kevin Ford to take his loud car somewhere else. This made Kevin mad, you could see him grimacing behind his steering wheel, his grip on it tightening, and he revved his engine until it reached the point of no return and he sped away, the Honda’s exhaust coughing out a black cloud of smoke which spread a suffocating stench through the air. After watching Maria Cassidy in her back garden the entire show was a real let down.
Luckily, the sun continued to shine. Every day was hotter than the one before. ‘I am going to melt if this weather continues,’ said Mrs Redihan who lived next door to my father and me, and she tugged at the cardigan she was wearing. ‘Let her melt,’ Heff said. ‘The world can continue without the removal of that cardigan.’
Other mothers along our road made the most of the rising temperatures. One or two of them put on bathing suits. Some paraded about in bikinis. Heff said he’d run away from home if his mother pulled a stunt like that. Either that or he was going to find a gun and shoot himself. Between throwing himself out of bedroom windows and now all this gun-talk he was becoming very fatalistic. I didn’t think his mother was that bad.
There were so many different shapes. Heff and I responded to most of them. They all looked wonderful in that everything-is-new way, and with each passing day Heff and I happily noted the appearance of a new bikini along our road. Deep down, however, we both knew that none of them would ever be able to compete with Maria Cassidy. During that hot summer of mothers in bikinis, sun tan lotion and never-ending legs she kept one step ahead.
When she lay on her stomach, reached her arms around and untied the straps of her bikini top – the yellow one – Heff had to leave his bedroom window and go into the bathroom. I stayed at the window, staring down at her, and concentrated on her shoulders. They looked delicate and strong. The ends of her hair touched them. I wanted to touch them too. I said as much to Heff when he emerged, red-faced, from the bathroom. For a few minutes he stared intensely down at her. Unusually for him he didn’t say a word, and I thought to myself, this is it, out the window he goes. But he didn’t jump. Instead, he became hot and bothered once again, and made another trip to the bathroom.
‘To think that slimy toad gets to crawl all over her,’ Heff said when we sat out on the curb to cool off and saw Mr Cassidy come home from a day selling cars. We didn’t really cool off, though, we never did. But, after one of our sessions with Maria Cassidy, we needed some time out of doors.
‘Is Longshaw still your number two?’ I asked him.
‘Yeah. Her face isn’t great, but she has a good body.’
‘Brady is my number two.’
‘She has a good personality. Her face is pleasant, but I’m not sure about the rest. Have a look at Longshaw. She’s in a bikini this week – well, half of her is.’
We stopped talking then. Kevin Ford’s Honda growled past us, skidded and spun around, narrowly avoiding Mrs Redihan’s dog. Mrs Redihan came out of her house and shook a fist at Kevin Ford’s Honda. Behind his steering wheel Kevin rolled his eyes. Heff and I stood up, and headed back to Heff’s bedroom until the sun went down.
After it got dark Heff and I played pool and a card game Heff had invented. From time to time, he put me on stopwatch duty while he scrambled his Rubik’s cube and then tried to beat his record. As he potted balls he asked me to give him some dates so that he could make sure he knew what song had been number one.
‘The 22nd of November 1960,’ I gave him.
‘It’s Now Or Never, Elvis Presley,’ he answered without a pause for thought.
‘The 7th of September 1970,’ I gave him.
‘Tears Of A Clown, Smoky Robinson and The Miracles,’ he said.
‘The 10th of August 1977.’
‘I Feel Love, Donna Summer.’
‘June First 1983.’
‘That’s too recent. Give me a hard one. Wait, isn’t that the date your mother – ’
He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he moved straight on to one of his jokes, one he had already told, one I had laughed loudly at. I laughed loudly again this time – so loudly that Heff’s mother woke up and shooed me out of there.
When I was walking home from Heff’s, I saw a squad car outside Kevin Ford’s house. Lots of people were milling about in the front garden, drinking and smoking. A couple was groping each other in the back seat of Kevin’s Honda. On his doorstep two guards were talking to Kevin who was waving his arms and shaking his head vigorously. Those in the garden were loud and the guards were telling them to clear off. I continued on my way home. I was in no mood for a party. Further on, I saw Mrs Redihan at her window, her curtain drawn back. She let it fall back into place as I passed by. Then I walked into my own house.
He was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, silent, alone. I didn’t know what to say to him. Didn’t know if I should sit with him. Put an arm around his shoulder. I thought I wanted to, but something else stopped me, some hidden force that made me feel any movement towards him would require a stepping outside of myself, and a passage through unsafe territory. I left him to his thoughts and went upstairs.
In my room I stared out through the window, at the calm warm night. I tried to make out patterns in the stars. At some point, I heard the roar of Kevin Ford’s Honda escaping into the night. And I lay down in my bed, thought of Maria Cassidy’s smile and waited for sleep.
The temperatures climbed higher and higher. More and more mothers started wearing bathing suits. Some of those already in bathing suits graduated into bikinis. While those in bikinis to begin with padded proudly up and down our road, their brown bodies glinting in the golden light. Even Mrs Redihan succumbed. She made a very bold move going straight from her cardigan into a bikini, by-passing the bathing suit stage. She had a very good body. So good that I thought she might give Maria Cassidy a run for her money. Someone is going to need to hear about this, I told myself, and at once I headed for Heff’s house.
When I called for him he was busy scrambling his cube. He had broken the fifty seconds barrier and was talking about entering the national Rubik’s cube contest.
‘I am going to make a name for myself,’ he said, tossing his solved cube from one hand to the other. ‘Then women will be throwing themselves at me.’ He had also heard about Kevin Ford’s party and the guards. ‘It was Redihan who called them,’ he said. ‘She really has it in for Ford.’
‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ I said. ‘She’s in a bikini today. Redihan, I mean. She has a very good body. You should go take a look.’
On our way back towards Redihan’s house, we passed Kevin Ford behind the steering wheel of his Honda, revving like he never had before. He was fuming. Mrs Cassidy was on her way back inside her house. I could tell she had just told Kevin Ford to take his Honda elsewhere. Heff and I walked on as he skidded away. A couple of seconds later we heard Kevin’s car screech to a halt. When we turned around he was already out of his car, the driver’s door was swung open and he was standing beside the bonnet of his car, his hands clasped behind his head. Oh-oh, I thought, he’s hit the dog. Sure enough Mrs Redihan appeared moments later. Then Maria Cassidy rushed past us, out onto the road. I looked after her. Then I heard Mrs Redihan’s dog barking. It was moving swiftly down the grassy bank towards the scene. Ciara Cassidy was right behind. I looked from Ciara back to Kevin Ford’s Honda. Then I heard Maria Cassidy’s scream, and I started to move closer.
He was lying on the road, not moving, blood was seeping out from the underside of his head. Maria slumped down on the road and with both arms gripped her boy and half-raised him off the ground. She was crying now, and little Stephen’s blood was spreading across her brown skin, smearing her white bikini. Closer and closer to her she clutched her boy, as though doing so could somehow restore the precious little life. And the pain of that moment suddenly reached me. Waves of dizziness arrived, and I had to sit down on the curb before I fell. And I sat there and watched Mrs Cassidy cradle her lifeless boy, gently rock him back and forth. And I wanted her to hold me that way. I wanted to be her bleeding boy.
Alan McMonagle has written two collections of short stories, Liar Liar (Wordsonthestreet, 2008) and Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013). Picador will publish his debut novel, Ithaca, in spring 2017