Debt, a short story by Tom Vowler
Taken from his acclaimed collection ‘Dazzling the Gods’, a tale of a family reunion with a hint of danger
Tom Vowler: author of Dazzling the Gods
I pick him up from the airport. My younger brother, home under the cover of night to make good everything again.
You look all skinny, he says. Jane not feeding you?
As we release each other, I offer to take his bag but he ignores me.
I lucked out with the cabin crew, he says. They used to be up for a bit of flirting; came with the job.
I picture my brother attaching himself like a limpet to some poor jet-lagged woman, who in a bar or at a party would extract herself with a weary refrain, but who, at 28,000 feet, has no enduring escape routes.
Don’t you ever have a day off? I say.
The world is what it is, little brother.
Despite the year and a bit I have on him, he’s called me this since bulking out in his late teens.
You should come over and stay, he says. Taste some Mediterranean delights.
Over was in the hills outside Marbella, Conor’s home for the last four years, chosen when run-ins with Dublin’s petty criminals progressed to something potentially mortal. There had been no time for goodbyes, our mother phoning me in a panic when she realised he’d left in the small hours one New Year’s Eve.
I’d long since moved out – another kind of fleeing, I suppose – a vestige of respectability found teaching music at a failing Galway comprehensive. Far enough away to visit if I had to, but with an infrequency that suited me. My departure meant our sister was now the sole provider of nurturance to a mother who measured the day’s passing in alcoholic rather than temporal units. Our father, not much good at life either, at least had the sense to get out before his own tyranny imprisoned him, leaving the day before my fifteenth birthday. Our mother’s judgement was typically understated. You’ll all leave in the end, she said.
Maybe I’ll come over in the holidays, I say.
Bring some crisps with you; they have no idea about crisps.
Conor lights a cigarette, opens the car window a crack. He smells of something I can’t place, the odour of a foreign life. A good life, I imagine, though I know nothing of its particulars.
Things working out for you over there? I say.
Ah, you know, sun, sea and all that. I play golf every morning. Can you believe it? I used to hate those pricks with their polo shirts and their buggies. Now I’m one of them.
You’re right, I don’t believe it.
No good, though. I hook everything. Grip’s too strong, apparently.
I imagine the club in his hands, absent of all finesse.
You got work? I say.
When I want it.
Hey, come on. I’ve been back five minutes. What is this?
I’m interested, that’s all.
He turns the radio on, scans through the stations, settling on some whiny rock anthem that sees him drum the dashboard, which should annoy me but somehow doesn’t. The road south is quiet at this time of night, allowing me to watch a chalky moon sat large over the city. I think to say I’m happy he’s back, how it’s good to see him, but just drive instead.
You had this long? Conor says, making a play of checking the seatbelt.
Couple of years.
And you haven’t written it off yet? I’m impressed.
The last time I saw my brother his foot had a man’s head fixed to the floor. I’d come home for the holidays and he’d taken me on a tour of his latest nocturnal haunts – disagreeable places in the north of the city – and I soon got the sense it was for my benefit, his illegitimate world proudly paraded, as if to make the point his was a successful life despite the absence of an honest vocation. As one by one he introduced me to men I sensed were best avoided, I imagined the inverse, of my showing him round the school, meeting colleagues in the staffroom, eating in the canteen. Midway through the evening an argument broke out in a nightclub, an acquaintance of Conor’s unable to appease a group of disgruntled customers, my brother approaching with quiet relish as he took out the most vocal of them. Go in quick and hard, his way. For weeks, whenever the Head annoyed me, I imagined employing such decisive conflict resolution. I remember before our father left, he told me he’d never have to worry about Conor, that he would always be able to look after himself, the implication being that I couldn’t.
Absent of an obvious authority figure, Conor’s passage through adolescence became progressively turbulent, although when I left for the west coast, his criminal record remained modest, boasting little more than vandalism, a caution for shoplifting and possession of some Class B. Charm and good fortune, as much as his physique, seemed to insulate him from the more extreme elements of retribution his lifestyle yielded. Until, that was, the wrong people were crossed, liberties taken where none were tolerated. According to our sister, he lost several kilograms of Colombia’s finest in a bungled deal, the money handed over before he’d collected the gear. It was enough that an example needed making.
The house is cold when we get back. At the top of the stairs light bleeds beneath our mother’s bedroom door.
I’ll say hello, Conor says.
Leave her, it’s late. She’s probably fallen asleep reading.
I tell him our sister will be over tomorrow, if she can get off work.
Does she know why I’m here?
I nod. He seems indifferent to this. We hadn’t involved her, other than my telling her I’d sort things, to not worry. Going to our brother wouldn’t have been her approach, but families like ours can hardly go to the gardaí.
I search the cupboards. Mum’s stash is significant but low on variety. I pour us each some cheap-looking vodka, ask Conor if he wants ice, but he just takes the glass from me.
I first heard of Davy Coughlan before moving away, a small-time loan shark operating out of the next estate. Neighbours sometimes used him in the run-up to Christmas, weekly repayments made on the doorstep, an informal yet binding arrangement. According to our sister, Coughlan’s empire had grown as hard times returned, buying up the debts of several other illegal lenders, his reach spreading south down to Navan Road and beyond. He had several fulltime collectors, men and women who squeezed what they could from you, latitude given if you promised to pay double the next week. And when you couldn’t, someone more persuasive would call round, the tone shifting from community redeemer to something more menacing. Despite her alcoholism, our mother, as far as we knew, had always handled financial affairs ably, our father’s absence focusing her mind on surviving alone with three children and a modest, unreliable income. And while we went without plenty, she managed to create the illusion that we weren’t poor, fashioning free entertainment where possible, cheating the social out of a few quid. Since securing a half-decent job, I offered to send her money but it was always refused. Nobody knew for sure when she began using Coughlan, sometime after the last of us moved out, our sister thought.
It was just enough to tide her over till her cheque came through, Sheenah had told me on the phone last week. Like getting stuff from the catalogue, paying it back here and there.
She’d never say, told me not to worry.
So you didn’t?
I don’t think you get to be critical anymore.
But she was paying it off?
She almost had, but Coughlan’s goons convinced her to borrow more, to pay off the last of the first loan and have some leftover, and it carried on like this. I did a rough calculation of the interest rate, it’s crazy. Last week someone came round, started asking who owned the house, took some jewellery as collateral.
Conor pours us another drink, large ones. Despite the circumstances of our reunion, it’s a relief to escape for now the path my own shortcomings are tempting me along. For the best part of a term I’ve ignored the unambiguous attentions of a pupil in my A-level class, dismissing the thoughts as they gather in my mind, telling myself such crushes were a vocational inevitability, that they pass with time. A promising cellist, the girl’s compositional techniques were far advanced of her peers, and although I liked to encourage the creation of ensemble pieces, she excelled as a solo performer, the sublimity of her music the contrast of these shitty streets I grew up in. And for now I’ve behaved with utter professionalism, the line in my mind clear and precise, the problems with my relationship never allowed to dictate a gesture – behaviour barely noticed at first, yet the preamble to downfall. I imagine Conor faced with a similar situation, regarding its glorious potential, life holding such simplicity for his kind, the devoted servant of hedonism, of base needs.
My brother downs his drink. As his shirt rises I glimpse a heavily tattooed arm and remember the ones we gave each other as kids, crosses clumsily scrawled on our biceps, my own now weathered to an indistinct blue-green blemish. We pierced each other’s ears too, a bloody affair, Conor’s becoming infected, though he stuck with it, sporting to this day a silver ring. Other memories return unbidden. Of escaping the city’s clutches, walking for miles, climbing trees to add to our collection of birds’ eggs, a cache that presumably still lies in the loft here.
We started a fire once, in a barn we’d broken into, watching from a distant hill as the flames grew, feeling perhaps it had gone too far. Or just that it was something to regret, the wanton destruction of someone’s property, an act other kids would have regarded frivolous, but that left us sombre for a day or two.
He asks about Mum, berates me for not visiting more.
Work’s busy just now.
She needs looking after.
Perhaps we should all come and live with you, play golf every day.
With your fair skin? You’d last a week.
I’ll bring a hat.
I tell him more about Coughlan, stuff our sister had said.
Right, he says, we do this tomorrow night.
I’ve been thinking we should just pay it off. I’ve got some savings.
You can wait in the car if you like. I’ll go in on my own.
You want me to come?
Someone has to drive. Come on, you’re good at that these days.
I want to say how absurd this all is, now that it’s real. That I have a good job, more than that, I have a career to think of. There should be a more rational response to consider.
Anyway, he says, why call me if you’ve doubts?
Because I knew you’d come back. Because I miss having you around. Because you just left, my younger yet somehow older brother.
I don’t know.
Conor tops us up once more.
Your car reliable? he asks, and I nod. Good. Tomorrow, then. Best get some kip.
I gesture towards the spare room, offer to take the sofa.
I’m fine on there, he says. You take the bed.
The next day we leave a few hours after dark. What sleep I’d managed was fitful, occupied by the formless spectres of fear, Conor’s snoring a comfort on waking. Earlier our mother had cooked for the four of us, the food from another generation but surprisingly agreeable. She seemed unconcerned by my brother’s sudden presence, delighting in the rare convergence of all her children. Our sister, too, imparted none of her usual animosity at our enduring absence.
After dinner Conor made some calls, presumably to get an address, perhaps to say hello to old friends. We’d searched the house and shed for something of Dad’s, an old hurling stick or cricket bat, settling for a small crowbar from the garage. And then we go, across town, streets slicked with rain, lamps jaundicing the way. Conor’s cigarette fills the car with a piquant fug, evoking some long forgotten aspect of our father, who would sit smoking for hours at the dining table, gazing at the window, perhaps planning his exodus.
My brother was disciplined, as our father termed it, most weeks, sometimes following a letter from school highlighting his absence or some misdemeanour. Or he’d come in late, dinner missed, clothes torn from a fight, his punishment rarely administered in the sobriety of the moment, reserved instead for a Friday night once the pub had closed, when the house was still and I’d listen to Conor’s muffled cries through my bedroom wall.
Our father never struck me, though; it was as if my brother soaked up all his violent reserves. Around the time we set fire to the barn, I’d begun messing about in the garage, sitting in the Cortina listening to a tape, easing the gearstick back and forth, imagining some girl next to me, wind in her hair, the promise of lustful delights. One day, for reasons I can’t recall, our father walked the two miles to work and on returning from school I found the car keys hanging in the hallway, figuring that a single lap of the garage block would go unnoticed. Unable to adjust the seat, I could barely reach the pedals, yet went ahead anyway, seduced by the engine’s roar, by the drama of the thing.
The damage was minimal but impossible to miss, our father certain to discover it the following day. Later I showed Conor, who laughed an unconvincing laugh as we crouched together in the garage, inspecting the outcome of my misadventure.
He loves this car, was all my brother said.
Dinner that evening was the usual quiet affair, Sheenah pushing vegetables from one side of her plate to the other, our mother lost to thoughts of some other life she might have led. I could hardly eat for fear, an image of the dented and scratched wing vivid in my mind. Out looking for nests once, Conor had spoken of the belt our father used, thick and ridged, its swift movement leaving the air charged.
How many times? I’d asked, both wanting and not wanting to know. To get through it, Conor told me he imagined me standing behind our father, carrying out the same sentence on him, blow by blow.
When my brother spoke at dinner that night, it was almost with nonchalance, the act of lying coming easily to him by then, as he described how his foot had slipped on the pedal, how he tried to brake in time, the sound of metal on brick. How he would save his pocket money and pay for the repairs. Our father listened to the confession in silence, before heading out to the garage, where he stayed until it got dark.
As always the reckoning came days later, the whole house seeming to resound with the violence, our father going too far this time, even for him. And perhaps he feared he’d kill my brother one day, as the world seemed reordered after that night. Either way, he left a week later.
Conor asks about the car, what it does to the gallon. He seems relaxed, as if we’re visiting family or heading for a night out, remarking on all the changes to this part of town.
Ever thought of coming back? I say.
Perhaps it’s all been forgotten.
These people don’t forget. Anyway, come back for what?
You could head my way. No one knows you there.
Do you know how much rain southern Spain gets?
Conor flicks his cigarette out the window, tells me to take a left up ahead.
You all settled down with Jane now? he says.
Don’t it scare you, the same woman for the rest of your life?
Why should it?
No variety, never fucking someone for the first time again.
There’s more than fucking.
He laughs, as if I couldn’t possibly believe this, and for a moment, after all these years, I almost ask him why he lied for me. Instead I say, Do you ever wonder where he went? What he’s doing?
No, not really.
I wait in the car, apparently to keep watch but effectively redundant, a provider of transport, hands and conscience clean, eyes witness to nothing more than the initial orchestration. I wonder how often my brother does something like this these days, whether there are others in his adopted country who take care of such matters for him now.
Some people only understand one way, one language, he’d said last night.
And if it makes things worse for her?
I’ll come back.
A young couple, a little drunk, sidle along the pavement, the man stumbling into the wing mirror, knocking it askew, the woman apologising before laughing. I try to hunker down, feign indifference, but the man – a boy really, I see now – feels the need to make a point, his face an inch from the windscreen, breath misting the glass as he studies me. You need to go, I want to say. You need to go before my brother returns and things go badly for you. The girl pulls his coat, pleads with him, a hint in her voice of being witness to such events too often. My giving him nothing to feed off eventually works and after a final flourish of menace he allows the girl to lead him away, down the road, the boy howling into the night like some demented creature.
I stare at the building across the road, the door Conor entered with the crowbar, trying to calculate how long it’s been, how many men Coughlan might have up there. I’d made him promise just to issue a warning, his visit a symbol of our resistance, that we, that our mother, wouldn’t simply roll over and pay up.
It occurs to me that we should have parked further away, that bringing the car here in an age of ubiquitous CCTV was foolish. I consider how frightened by everything I am – being here now, the aggression of a passing boy, the guilt of an imagined affair – all of it taking me back to the dinner table that night, to the disciplining Conor saved me from.
Had I always been a coward? So innately weak that even our father was reluctant to expose it, made as I am of different stuff? Perhaps Conor is on some level thankful for the man’s brutish hand, it hardening him, forging him like a blacksmith’s hammer, preparing him for the world he would know.
Stepping out of the car I can smell my childhood, a thousand memories assembling at the promise of their indulgence. I picture Jane reading in our bed, my safe and comfortable life so removed from this place, yet the link never entirely severed. I imagine my class on Monday, the ruinous thoughts that will line up in attack formation. How I’ll do the right thing and be resentful for it. I consider my sister’s face, how something in her eyes resembles utterly my own, our complexions alike – ashen, almost ethereal – Conor’s swarthy by comparison, even before his expatriation, marking him out for our father’s attention from the start.
Unsolicited, a mealtime routine of sorts comes to mind, a rare glimpse of another side to our father, who whenever my brother asked if he could get down from the table, would reply, No, son, you can only get down from a duck. He said it in response without fail, the two of them trading guarded smiles as if it was the first time.
Perhaps I will go to visit him, get away from it all for a while, arrive with every flavour of crisp. Jane might come, the trip a new start, the sun nourishing us. I picture us finding Conor on the tee, his grip loosened a little as the club scythes downward, connecting cleanly, the ball cutting without deviation through crystalline Spanish sky, mile after mile.
The city is quieter now, burnished in moonlight. Ignoring my heart’s frequent, heavy beat I open the door across the street, negotiate the stairs in near-darkness, almost tripping as I run to find my brother.
This story is from Dazzling The Gods by Tom Vowler (Unbound)