Hennessy Literary Awards 2017 First Fiction winner: I Could Have Been a Dancer, by Sean Tanner
Hennessy New Irish Writing: September’s winning story
The author: Sean Tanner
So there I am waiting in line at the deli counter with a blaster of a hangover. I mean seriously, if somebody so much as looks at me wrong, I’m liable to burst into tears and run screaming out to the van, then drive the fucking thing straight into the sea. Seriously, it’s that bad.
I’m already cringing because it’s Mrs Mc Smiley Face on the deli. She’s one of these morning people, you know? Always a smile, and a how are you, and how bout we have a bit of banter while I make your breakfast roll. I’m pushing my eyeballs into my skull with my fingers when she chirps up, “Lovely morning for it, Paddy.”
Oh Christ, woman, I’m not able. I bare my teeth at her. It’s as close as I can get to a smile at this hour. “Not too bad now.”
“Monday morning,” she says with a knowing nod.
“That’s it, sure.”
“You’ve a long aul day of it, I suppose?”
“That’s right, yeah, no rest for the wicked.” She keeps pitching the small talk balls my way and I keep on batting them out of bounds.
“Cheer up, it might not happen.”
I force out a weak chuckle. I start to sweat Heineken. I’m just not made for this. This smiling, and talking, and pretending not to hurt all time.
I get it eventually, my hard-won breakfast roll. The smell is making me sick. I’ll need a lash of sugary tea before I can even think about touching it.
I head over to the coffee machine. Hungover builders shuffle about it like zombies about a fresh kill. Their eyes are like mine, bloodshot and heavy, framed with dark circles. We are the drinking class and work is our curse.
The sad thing is that my life could have been so much different. I could have been a real person, a person of consequence. You see, I could have been a dancer. I know this because I won a dancing competition in primary school. For my reward, the teacher called the principal down, and I had to do my dance standing up on a desk in front of the whole class. Some fucking reward that was. Nobody beat me up though, and I was shy, and weedy and dancing for teacher up on a desk. I don’t know why. I mean, I would have bullied me. But I could have been a dancer. I could have.
I swallow down a jolt of heartburn. The builder in front of me lifts his leg and lets out a fart. He looks over his shoulder and shoots me a wink. “The Guinness is always easier going in than out.” Right then, I catch a whiff, and I know the smell is caused by faecal molecules that have floated up from his ass and into my nose, only to travel down into my lungs to be absorbed into my bloodstream. I squint up my face and swallow back down my stomach acid.
Last night’s beer curdles in my guts, and I have to make a beeline for the toilet where I shit battery acid and think; I could have been a dancer. I was a wonderful dancer.
I make it out to the van and chuck my breakfast roll on the dash to marinate. I turn on Newstalk. Some D4 housewife is nasaling on about how the law is the law, and we must all pay the water charges. The poor fucker from Jobstown nearly goes berserk at the sound of her voice.
The two are natural enemies and will never understand each other. He probably thinks she’s an elitist snob who’s never worked a day in her life. She probably thinks he’s a benefit sponge who’s never worked a day in his life.
Now he’s screaming ’bout how he’ll never ever EVER pay those thieving, thieving bastards. He’ll be dead in the grave before he pays those thieving, thieving bastards a single penny. I can see he wants to use a different adjective besides thieving, but his emotions have the better of him.
“It’s the law,” says the D4 lady. Her tone is final. It is a brisk dismissal of his uneducated, working-class opinion. It’s a tone that seems to imply that the man from Jobstown is not fit to clean her toilet.
I can feel myself osmotically absorbing their moods, so I turn the shit off before I put my foot through it. I’m sweating. My forehead is hot. I’m thinking now about the things I said last night. Why can’t I just get shit-faced and not regret anything? If I could somehow manage the knack of drinking without speaking I think I’d be okay. If I could just sit there stoically nodding every once in awhile, the strong silent and drunk type. But instead I open my mouth and everything comes out at once, an obnoxious gush of foul-smelling words that makes people look embarrassed.
I really could have been a dancer though. I used to dance to Michael Jackson with my friend, Harris, in the kitchen. Jerking, shifting, sharp movements. Huh! Hah! Jerk! Snap! I was the best in the class by a mile. What happened, man? What happened?
I drive sloppy, crossing lanes with no shits to give. People beep at me. I salute them and bare my teeth. Fuck yourself, I think at the other faceless slaves. Late are you? Late for your fucking job? Well, I’m late for my fucking life. The road passes me by like a dream, and I regret shit heavily. I don’t bother indicating. I imagine being pulled over by a pig. Then I imagine biting his neck out with my crooked teeth. Then I imagine being stabbed in a prison toilet. Then I pull in.
I take a sip of tea. All this imagining is giving me the fear. I get out, and it’s bucketing down as I piss on the hard shoulder. Some morning person deigns to beep at me, a kind of a ‘wey-hey’, but I’m in no mood for it.
I could have been a dancer. The other kids were flouncing about like fags, and there I was busting out tiptoed Shamones in the middle of it all. A true original, no one could touch me.
My job is mostly deliveries, thank fuck. If I had to work more and drive less, I doubt I could cope. I drive to someplace far away, and I do my job. Then I drive back. Then I get home and try not to drink, but I always end up drunk. I’m forever giving up the fags too, but what the fuck do I care after four cans, I’m chuffing them down like an episode of Friends. I inhale canned laughter, and I exhale my own death.
I start the engine and get back on the road. I sweat like a bitch in the van, so I open up all the windows. Then I get cold and close them again. Up and down, too hot and too cold. Never happy.
I open the window and stick my head out as I drive on the dual carriageway, still a little drunk, still a little loose. I open the first four buttons on my shirt. The rain is pelting down on the van, the white noise soundtrack to my life. I see a sign for Dunmanway. Nearly there now.
I imagine being unemployed. I imagine these long, lazy days with nothing to do but stroll along the beach picking up interesting-looking stones, rubbing their surface with my thumb, turning each one over for gentle inspection. I would collect interesting stones and odd-shaped leaves. I would start a scrapbook and write letters to the editor. I would do an online course in lifesaving and knitting. I would learn the guitar and Mediterranean cooking. I would build a secret treehouse in the woods in which to get high and read old books. I would grow organic tomatoes and award-winning sunflowers and everyone would slow down to admire them as they drove past. I would lean on my garden fence and watch the kids kicking ball in the gloaming.
What motivation to suffer like this. Money? Sure, money for the bankers and the fat cats, sweat and fiery bowel movements for the poor.
I stop outside the pub. I turn off the engine, and I sit for a while in the silence of the van, letting my thoughts vibrate in the stillness. I take a deep breath. My arms feel heavy, and my legs feel old and soft. I open the back door of the van and pick up my delivery.
Then it’s “How’re you keeping?” and “Not too bad now,” and “Some feckin’ summer,” and “Sure, what summer?” and “This is it sure,” and “Will I leave them here for you?” and “Yeah just a scribble on the line there so,” and “Best of luck” and a “We’ll see you again.”
Then I’m back in my van with eyes closed, fighting the shakes. I wipe the sweat from my brow. In the darkness behind my lids, I can see the smirk on my teacher’s face. It was a novelty to see such a small child dance like Michael Jackson. That’s all, a novelty.
It was only later at my first school disco when I tried my moves that I realised my folly. One does not dance like Michael Jackson at a school disco. Then it came out about him being a kiddy fiddler and all that, so I had to stop. So I just sort of copied the kind of bouncy shuffle that everyone else was doing. Just jumping really, socially acceptable jumping.
So I put away my Michael Jackson moves, because, you have to stop acting the eejit at some stage. Because you’d be better off on the pitch, not flouncing around the kitchen like some dandy. My dad was on the Cork junior B team, they made it the semi-finals, but he hung himself in the back garden when I was six, so what the fuck does he know.
If only I had something to do, something real to do, to distract myself from it all. If I had a thing that I loved, that I could do, then I know I could straighten up. I really can’t keep up with these hangovers anymore. Fucking crawling with invisible rats, riddled with mistakes every morning. It’s no kind of life.
I wish I could run away forever and kill myself, and then just grow up out of the ground like a new person with a new life. Maybe I could try dancing next time. I mean, I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to kill myself. I just want to kill my past. I just want out of this pit.
It’s already getting dark when I finally manage to shut my thoughts away and get back on the road. I drive home in a daze. The road passes me by in a blur, a hazy grey asphalt plain inhabited by memory and mistake. It’s not long before my thoughts begin to churn again. I slap myself on the face hard and say, “No, no, don’t kill yourself. You’ll be fine. You forgive yourself. You forgive everyone.” And though I say the words, I still hate myself, because I am broken somewhere in my heart, and the words are just words in the end. Then I say it out loud, “I wish I could run away forever and kill myself.”
By the time I get home this mantra is spinning round and round like a disco ball, pissing garish white light into my mess of a head.
I lock the door behind me and take off my jeans. Then I sit on the sofa in my underpants and try not to drink. I sit like this for five, ten, fifteen minutes. Then I get up and walk to fridge and open myself a beer. It spills down my chin and dribbles down my neck as I pour it into my face. I drink deep, sucking it down like it’s oxygen, or forgiveness, or a second chance.
Born in 1984, Sean Tanner has been a campsite warden, chicken farmer, warehouse hand, Ferris wheel photographer, trampoline operator, telemarketer, and a man of general labour. His myriad occupations served to fund his globetrotting adventures. Having successfully misspent his youth he returned home to Cork to make babies with his wife. This is his first published work.