Hennessy Literary Awards 2018: First Fiction winning story
Just This by Aaron Finnegan was first published in October 2017
Illustration: Annie Moriarty
There is a chair, and this chair is in a room, and there is an old woman sitting in this chair, and she is dying. The room is dimly lit, she does not like the bright lights, the phosphorescence hurts her eyes. Next to the chair is a small table. On the table is a button, for emergencies only, only for emergencies. This button is, ostensibly, to call someone and inform them of emergency, but, at this stage, is more likely to inform this person of her quietus. Her chest heaves up and down, the skin on her hands, so paper thin, becomes taut as she clutches the arms of the chair. Her breathing has a slight, whistling wheeze to it. The ego peels back to reveal to her this transience, the fading of the moment.
He is driving through the city. The distant hum of his engine complemented by times of illumination and darkness, each momentary, each uniform in its repetition. Every now and again, much less frequent than those complimentary states of light, there is the twinkle of a set of eyes, somewhere in the fringes of his vision, sometimes human, sometimes feline, sometimes canine, distant stars so close at the footpath. For a time, the horizon is never ending, never receding to reveal something beyond, or underneath, just going on forever into the almost completely set sun; the last remnants of pink and orange fingers peaking over the curvature of the road ahead. He is tired. His vision is almost failing him. But he keeps driving, as he does every night, back to wife and child, and small, yappy dog, and to complacency. He enjoys the dusk.
On a hill, some distance away, is parked a car, its passengers being two boys and three girls, one boy driving, with a girl in the passenger seat, his friend directly behind his seat, the other two girls next to him. The girl in the passenger seat is blonde, with shoulder-length hair, and is quiet, in the moment, and in her demeanour. The boy driving has eyes for her. He is somewhat drunk and overconfident. The three in the back are loud and jovial, his friend giving him subtle encouragement, hers drinking unpleasant vodka. This is everything they hoped for from these years, and they are content. They see headlights approaching from down the hill. They exit the vehicle and walk towards the metal container a little up the hill, brandishing lighter fluid.
As he drives, his mind dulls, that feeling of a curtain descending over your senses. He feels the need to stop the car. There is an indent in the footpath up ahead, that he exploits from time to time. Nothing in him is stirring, for the moment. He keeps a small flask with him always, to make use of if he should so please. He rarely does, regardless of how often he tells himself he will. He enjoys the feeling of autopilot, but his anxiety, his fear of striking some poor waitress on her way home from minimum wage, always takes precedence. So, he sits, as he so often does, and merely digests the grey clouds, and the monotony, and matrimony, and he does this for some time, flask in hand, doing nothing.
The fire is, indisputably, blazing, and they are laughing, passing the drink around their circle of maybe 10 or 11. She is wearing her smile, with a small bottle that previously housed orange juice. The heat of the flame is beginning to burn her face, and her eyes are watering. Their revelry seems to be contagious. Each is, or seems to be, in a state of ecstasy, euphoria, on the road to total, inebriated, Nirvana. The boy is talking at her, into her ear, as she stares into the small bottle, the smell of which is beginning to have a slight nauseating effect. She scans the faces across the fire, observing her other peers, each laughing, touching getting closer. She catches the eye of the other girl, in glasses, her messy, shiny hair slung over one shoulder. This girl has always been fascinating to her. Always, somehow, present, and otherworldly, within herself, a double-person. They share this moment for a long time, or what seems like it. The boy is still talking into her ear, as her green eyes catch the flicker of the fire, and across the flame, the other girl returns the look, a distant twinkle.
The cat comes up to her now, to rub against her stockinged leg. He purrs deeply, loudly, and kneads his paws on the carpet beneath the chair. She still has not reached for the button. She has not announced herself. For the first time in, literally, a lifetime, she feels alone, with her thoughts and memories to clothe herself in. She can feel the night summer air, the electricity of the oncoming storm. She can feel the crunch, and hear the crackle of the autumn leaves as she trudges through them to school. The awkward softness of her first kiss brings itself to her lips. These things are nice to think about. These things give her comfort. She wants to keep thinking of these things for a while longer, but knows that the button, lying stationary next to her on the table, must be pushed so that she may be found later. The cat begins to rake its claws up and down her leg. She does not mind this. It is nice to feel something, other than lightness. The memories flash across her eyes like street lights across a car’s windscreen. And now begins the process of soul separating from body.
He has been sitting in the same spot for some time. He has taken the cap off of the flask, and he drinks, deeply and willingly from the wellspring. This drink will give him the feeling that he craves. All he wants now is a numbness from everything. The feeling of being further down in one’s mind. Of presence being secondary. His anxiety has drifted somewhere else inside his head, descended from view. The waitress that may be hit by him will no longer be his responsibility, as he is not present, not fully, at the moment. He will not be for some time. And he is okay with that. This is his break. His break from family, and work, and geriatrics. He wishes for his youth, once more, the drinking in cars and fields, that was nice.
They have been speaking next to the fire for some time now. The light of the flames dances energetically in the other girl’s glasses, and she is completely entranced by their performance. She feels as though the boy was annoyed with her, but she does not care. Her fascination is intense. The girl with the glasses has the most intensely amber eyes. They are almost golden. They put on a wonderful show for her. How rare, she thinks, to find someone whose every fibre gives you a sense of place. They talk of nothing and everything, both of which are fine. They strain to hear each other over the music and the laughter, leaning in to talk and listen. Their hands get closer and closer, moving clumsily across their makeshift bench. She looks up to see all of the stars in bloom, as though this girl had put them there for her, what a nice thing for this girl to do, this girl she barely knows. It is at this thought that she realises she is drunk. The world around her feels as though its axis has shifted slightly, she has become top-heavy, her extremities have become somewhat sovereign from the rest of her body. She wants to touch someone, to feel someone touching her, the feeling of skin on skin, and this girl, in her glasses, with her amber eyes. But what if the boy flies into a jealous rage? What if he crosses the fire and holds her head against the hot metal container, and melts her face (which, even she could admit, was rather lovely at times). What if he took the girl with glasses, and broke her glasses, and pulled her lovely auburn hair. Would one touch be worth it? Yes. It would.
She has reached her wedding day, and it is lovely, and a tear is being brought to her eye when she remembers how handsome he looked, and how the butterflies were in swarm in her stomach. The sun was warm that day, and she felt young and strong, and pretty. She felt so pretty. And now she is old, and frail. She is so frail, and here she is dying, as someone, somewhere, between everything and everywhere, blows out a million candles across her brain. What does she feel now? Nothing? The tingling on her brain. Nothing to be done. Just sit and wait. She should let them know. Announce her expiry. Everyone will feel this way, eventually. Everyone after her. Everyone before her, for that matter. Comes to us all. Nothing to be done. Everything and everyone just slips through your fingers. Where do they go? Down the river. She reaches for the button.
They are walking towards the woods. The fire still blazes. They all still move their mouths and drink. The girl with the glasses has taken her by the hand. Her fingers are warm and sweaty from the fire. She breathes heavily. Her head is not here, right now. In the sky are stars. She is swimming around inside her mind, looking out, from behind her eyes. There is a feeling of fluidity in her brain, given to her by time itself. Everything seems so far away. Everything is much bigger than her. Everybody leaves. Everybody just leaves, when they feel like it. A humming sensation. She feels a little bit alone right now. That is okay. The other girl has removed her glasses. Those amber eyes so close now. Like little fires. The amber girl takes her by the shoulders, roughly, and pushes her against a tree. She puts her hands up her shirt, running her fingers up and down her chest, and her stomach. She becomes breathless. The other girl unhooks her bra, and cups her breasts, and a sensation unlike any she has felt before sears itself across her chest, and her breathing is becoming more and more laboured. The other girl’s lips move gently up the side of her neck, like a ghost.
He is sitting in the same spot, the flask to his lips, its contents warming his throat and his stomach. He is sinking into himself. Yet, he is still made nervous at the sight of approaching headlights in the rear-view mirror. He does not want to be here any more. He does not want to be anywhere. If he stays here, as he always has, endless roads before him, stretching on forever into the horizon’s vanishing point, it will repeat itself for all of time, and time beyond that, and he knows this well and even accepted it, once upon a streetlight. A car is approaching from behind. He sees the distant glow of the headlights, faint at first, in the mirror, and then manages to catch glimpses of the dust particles floating before him, as the lights illuminate him. His heart thumps violently in his chest, and he slips the flask under his seat. That distant twinkle, a world away, as the car passes him, and mannequin faces stare out into his window. The lights of the car recede into the distance before him, and he calms himself. His breathing soothes, steadies. He picks the flask back up off the floor, and admires the soft glint it gives as it catches the light of the streetlamps dotted sporadically along the road. He treats himself to a brief chuckle, before a panic takes hold of him. A buzzing at his thigh. He scrambles, dropping the flask, to jam his hand into his pocket. The screen lights up. That number. It is happening. He dials another, and starts the car again, kicking the flask back under his seat, and pulling out into the road as soberly as possible.
The other girl’s lips are now pressed firmly against her neck, sucking, and her head is thrust back, her hair catching against the bark of the tree. Looking up, the stars seem to recede into infinity, or else she does, and the feeling at her neck sends flames dancing all over her body. She lets out a small little laugh, as the other girl’s hand brushes up and down her thigh. This feels wonderful. Purely, unashamedly wonderful. Nothing else is anything right now. She breathes shallowly, and savours the short little miracles. She feels a buzzing at her upper thigh. Not now, she thinks, not now. Later on will be fine, whatever it might be. The other girl continues to do magical things with her hands as the fire still lives in the distance. Later on will be fine. Now, it is just this. Now, it is just this.
- Aaron Finnegan is a 20-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin entering his second year of drama and theatre studies. He was born in Drogheda and is a writer and director with a keen interest in literature and film. This is his first published work of fiction