Hennessy New Irish Writing: March 2018’s winning story
Waste Disposal by Neil Bristow
The world was awash with waste. You either swam in it or drowned. Illustration: Cliodhna Dempsey
We matched on the morning of my father’s funeral. I was just putting on my hired grief outfit – black jacket, tie, trousers, shoes – when I heard the ping of my phone. I picked it up, swiped the screen, glanced at the photo and thought Yes, he’ll do.
Hi, what’s up?, I wrote.
Outside the room my mother said something to Shane about solicitors and inquests. Inside, I looped the tie round my neck, briefly imagining it as a piece of rope.
My phone pinged again. It was him:
Hey. I’m good. You?
There seemed little reason to tell the truth, so I answered, Fine.
We got chatting. He was from Brazil, in Dublin visiting a friend. Just looking for fun. In sex he liked a, b, and c. And me? Also just visiting; family business. This didn’t seem to interest him. Instead he pushed for my preferences. Similar to his, I replied, though maybe not item c on his list (the hygiene factor). Fine, he could live without. Was I a smoker? No. HIV? Not the last time I got tested. And him? He also claimed to be clean; I chose to believe him. According to the app we were eight kilometres apart. Was I free now?
I checked the time. Twenty-past nine. The funeral was at eleven. Not impossible, but it would be a tight fit, and not of the kinky kind. As one of my father’s sloshed golf buddies had slurred at last night’s wake, his phlegmy breath polluting mine: Time’s precious, young man, use it wisely. So I wrote that right now wasn’t good, but maybe after lunch, if he was still around? He replied that he wasn’t sure, but probably.
We agreed, commitment-free, to touch in later.
Soon afterwards, my mother, brother and I drove down from Howth to the church in Sutton. A large crowd was waiting. A fine turn out, I heard someone say, for a fine man. A sea of leathery hands reached out, and from this sea rose countless murmurs of loss and sorry. Someone even mentioned press members lurking.
Inside the church the same procedure I dimly remembered from my grandparents’ funerals many years ago. Back then, I’d been too young to feel much of anything; today that was precisely the aim. On the flight over from Manchester, as pretty, teenage flight attendants screamed offers for creamy lattes and delicious paninis over the plane’s PA, I’d wondered if I’d cry. The death had, after all, been somewhat surprising, though more for the manner (car, pier) than the timing. Now, sitting in the front row, I had my answer: my eyes stayed desert dry. Hard to say why. The man had helped house, clothe, feed me, paid for my schooling, and never beat me, or only rarely, and then when justified. By all accounts a loyal friend, temperate drinker, passable golfer, discreet adulterer (I spotted her there, alone in the back row, still recalled from that glimpse on South Anne Street); bit of a swine in other words, but no worse than most of his kind. Still it wasn’t enough. As the priest blathered on about grace, eternity and Christ, I felt no connection to the surroundings. Gazing up at the arched stone ceiling, I imagined it collapsing and burying us alive.
After the six-grand coffin was lugged away – Shane and I shoulder-to-shoulder, a rare sight these days (Dad dead come home, his four-word text had read, the first communication we’d had in over half a year) – and placed in the ground, we gathered at the Marine Hotel, surrounded by the same freeloaders who’d ascended to the house for the whiskey-soaked wake the previous night. Flame-cheeked, claw-fingered, they tossed drinks down while belching out anecdotes about horse-racing and golf, and the fine work my father had done providing the stone for extensions to their houses. At some point I stopped listening, looked at my own right hand clutching a wine glass, and noticed grisly veins bulging beneath the skin. It was as much as I could take, and I excused myself to visit the toilet.
I shut myself into a pristine white cubicle. Adjacent, a man lowered his trousers. I listened as he splattershat the bowl.
The world was awash with waste. You either swam in it or drowned.
I took out my phone. Breaking news: A terrorist plot against Heathrow Airport had been thwarted; a Trump tweet had not. Ignoring both stories, I checked out where the Brazilian was now. According to the app, only six kilometres away, suggesting I’d come closer while he was in the same place.
Hey, I wrote.
Hi, he wrote back, as next to me the toilet flushed and my neighbour left the bathroom without washing his hands. Did what you needed?
A pertinent question.
Almost, I wrote back. Still wanna meet?
Guess so. When?
I named the spot. Back in the lounge, I told my mother that the occasion was overwhelming and I needed fresh air. Sure, honey, whatever you feel is best, she purred, before some acquaintance of my father slithered up to seduce or console her. She was nearly sixty, but with her dyed blond hair and subtle surgery still more attractive than most of the lizards here. Part of her seemed to enjoy the day’s theatricality.
On my way out I made eye-contact, but no more, with my drunk brother.
I hailed a taxi and told the driver to head towards Clontarf.
‘Funeral?’ he asked as soon as we set off.
‘No one close, I hope?’
I reflected for a moment.
‘Still,’ he winked, ‘good to show up. Might land yourself a few bob.’
That inimitable Dublin charm.
I remembered what Shane said he’d gleaned from our father’s accounting records: debts rapidly mounting, the business close to bankruptcy. That would be our problem now. But not for the next few minutes.
The Brazilian was waiting by the wooden bridge, as instructed. He looked only slightly worse than his photo, the tight brown curls of his hair already grey-flecked, though according to his profile he wasn’t yet thirty. He wore jeans, runners, and a zip-up Nike top: Just do it.
I shook hands for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, but in this grip felt only cold intention, no pity.
‘Where we wanna go?’ he asked.
‘Up here,’ I said, pointing to the path beyond the bridge, and the dunes that rippled towards the golf club and beach.
‘There’s nowhere closer?’
‘Just follow me.’
We set off. The tide was out, the stinking bay strewn with seaweed, beer cans, an upright traffic cone.
‘Why are you dressed like that?’ the Brazilian asked.
In no mood for intimacies, I told him it was just my style: I was the grave type. He nodded, choosing to believe, or at least ask no more, which amounted to much the same thing.
‘How do you like Dublin?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ he said, listing the pubs, the Guinness, Trinity College, the friendly people. Countered, of course, by the obligatory weather whinge. It was early September, and only fourteen degrees.
‘And your friend here? Also from Brazil?’
‘Yeah. But actually he’s not doing so good. He’s kind of ill.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
We passed the board giving sea-pollution readings for the day – colour code orange – then reached the public toilets half way between the bridge and the end of the pier. Perhaps the grassy dunes beyond would have been a safer bet, but grottiness had its own appeal.
‘We’re here,’ I said.
Inside, the dark green walls were scabbed with rust, the grimy floor creaked under our feet. Two rancid, gum-clogged urinals adorned one wall. In the solitary stall a predictable assortment of scrawled cocks and phone numbers, a used needle, and a lump of loo paper which I took care not to examine too closely.
We shut ourselves in, got down to business. Lips locked, slug-tongues tussled, hands mauled, living parts grew hard. Almost daily I lived variations of this scene, banal as a biscuit with an afternoon coffee. The pleasure was scant, fit to fill a thimble, but like the sugar, and the caffeine, the habit so ingrained that I just kept going. Why should this day be different?
As the Brazilian slammed me against the wall and invaded my body, I remembered how we used to come down to Dollymount Beach to swim, the four of us in the car with our lukewarm Coke cans and white bread sandwiches stuffed with Denny’s ham and slabs of rubbery cheese. I could taste the gritty sand in my mouth when it snuck into the bread. See the peeling, sunburnt skin of strangers’ bodies. Smell the sewage on the breeze. All rushed back as we rutted and rubbed, then slime shot up inside me.
Everything passes, the priest had proclaimed on the altar that morning.
Now this tryst, too, dribbled into history.
We wiped ourselves off, zipped up, unbolted the rickety door, a little less alive than we’d been before. I hoped my outfit had been spared: it was due back at Love Suits early the next morning, with stubborn stains risking an extra fee.
Leaving the venue, we encountered an elderly man on his way in, hand hovering over his fly, a glint in his eye that might have been booze, lust, disease, or just a desperate need to pee. We left him to his lonely business.
Out on the path, the wind alternatively cursed and sighed.
The Brazilian zipped his top up to his chin.
‘It’s cold,’ he said.
‘I know. There’s no shelter here.’
He rubbed his arms. ‘And now?’
I didn’t want to walk back together. So I told him I was going to continue up the path until it reached the sea.
‘Well, I should go back this way,’ he said. ‘I’m meeting my friend for dinner.’
‘Sure.’ Pause. ‘Enjoy the rest of your stay.’
‘Thanks.’ He looked me over, as if trying to assess were I even worthy of a memory. ‘You too.’
I stood and watched him go. He stopped just once, to pat a dog that paused to sniff at his feet. The tenderness surprised me. Then he disappeared.
I turned and walked the opposite way. To my left, beyond the bending bay, slumbered Howth Head, to my right Bray and the Wicklow hills. Above, planes trailed fume-plumes across the sky; ahead, a Stena Line ferry pumped gunk into the sea. In twenty-four hours I’d be back across the water, deep in the recycling depot, ready for the night shift.
The further I went, the colder it grew. Weeds ruptured the stone beneath my feet. Large rocks sloped seaward; over one a fat rat went scuttling. At the end of the path I stopped by a statue of a pallid virgin on stilts. I read the engraved stone at its base: Our Lady, Star of the Sea. Funded by sailors, blessed in 1972. My father would have been twenty-two. Six years younger than present-day me.
I stood and stared at the water for a long time, as if waiting. For what? Some sky-splitting epiphany? Hardly. Perhaps just something to come along and distract me.
At last my phone shook. Another news alert, this one local: the well-known businessman who’d driven off Howth’s East Pier on Tuesday night had been laid to rest, surrounded by friends and family.
My comprehension stuttered. Then I realised that by accessing certain numbers, locations, snippets of texts and phone calls, the app must have assumed the story would be of interest, or even move me.
How off such assumptions could be.
I disabled all further alerts, scrolled through my contacts till I found my father. Office, mobile, email, photo (riverside, fishing). A flicker of hesitation, then all trashed with one click. The faintest of unburdenings.
Evening was closing in. Time to return to dry land. Before setting out, I shut my eyes for a moment, and sank into a world perfectly dark, perfectly empty, and perfectly clean.
Neil Bristow’s fiction has been published in the Fish Anthology 2017 and the Honest Ulsterman. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UCD. He divides his time between Berlin and Dublin, and also works as a translator and teacher