New Irish Writing – December 2019’s winning story: Another Life
‘Off we went again ... streets flowing like rivers, wipers beating mad like frightened wings’
Among Joseph Sweeney’s literary successes is the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, which he won in 2015.
It was a filthy night in November when the knock came. A gust spat rain into my face as I opened the door. And there he was, a vision from hell.
Know Robinswood Estate? Well, it’s gigantic. An arrested development, you might say. The builders went bankrupt, and it was re-planned and patched up by another builder. A real mixum-gatherum.
“Bleedin’ matrix, Jimmy,” a fellow taxi-man said to me. “You’d need to be Keanu Reeves.”
I know what he means. Curvy bits, lanes, cul-de-sacs, bollards, unexpected walls. The entrance roundabout sucks you in, and suddenly it’s like you’re in one of those old pinball machines, getting slung about in all directions. The long straight roads like the long night of the soul, they’re the worst. Every house a clone. And speed ramps to stop joyriders and keep your chiropractor in foreign holidays. Go over 10 miles an hour at your peril.
Jem, who’s with ABC, told me he was looking for 33 the Crescent once, but the last house was 28. There was a narrow walkway with bollards beside it, so he crunched his way over broken glass to number 33. The people there told him to fuck off, they hadn’t ordered any taxi. He showed the address to a man in a wife-beater who folded his arms and said: “This is 33 the Wood, sunshine!”
Didn’t see the wood for the threes, I suppose.
I’ve seen postmen scratch their heads, trying to put the Robinswood jigsaw together.
“Is this the Drive, Missus?” one asked.
“Ah no. The first part’s the drive, love. Further down it’s the drive alright, and after that it’s the Avenue and the Park . . . but this is the Road.”
“Is there a Close?” a courier asked me once.
I hurried away. I didn’t have time to get into it.
Everyone’s lost in Robinswood. Especially the residents. Only thing they know for sure is where their own house is. And after a few drinks – not even that.
Originally, we thought of Robinswood as a starter home. We dreamed of something better, another life, somewhere else, but years sneak into years, reality kicks in, fog descends. Robinswood is a monster. It hugs you closer every year, swallows you, little by little.
It’s got a bad reputation, mainly due to the Terrace. The Terrace is our Moyross, our Falls Road, our Gaza Strip. Cut off from the motorway and the world by a high wall and connected, by a narrow umbilical lane, to the rest of the estate. Not a lane you’d want to go down at night. To be fair, though, most people in Robinswood are salt of the earth. And pepper, too. It’s the few rotten apples that ruin the barrel, but what they lack for in numbers they make up for in spirit. Cider parties, joyriders, quads, late-night sessions in the dark. Houses turned into speakers. And it’s not just the windows buzzing either.
The Terrace is famous for its fires. The firemen, the “moths”, call it “Bonfirewood Terrace”. There’s now a designated space where stolen vehicles meet their final end. A black patch of melted history and cremated DNA marks the spot. Local children gather around, faces black as miners’, eyes shining, passing around coke cans with cider inside. Palls of smoke belch upwards like genies. Well, if I had three wishes I know what my first wish would be.
Last summer an Italian student was found dead. An innocent abroad. Wrong place, wrong time. Most people were shocked, in fairness. Body only discovered the next morning. Police went house to house, seeking help with their inquiries.
“To think,” Granny Connolly said, “ we were sleeping while that poor student was being murdered – lying dead there all night, a few feet away”.
Police concluded it wasn’t anyone resident in Robinswood.
At the dark heart of the Terrace are the Crowes. Suburban legends – except they’re real. They’re known as the bankers, an off-duty garda in Davy Byrnes told me, “Fingers in multiple pies, impossible to nab, branches all over Dublin and the Republic.”
Stories about the Crowes murmurate around Robinswood and certain Dublin estates. Truth and fiction swirl into each other. Rumours circle like vultures searching for carrion – or as Granny Connolly calls it, carry-on. Are the Crowes broke? It’s said they’ve money stashed somewhere but can’t touch it? Who knows?
A few years ago a story circulated that one of the Crowe girls attacked her mother with a scissors. Anto Crowe, the Da, removed his daughter to an aunt’s house in Drogheda. When she became pregnant a local boy, a non-committal sort, wasn’t sure about marriage but Anto was.
“Give it a go,” Anto said, in his persuasive way. “See how youse get on.” He had them married and packed off to Benidorm for a honeymoon before the boy could even say “sorry”.
The original Wexford branch of the Crowes did bare-knuckle fighting contests and badger baiting years ago. When that was tightened up, Benny, Anto’s brother, went into the ATM business down the country. Just as angry farmers and under-resourced gardaí were closing in on him and the stolen digger, he was shot by rivals. Benny came out of James’s with metal plates in his body. They became magnetised somehow, the story goes, so that metals, precious and otherwise, were seen to gravitate towards him. They’d stick to his body of their own accord. It’s a good story – I use it to entertain clients as we bounce over potholes and around wheely bins.
Another legend I regale passengers with is Jacko Crowe, from Ballymena. He drinks YR Sauce between pints and shaves with a flick-knife using foam from his Guinness. He visited Anto on the Terrace three Christmasses ago, and left seven headless turkeys hanging from a tree in the garden. A lorry had overturned on the M50, it seemed, and Jacko was in the right place to make a killing – though the turkeys were dead already, of course. Anto, fair play, shared them with the neighbours. Granny Connolly said people only took them because they “didn’t wish to offend Mr Crowe”, who might “take it the wrong way”. She herself admitted though, after a brandy in the local, that it was the nicest “free range” turkey she’d ever had. The other neighbours who got free turkeys are unknown. They have remained silent. But Crowe tales are fondled, spit and polished by Terrace children as they unite around burning cars. Stories grow and distort with the flames like legends of Al Capone or Jesse James.
My own Crowe story, however, is simple, unvarnished, and true. It happened that stormy November night last year. Filthy. Lashing rain, armageddon winds, trees and hedges waving like muppets, branches snapping, overturned wheely bins booming. We were watching Midsomer Murders when the knock came. I opened the door and there he was. Hell in a vest. Seventeen, 18 maybe. This was his first visit – the second time he wasn’t alone either . . .
Anyway, head shaved, ear-rings, nose-studs, tattooed dragons, naked girls crawling up his arms and neck, the works. I knew him to see, all right. Hard to forget. And suddenly all the Crowe tales came alive, closeted skeletons gathered flesh,drugs, alcohol, flick knives, gangland feuds, ATMs, and seven headless turkeys hanging in a garden came swinging at me.
“Mr Redmond,” he blurted, hopping from one foot to the other, like he needed to use the toilet, “I’m Barney Crowe, from the terrace. We need to get to the Coombe.”
Sure you do, I thought.
People see a taxi outside your door and think they can knock you up anytime, night or day. Like you’re a social service.
“Please, Mr Redmond. It’s the girlfriend. She’s not due, but it’s kickin’. She thinks it’s comin’ early.”
Yeah, and you’re coming late.
“Never heard of ambulances?” I asked.
“You’d be quicker, Mr Redmond. Ambulances take ages; you know Robinswood.”
Yeah. Like the back of my hand and the Bermuda triangle. Vehicles disappear here.
I wanted to say no. But this was one of the Crowes! The Corleones! They knew where I lived. If Godfather Anto got the feel of a grudge he’d wield it like a crow bar . . . excuse the pun. I had a wife and kids. And maybe I’d get a turkey for Christmas. Better than a horse’s head. I started to feel motivated. But it wasn’t just fear. He was freaked out, I could see that. Worried, beneath the hardware and tattoos. And shivering in the cold. This seemed a genuine emergency. I grabbed my keys, stuck my head in the kitchen door – “back in a sec, love” and off I went into the stormy night with our young hero.
Into the passenger seat. No seatbelt, tapping his feet, rubbing the thighs of his torn jeans, blowing smoke at the No Smoking sign. I don’t allow smoking. It’s illegal, in fact, but that wouldn’t bother the Crowes. I kept my mouth shut.
Barney had the door open before the car even stopped, flicked away his cigarette, ran in the gate of 18 the Terrace through sheets of rain. Next minute he came staggering down the garden path, girlfriend in his arms, and opened the gate again with his foot.
I got out. The rain lashed into my face, and I swallowed a lung-full of wind. I stood there, getting drowned, holding the back door open, as the wind blew them into my taxi like dead leaves, landing her on the back seat and himself in beside her. She was pale and sweating.
“Sorry Mr Redmond,” she moaned, weakly.
“Thanks Mr Redmond,” said Barney.
“Not at all,” I replied.
They both knew my name. I didn’t like that.
“You’re grand,” I said.
It seemed I was famous in the Crowe household.
So, off we went again, storm buffeting the car, streets flowing like rivers, wipers beating mad like frightened wings. There’ll be floods tonight, I thought. I felt like Noah, driving my Ark to the Coombe, with my two passengers. Puddles splurged like miniture tsunamis to right and left. The thought of a baby arriving in my taxi spurred me on. I’d enough trouble.
Drew up outside the main hospital doors and His Majesty got out and started rooting in his pockets for money, his girlfriend moaning in pain.
“Christ, go on!” I said, waving my hand.
He lifted her in his arms. “I’ll come round with the money, Mr Redmond. I promise.”
“Sure,” I replied.
I was sure too. Sure I’d never see any money.
“Need any help?” I asked, rolling down the window. Luckily he was already on his way, staggering with her towards the hospital doors.
“Thanks Mr Redmond,” his voice called back to me. “You’re a decent skin.”
What the fuck!
Weeks passed, months. No Barney. No money. No surprise. I suppose a taxi fare’s the last thing on your mind the night you become a father. I should know. We had four snipper-snappers ourselves. Arrived out of nowhere. None planned and all before their time. That’s why we’re stuck in Robinswood. After the mental shock of a baby, there’s the financial one. Nappies, prams, medicines, clothes, schoolbooks, smart phones, uniforms. Barney was going to need every penny now he was a dad – assuming he stuck by his girlfriend.
And then, one cold sunny November morning, a year later, there’s a knock. Barney. Face all lit up, starry eyed, holding a one-year-old baby in his arms, like the eighth wonder of the world. He reaches out and hands me €12 exactly.
“Thought I forgot, didn’t you, Mr Redmond?”
“The day after you took us to the Coombe,” he says, “I got arrested. Been inside ever since. Just got out last week. I wanted to pay you.” He rocks the baby in his arms and kisses its head. “Thought I’d better get Joey off to an honest start.”
Biography of Joseph Sweeney
- Born in Dublin and graduated from UCD with an honours Master’s Degree in Anglo Irish Literature in 1983.
- Prize Winner, Listowel Writers’ Week, Humorous Essay, 1984.
- Winner of Cross National Universities Short Story Award, 1984.
- First Prize at Listowel Writers’ Week, Humorous Essay, 1985.
- First Prize, Listowel Writers’ Week, 2014.
- Winner of Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, 2015.
- Shortlisted for: Francis MacManus Award, 2017; Los Gatos/Listowel Writing Festival, California; Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, 2018; Bray Literary Festival, 2019.
- Longlisted For: Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award, 2017.
- Broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1: The Marian Finucane Show, 2005; Sunday Miscellany, 2014; and Francis MacManus Short Story programme, 2017.