New Irish Writing: Looking for Gavin in Galway by Alan Flood
July 2019’s winning short story
I’d spent what felt like a million-midnights driving around in that car Illustration: Andre Parra
I didn’t speak much to Mary at the funeral. But a few weeks later, while I was sitting at home in my armchair doing nothing much at all, she rang. Her mam was looking to sell Gavin’s car, she said. They needed the cash and were wondering if I could help them out. I told her I could.
Mary had been living in Australia for most of the time I’d known Gavin and had only returned to live at home less than a year before he died. On the phone, her voice held no emotion. There was no crack of a tear nor the need for a composing breath. She was strong, her tone impassive, almost business like.
I was working full time as a mechanic by then and used to move second-hand cars on here and there. An old school friend, Joe Dwyer, had been in touch a some weeks before Gavin died wondering what I had available. Joe and I were close throughout secondary school, but I hadn’t seen him in over ten years. He was living in Galway then, and we’d agreed that the next halfway decent car to come my way would be his. Since Gavin died, I’d forgotten all about Joe Dwyer.
On the phone to Mary I told her about Joe and assured her I’d get them a good deal. She said that sounded good to her.
“I can drive the car out to him, Mary,” I said. “I’ll get the train back… If that’s okay with yourself and your Ma?”
I’d spent what felt like a million-midnights driving around in that car. Endless summer dusks when the sky never fell any darker than a vibrant, navy blue. When the heat of the day still clung to the bare, ginger-lit after-hours streets. With the windows rammed down, the heavy summer evening smell of mulberry and maple would swim through the Hyundai’s cockpit.
My own private farewell to my departed friend
Something like Bob Dylan or Neil Young would blister from Gavin’s radio and we’d drive around with nothing but all the time in the world. The idea of another drive in that car appealed to me greatly. One last, long spin across the country, I thought. My own private farewell to my departed friend.
“Of course,” said Mary. She sounded distracted, as if her thoughts were no longer on the car. I was deciding in my head what words to use to wrap up the call then.
“It’s mad, I’ve never actually been to Galway before,” she offered suddenly.
“No. Thirty-three and never been to Galway...mad.” Her voice was delicate now, and her speech relaxed the more we chatted.
“You’re not missing much,” I replied, unsure whether I believed this to be true or not.
“Would it be okay if I came with you, Tom?”
“Of course,” I said automatically, in as an aloof a manner as I could muster and waited for her to speak next.
“I just… I could do with getting out of the house for a day, ye know what I mean? And I think it would be nice, just… in his car for… the last time.” The seconds between each word grew but she remained impressively composed considering what was being discussed. “Ye know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean, Mary,” I said.
Gavin’s car was familiarly messy, crumbs and cigarette ash peppered the battered leather seats
The following Saturday Mary picked me up shortly before ten o’clock in her brother’s thirteen-year-old, once fire-engine red, now more of a dull pink, Hyundai. She remained in the driver’s seat when I came out to the car and as I climbed in, muttered something about wanting to drive.
Gavin’s car was familiarly messy, crumbs and cigarette ash peppered the battered leather seats. Scrapes of muck decorated the inside of the driver’s door. A scentless Homer Simpson air-freshener hung from the rear-view mirror, twisting gently, Homer’s eyes glinting at me each time he looked my way.
Mary aimed the Hyundai meaningfully toward the M6. She was short, no taller than five-two or five-three, her hair was dark auburn with a deliberate straight-cut fringe which hung like curtains above a pair of narrow eyebrows. She had a soft, pretty face, dominated by large green eyes. She looked considerably shy of her thirty-three years.
The radio no longer worked, hadn’t in years, so Mary had placed her iPhone on the dashboard and Thin Lizzy, Gavin’s favourite, echoed from the little device for much of the journey. She hummed along to the songs, quietly singing in unison with Phil, eyes fixed straight ahead. But other than that, she said little between Dublin and Athlone.
She laughed heartily at the ones she hadn’t heard before and nodded along to the ones she had
Gradually, as our little speck of Korean pink moved further west, she began talking a little more. She recounted some stories about Gavin, always with an excitable grin and never any hint of the grief I knew to be there. It was as if we were on our way to Galway to meet her younger brother, and he’d be waiting for us with a table of drinks and a grin of his own. But of course, he wouldn’t be. I replied with a few short Gavin stories of my own. She laughed heartily at the ones she hadn’t heard before and nodded along to the ones she had, as if hearing an opinion, she whole-heartedly agreed with.
In Ballinasloe we stopped at a garage. I hoovered out the Hyundai while Mary phoned her mother. Once I’d returned the largely inept hoover hose to its holder, I leaned against the bonnet of the car, shivering. I pulled at my coat, encouraging the material to cover more of me than it was currently managing, and inhaled the aroma of turf and petrol that populated the bitter November air. Mary looked at me from across the garage forecourt and delivered a goofy smile accompanied by an animated wave. Her smile ran through me like an electric current. With a big, stupid smile of my own, I waved back.
I spotted Joe Dwyer as I held the door open for Mary. He sat in the middle of McDonalds, with his long, pony-tailed hair already sporting suggestions of grey, wearing an over-sized tattered leather biker jacket. He stood out like a gorilla in a creche. McDonald’s was littered that afternoon with throngs of small, skinny, squeaky teenagers, bellowing with burger-full mouths. Pairs of them were dotted around the restaurant, like conjoined twins connected by the earphones they shared. Joe sat amongst them, as if waiting for a funeral mass to commence, a lonely paper cup of coffee before him.
As Joe and I made small talk, Mary remained mute, standing close behind my shoulder
“There you are, Joe,” I said by way of an introduction.
He stood to greet us and looked relieved. We exchanged a strong hand shake.
“Joe, this is Mary,” I said. “Mary, Joe.”
They exchanged pleasantries, Joe more so than Mary who appeared shy and distant in front of this stranger. As Joe and I made small talk, Mary remained mute, standing close behind my shoulder, as if she feared I might flee the restaurant at any second and leave her standing there in a McDonald’s in Galway with Joe Dwyer.
Joe was saying something about the hotel bar he worked in outside the city, but I wasn’t really listening. I was conscious of Mary now. I thought of how surreal this transaction must be for her. I gave her a knowing nod which was meant to say that I’d get the exchange over with quickly. After concluding the pleasantries, I dropped the car key into Joe’s hand and gave him brief directions as to where to find the car. He removed a bulky manila envelope from his inside jacket pocket and placed it in my hands. I passed it immediately to Mary and she put it in her handbag. I told Joe to call if there was any trouble and he assured me we’d meet for a drink the next time he was home. He left the restaurant quickly then.
Out on the chilly Galway street, our task complete, Mary and I stood awkwardly side by side. I stuffed my hands deep in my pockets and used one foot to lean back against the buildings. Mary stood straight; her hands clasped around the handles of her large handbag where the manila envelope of cash now resided. We stood there for a few moments like that, just watching the shoppers and teenagers and businessmen waltz by.
“I’ll time a train,” I offered eventually, taking out my phone.
She walked a couple of paces away from me then and performed an elegant little three-sixty spin right in the middle of Shop Street, breathing in the buildings and the people and the November cold.
“I’ve never been to Galway before,” she said.
A few more minutes of silence strolled by, and I was on the point of again mentioning the train when she said, “Fancy a drink, Tom?”
“Sure,” I said.
“What about checking into a hotel and staying here for the night?” she then asked cooly.
I smelled fully now the perfume I had caught hints of on the drive down
In response to my evidently vacant expression, she stepped close to me and held my gaze in a manner suggesting what she was about to say was of the utmost importance. I smelled fully now the perfume I had caught hints of on the drive down, and its sweet aroma excited me in the same manner her wave had back on the garage forecourt.
“I could really do with a night away from my house, Tom. A night away from everything.”
“Sure. I know a place,” I said, nodding toward Eyre Square. “I stayed there a few years back.”
“With some young one?” She was smiling now.
“Maybe. I can’t remember.” I returned her grin but didn’t follow her when she began walking toward Eyre Square. She looked back at me.
“You sure this is what you want to do, Mary?”
“I’m sure,” she said, linking my arm and pushing me in the direction I’d nodded, toward the Skeffington Hotel.
€154 for a twin room for the night was the best the Skeffington could do. I tried to pay with my debit card, but Mary batted me away as if I was a child trying to pay with Monopoly money. She paid with cash from the manila envelope.
We talked mostly about grief, in a surreal, sort of academic way
We ate a swift dinner in a cheap Chinese restaurant. She was chatting quite openly now and almost appeared to be enjoying herself. We talked mostly about grief, in a surreal, sort of academic way. It was clear she’d read into the topic extensively. I admired her grasp on the different theories of grief and how calmly she discussed them, as if this was all happening to someone else, and she was just relaying the details to me.
Holding a generous glass of red wine in her hand, she spoke fluidly about what she’d recently learned, how there was a healthy and an unhealthy way to grieve, and how she knew that the grief she felt was as unique as her and her brother’s relationship. All grief is unique, she said emphatically. I nodded along mostly and offered some thoughts of my own. Things that sounded in my head like the right thing to say but came out of my mouth as fully formed clichés. But she didn’t seem to mind.
After dinner we squeezed inside The Róisín Dubh. The evening’s entertainment was a local pop-rock band who’s name I failed to catch despite them shouting it between each song. Halfway through their set, we retired to the roof-top smoking area. I bought a packet of Marlboro from a temperamental cigarette machine. Mary told me she’d been off them for eight months before Gavin died, as she pulled a narrow white fag from the pack and waited for me to light it for her.
We shared the cigarettes and stories of Gavin and wondered aloud at what he’d think of this picture
Being a Saturday night in Galway, the smoking area was jammed tight. We sat among the mostly standing crowds, huddled close to each other on a cold wooden bench. I drank Guinness while Mary requested a different concoction of gin and tonic for each round. We shared the cigarettes and stories of Gavin and wondered aloud at what he’d think of this picture, his sister and friend, who’d barely spoken a word to one another when he was alive, getting drunk together on top of a roof somewhere in Galway. Then for a moment neither of us said anything.
I gazed around the smoking area looking at all the happy Saturday night faces, and I saw Gavin in each of them. When I looked back at Mary, she was watching me. Then, slowly, our heads bobbed toward one another, and we kissed. Gently at first, then quicker and messier as she moved her body close to mine. We moved downstairs then, Mary dragging me by the hand through the troops of revellers. The dancefloor was hot and airless. We danced badly to David Bowie in a cramped space in front of the DJ booth, her arms draped around my neck and her body pushed so close to mine I could feel her heart pound.
We lay there half clothed. I wrapped my arms around her waist, my fingers knotting tightly against her cold stomach
Back in our room at the Skeffington, Mary allowed her body to go limp and collapsed on the bed like a falling building. She lay on her back looking up at me. I kneeled over her and we kissed again. We came at the kiss from two totally different places. I was attempting to be soft and gentle. Mary’s kissing could almost have been considered violent in its ferocity. After she spent what felt like several minutes chaotically removing my t-shirt, I stood up from the bed. She sat up and her eyelids lazily danced shut. She was very drunk. I sat next to her on the bed then and draped my arm around her.
‘Mary,’ I said. She opened her eyes slowly and squinted at me. “Are you okay?” I asked. She allowed the question to register and then gazed at the hotel room floor, seemingly giving it some thought.
“No,” she replied eventually.
At this point a lump of concrete formed in my throat and I had to concentrate hard to avoid some tears of my own escaping my eyes
For a long time, we sat there wrapped in each other’s arms. Not saying anything. Not doing anything except gazing out the hotel widow at the pointy tips of the Galway buildings. Mary was the first to speak after what felt like an hour.
“I like Galway, Tom,” she said.
“Yeah? Me too.”
“Thanks for bringing me here.” She squeezed my torso tight.
After another few moments of contemplating the night sky, I eased her body down onto the single bed and dragged the freshly smelling hotel bed sheet over the two of us. We lay there half clothed. I wrapped my arms around her waist, my fingers knotting tightly against her cold stomach, and buried my head in the pillow next to her. And laying there like that, in a hotel room somewhere in Galway, exhausted with drunken grief, we both fell quickly asleep.
The next morning, we boarded the Dublin bound train shortly before the 11.30 departure time. We took our two window seats facing each other. The morning-after awkwardness and shining hangovers meant our communication had been reduced to mundane necessities such as check out times and train tickets.
But sitting there in that unnatural face to face arrangement, I noticed tears arriving in her huge eyes, and I saw the raw pain on her face for the first time. She peered out the train window, the picture of hopeless grief. I leaned forward and took her gloved hands in mine. She looked straight into my eyes and the nakedness of her tears startled me.
“I just want to be able to talk to him one more time, Tom,” she whispered. “Just to tell him how much I love him. How much I miss him. Just to know he’s okay.”
“I know,” I offered feebly, taking her hands in mine.
“I hate to think that he’s somewhere… I don’t know, like stuck somewhere and he can see us but can’t do anything. And that he wants to let us know that he’s okay, but he can’t.”
At this point a lump of concrete formed in my throat and I had to concentrate hard to avoid some tears of my own escaping my eyes.
“Mary, he’s wherever you want him to be now. And he is always with you,”
She began sobbing more then, the tears accelerating as the train carriage filled up with oblivious Sunday morning commuters. As we began to roll slowly out of Galway, she buried her head in her arms, and wept gently.
Alan Flood was born in Dublin and studied communications in DCU, graduating in 2013. He works in the financial sector and has been writing fiction for the past two years.