The Hill of Himself, a new short story by Aidan O’Donoghue

A young homeless man swaps the streets of Galway city for a dream home in the country

A homeless man. Photograh: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A homeless man. Photograh: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 

The last bus out of town is about as sombre as it gets. A weird halo of amber light and sea fog dangles over the rooftops. When I scrunch my eyes through the raindropped glass it looks like a thousand silent fireworks. The river slides and tumbles like lava. The streets are sodden and slimy, rattling bones of streets whose flesh has been loosened by an infinity of rain. Water erupts from the gutters and manholes. It dances like popcorn on the footpaths and gnaws at the pebbledash of houses.

It is only me and the driver and a guy asleep across the four seats at the back of the bus. Probably no one has wondered who he is for a very long time. Clumps of fluff poke out from a large hole in his bomber jacket. He looks like a giant larval insect after someone had stepped on it. Ropes of matted grey hair hang down off the seat like dead bladderwrack.

*

It must be close on a year ago since Kirby first told me about the Hill of Himself. We’d found a dry patch of wall in Eyre Square and were bedding down for the night. A couple of young drunk guys in suits were having a great deal of trouble finding a coin for the public toilet. It was late October and getting cold and they were starting to grow impatient. When the coin wasn’t forthcoming, one came over to where me and Kirby were huddled down in the lee of a wall.

The suit asked Kirby if he had a twenty-cent coin and Kirby replied in a half-croak that he hadn’t eaten in nearly two days, and if he had happened to have twenty cents on him it wouldn’t be spent on a guy in a suit looking to hoover Charlie off a toilet seat. The suit found this very amusing, so much so that he decided to take out his cock and piss all over Kirby’s sleeping bag. Some of it splashed onto my bag. I could feel it soaking through to my jeans.

The suits walked away in convulsions of laughter. My initial reaction was to run after them but Kirby held me back. Kirby was philosophical.

‘Drunk piss isn’t as bad as dog piss,’ he said.

I said nothing. I dipped my sleeping bag into a puddle to clean it off.

‘And dog piss isn’t as bad as popcorn. Get popcorn in your bag and you might as well sell it.’

I called him a mad bastard and he laughed. Then I laughed. Then it started to rain. We sat in a doorway until the worst of it was over. That’s when Kirby began to tell me about the Hill of Himself. He said it was times like this he regretted not staying there when he had the chance. Now it was too late. Now he was too old to be playing Boy Scout on a mountain in Connemara. He was hardened into the street like old chewing gum now and he might as well wait until somebody scooped him off of it.

Kirby leaned sideways, working his back into a comfortable position against the doorway. His fingers, yellowed to the knuckle, skilfully rolled a cigarette, which required all his attention. When the cigarette was ready he lit it and took a long, deep drag.

‘The cabin was built by the forestry company for the workers. They would stay up there days, sometimes weeks at a time, just cutting and drawing timber. It was in the days before track machines and skidders and wood harvesters the size of small villages. They really were the last hard men of our time.’

He coughed and sent a big gob of phlegm sliding across the footpath into the gutter.

‘They left behind a potbelly stove that still worked. Make your mouth as dry as a f*cking fossil but it saved my life.’

I asked him why he came back to Galway.

‘It was so quiet you could hear the blood moving in your ears. In some countries they use that kind of thing as a form of torture.’

‘I know,’ I said.

‘Plus I was starved out of my f*cking mind. I wasn’t born resourceful like you.’

‘You know nothing about me.’

‘Yeah, but I can tell. You’re not afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of my own f*cking shadow. Every night in this town I’m afraid. But up on the Hill of Himself it was worse. That’s a different level of afraid. There’s parts of this country fucking haunted. I’m too long in the tooth for all that now.’

Kirby flicked his cigarette into a puddle. It fizzed out like a distant star. We drew ourselves in and planted our jaws between our knees and looked out from our sleeping bags at the cold, pouring rain until the first burgundy strokes of morning.

*

My rucksack slides across the floor as we cross over Salmon Weir Bridge. Corrib water was never known for its daintiness, but this evening it is unhinged. This is deranged water, snarling, bitter water. A light above the driver’s head is flashing on and off like a minor thunderstorm. I catch sight of my reflection in the window. The sad, ferrety eyes inherited from my mother, the ebbing tide of hairline from my father. The rest is my own doing.

The guy sprawled across the back has begun to snore in short, sharp crackles. For a second I’m convinced it’s Ollie Mannion, who I owe six-fifty to after some joker took my cup at the Arch the week before. Then I remember that Ollie has the geographical range of a limpet, pretty much confined to the same two streets down on Woodquay since anyone had known him. Once in a while someone would spot him in the McDonald’s on Headford Road, mostly around Christmas and his birthday, which was in April some time. I wonder how many birthdays Ollie must have celebrated alone in McDonald’s. He must be fifty-eight or fifty-nine but it can be hard to tell with guys like Ollie.

Aidan O’Donoghue’s fiction and poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, The Moth, New Irish Writing, The Fiddlehead and many others. In 2021 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary to complete his short story collection and novel.
Aidan O’Donoghue’s fiction and poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, The Moth, New Irish Writing, The Fiddlehead and many others. In 2021 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary to complete his short story collection and novel.

The rusty edge of a moon slips in and out of balls of addled clouds. On University Road there is a woman in a nightgown trying to right an upturned wheelie bin. Her nightgown has changed colour with the rain and it is beginning to come undone at the top.

I go through the contents of my rucksack one more time in my head. I have enough food for five days, give or take, a gas burner, matches and three canisters of gas, two litres of water, a sleeping bag, and a tin cup. Kirby had told me that whatever I do, make sure I bring a cup.

‘You can drink water out of your hands, he’d said, but have you ever tried drinking a cup of tea out of them?’

The only clothes are the ones on my back.

*

One morning Kirby and I were taking a walk along Lough Atalia Road, partly to stay warm, partly on reconnaissance for somewhere to stay. They had started putting up the Christmas lights in town, which meant the markets would soon be in Eyre Square, which in turn meant we’d be getting the boot. The streets would be heaving withfairy lights and Mario Lanza and the synthetic smell of cinnamon. Fully grown men with magnificent beards would be ambling around wearing jumpers with pictures of reindeers on them.

It was the kind of thing the city council liked to put on the front of tourist brochures.

Ollie Mannion also wore a jumper with pictures of reindeers on it. Ollie was yet to make it on to the front of a tourist brochure. It didn’t bode well for Ollie that his nose went in three different directions and he was permanently sucking out of a bottle of White Lightning.

There was a small fishing boat in the Lough, spinning in the wind.

I asked Kirby why they called it the Hill of Himself.

‘It’s called after Himself,’ Kirby said.

‘Himself?’

‘The Main Man.’

‘Jesus?’

‘No, the other fella. Jesus is the Righthand man. I’m talking about the Lefthand man.’

‘Kirby, what the f*ck are you talking about?’

We sat and watched the boat for a half an hour. A cloud passed across the sun and cast a glum shadow on the Lough. On the near bank an otter or something like an otter was scrambling up the mud. There was a fish dangling from its mouth. It crested the bank and flopped down in the grass, happy as a clam, and began gnawing at the fish.

‘What kind of place is this cabin? I said. We’re not exactly talking the Great Southern here, are we?’

‘It’s not as bad as you’d think, Kirby said. The cabin faces east, gets the morning sun, what little there is. Simple affair – four walls, corrugated roof, plywood floor with a big hollow in the middle from where the workers must have sat around.’

‘Were you cold?’

‘I was there in the summer. It was okay but I still had a fire on the go at night. The winter, now that’s a different matter. The walls are full of holes so there’s always mice and wind running around the place. Sounds like you’re interested?’

‘Maybe.’

‘The winter’s a f*cker in Connemara, kid. The summer is too, but a bad summer won’t kill you.’

We watched the boat and the otter until we got hungry. We kept walking to distract ourselves.

*

A big bear claw of wind knocks the bus sideways. The bus rights itself and ploughs on. Water explodes under a bridge.

The rain sings against the window.

*

We were down by the weir one day, having a couple of cans when Buddha Joe came by. I didn’t have much to do with Buddha but any time we bumped into one another I always felt a tinge of sorrow for him because of the way he looked. His pockmarked, potatoey head and sad face like an old tortoise. It did, however, gave him a certain degree of lucrative pathos that ordinary-looking fellas like me could only dream of. Buddha was the Richard Branson of Galway moochers. His weekend beat was the ATM on Shop Street, and on weekdays he preyed on the middle-class guilt coming out of the jeweller’s on Mill Street. Buddha Joe had his potatoey head screwed on good and tight. Buddha was fishing in the Grand Banks while the rest of us were throwing stones at tadpoles.

This evening he was unusually solemn.

‘Well, boys?’

‘Well, Buddha. How are you?’

‘Ah grand. You know yourself. Did ye hear about the lad down at the canal?’

‘Hear what, Buddha?’ Kirby said.

‘Some lad got juiced up on horse and ten minutes later he keeled over dead in the grass. Eyes just rolled once and over he went.’

‘Jesus,’ I said.

‘Turned out the horse had been cut with sugar and the lad was a type-1 diabetic.’

‘That’s terrible.’

‘Fresh horse in town so, Buddha?’ Kirby said stoically.

‘Appears that way.’

You always knew when the smack was in because there were chocolate bar wrappers all over the place. They’d be blowing around in the parks and gathered up in gutters. Chocolate bars were a good source of tin foil. Regular tin foil was too expensive and tricky to steal, plus with chocolate bars you had an easily digestible meal as an added bonus.

‘Anyone know who he was?’ I said.

Buddha shrugged his shoulders. He had been looking at our six-pack like a Jack Russell desperately trying to mind its own business but failing.

‘F*ck off, Buddha,’ Kirby said.

‘Ah don’t be like that, Kirby.’

‘Where did your fortune disappear to all of a sudden?’

‘Shur, you know yourself.’

Kirby threw him a can.

‘Thanks, fellas.’

Buddha cracked open the beer and drank a swift, hard slug and walked off in the direction of town.

Kirby sighed.

‘It’s like the Village of the f*cking Damned when the horse is in town. Need to be careful the next couple of nights. Watch and you’ll see Freda skulking about.’

‘Who’s Freda?’ I said.

‘Freda comes out of the woodwork when the heroin’s in. The boys will be hopping off her like fruit flies. Poor thing will never get sense.’

Freda stumbled over to us around eleven o’clock that night. Freda had a mad bundle of biscuity hair and she wore a pair of green, fingerless gloves.

‘There’s plenty of room at the inn, Freda love,’ Kirby said, patting the ground.

‘Thanks, John,’ she said.

Freda spoke with a shred of an accent that suggested she grew up on the east coast, had a job, and perhaps once knew people who loved her. Her teeth were muddy brown and the middle of her bottom lip was all scabbed from cigarette ends.

‘You flying high, Freda?’

‘A small bit, John.’

She got into her sleeping bag and leaned up against Kirby.

‘I wouldn’t put out for them, John.’

‘It’s okay,’ Kirby said gently.

‘I might be a junkie, but I’m no whore.’

‘I know. Whisht up now and settle yourself down there.’

Kirby stood up and spread out his roll mat and motioned for Freda to lie down on it. He shuffled over towards me and spread his sleeping bag along the cold concrete and got into it. In five minutes Freda was asleep.

Some time during the night I thought I heard her whimpering. It sounded like air being slowly let out of a balloon. I wasn’t sure if I had dreamt it. I never found out because in the morning she was gone.

A week later I was gone too.

I only saw Kirby one more time. He was standing on the corner of Quay Street. He wasn’t even bothering to lift his head. I turned the other way when I saw him.

*

The bus stops and with a hiss of gas, the doors open, inviting a fresh slap of wind and rain. The guy asleep down the back seems to know, as if by magic, that his stop was coming up. He tears past me, muttering at some hidden tormentor, bladderwrack hair swinging like tinsel. He practically falls off the bus. He stands on the side of the road for a couple of seconds in complete confusion. Then he moves off in the opposite direction like a persecuted grizzly bear.

Now it is just me and the bus driver.

The streetlights dwindle, the town losing its nerve. The driver turns on the radio and wheels the dial around a bit. The radio glows radioactive green in the impossible darkness. The driver settles on a yodelling cowboy pining for someone he knew a long time ago. The cowboy has also managed to develop a serious whiskey problem.

The streaming raindrops on the window like night-old mascara.

The wrecked desolation that is the Galway commuter belt.

The song ends in the only way it could have: his dog just one day upping and dying.

I hadn’t realised I was asleep. I wake to a sharp fizz of pain in my right shin.

‘End of the line, pal.’

The bus driver is standing over me, one hand by his side like he’s ready to draw a pistol. For a few long seconds I have no idea who he is or what the hell is going on. I stare at him, flummoxed, and blink several times. I get up and stagger for a bit like a newborn foal. I brush past the driver and begin walking up the aisle of the bus. There is a short sharp whistle so I turn around. Dangling at the end of the driver’s outstretched arm is my rucksack.

‘Thanks,’ I say, and get off the bus.

The bus has stopped on what I presume to be the main street. I’ve never been this far north of the county. Kirby had given me good directions from the edge of the village but he had never told me which edge. I take a chance and walk north.

The street is empty and quiet as a graveyard. A ginger tom scurries out from behind a parked car. There is a tinge of rose to the moon as it sits impaled in a broad shrug of a distant mountain. I walk over a bridge and follow a river sucking delicately against the river bank. I get a mile or so along the road before I climb over a ditch and make my bed for the night in a clump of dying ferns under a sky so vast it makes me want to cry.

The last person I may ever see is the man with the dog. It is morning and drizzling lightly. My step is a note shy of energetic. The man is painting the front gate of his house. I had this long-held belief that painting was something you did in dry weather. Nevertheless, the man has decided that today is the day for painting his front gate. All along his part of the road there is an eight-foot griselinia hedge, which looks out of place with the rest of the countryside. The hedge is by far the brightest thing in the immediate landscape.

I salute the man as I pass. He takes this as a sign I wish to speak to him so he puts down his brush and comes towards me. He is saying something about how this is the last fucking time he’s going to paint this gate. Painting gates is probably his least favourite thing to do in life. That this coat of paint is going to see him out.

And so on.

I look down at his dog, a black and white dog of some description. The dog is lying flat on the ground and does not appear to have any legs.

‘You going for a walk?’ the man says when he calms down.

‘Kind of,’ I say.

‘Where to?’

‘The Hill of Himself. Do you know it?’

‘Of course I know it. What on earth are you going there for? It’s just a lump of mountain and that wind will cut you in two.’

He scratches the bristles on his chin, clearly bemused by me.

‘Is it true it is called after the devil?’ I ask.

‘The Hill?’

‘Yes.’

‘Of course not. Why would you think that?’

‘Someone I knew told me.’

‘He didn’t know what he was talking about.’

‘Then why is it called that?’

‘Because a hundred and fifty years ago it was a sulphur mine. Sulphur is the Devil’s Gold.’

‘Oh.’

The man sighs heavily and picks up his paintbrush and paint can and returns to the purgatory of his half-painted gate. He stabs the brush angrily between two railings. The dog lifts its head momentarily to see me off, and loses interest just as quickly. I tighten the straps of my rucksacks, feel the sudden oppressive weight against my back and turn for the road. I wave the man goodbye and walk away.

I wonder what it was about painting gates he hated so much.

Aidan O’Donoghue’s fiction and poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, The Moth, New Irish Writing, The Fiddlehead and many others. In 2021 he was awarded an Arts Council bursary to complete his short story collection and novel.

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