What I did on my summer holidays, by Paul McVeigh

The short story written 15 years ago that was the genesis for The Good Son, July’s Irish Times Book Club choice

Paul McVeigh: author of The God Son, this month’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Photograph: Roelof Bakker

Paul McVeigh: author of The God Son, this month’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Photograph: Roelof Bakker

 

I run home from school. I run the whole way. Well, except for the moments when I just have to stop because my chest feels like it’s going to explode and I get a strange taste in my mouth. I run and I create a force-field around me that will protect me if I bump into anyone or anything. Even if I fall, I know I’ll bounce back up and just keep on running. People will be amazed at my speed and especially the way I dodge every obstacle in my path.

You see, my force-field also acts like a magnet for people’s attention – they can’t stop themselves from looking at me. I am amazing – the speed of me. I’m the Passer and they are the Passed. I only stop running when no-one else can see me – so it doesn’t count. As far as anyone knows I ran all the way home. In fact, I might never stop, as far as they know – the Passed.

The last day of school. Next year it’s school for big boys and that scares the shite out of me. I’ll never fit in but, hey, that’s months away. Someone said that in England they only get six weeks off school for their summer holidays. Ha! We get nine, count them, nine weeks. Yee-friggin’-ha!

I run into my house, up to my bedroom and kneel down to say a prayer for those poor English… yeah right. I rip off my tie and school shirt and put on my new summer T-shirt. Serves them right for invading our country, anyway. See, Ireland is better than England cuz we get more holidays. I don’t know why anyone would want to live in a country that invades little countries beside them and has shit summer holidays. I mean, English Mas and Das must be evil or else they’d move to Ireland so that their kids can get nine friggin’ weeks off for the summer.

“Yee-ha!” I scream.

“Mickey! Get down here.”

“What Ma?” I’m at the top of the stairs now, m’Ma’s at the bottom.

“Stop shouting. Your Da’s in bed.”

Shite on a stick.

“Mickey, is that you?” That comes from his bedroom. “Mickey son, come here.”

I look at m’Ma and she looks past me to his bedroom. I look over my shoulder at his door. He won’t come out. He never comes out. But sometimes I have to go in. He starts his coughing. I turn and leap, takin’ the stairs three at a time, even though I know m’Ma’s going to beat the shite clean out of me for waking m’Da and for the way I’m treatin’ her stairs. I see a gap between her and the front door and dive through it into the street but she’s quick – years of practice on the four older ones – and she catches me right on the ear. Frig that stings. I hate her sometimes.

“You wait ‘till you get back here, ye wee shite yee.”

I keep running, through the estate, headin’ for the hills.

“Mickey, are you playing?” The voice comes from the group of girls hanging out at the gable wall.

“Nah. Later. I’m on the run.”

Offside for a while. I get to the hills but walk up the Bray lane instead cuz if I get mud on me that’ll make it worse when I go back home. I need to stay away for at least an hour before m’Ma will be makin’ the dinner and forget I annoyed her. On the way up I see a wee plastic figure on the ground. A wee dinosaur. A tyranni-sore-ass. Right here on the ground. Must have been from a Frosties box or somethin’. I pick it up. Weird plastic this. It must be rubber cuz it’s all bendy and the dino head kinda flops.

Wait a minute. It’s got wings. Holey socks! Freaky thing! Devil bird! I throw it away. Hold on a minute, I must investigate further. I walk over and stare at it on the ground. I’m bending over it, prodding away at that thing with a lollipop stick. Frig me. It’s a real-life, dead, baby-bird-thing. And I touched it. I touched death. What if I’ve got a disease now? Maybe I’ve got what killed it. Maybe I’m going to die too. I am going to die. I feel a bit sick already. I feel my stomach turning inside out.

I hear them before I see them. The only words I can make out are fuck, bastard and cunt. Three of them and they’re going to kill me. I don’t recognise them but they’re boys and they will know from one look at me that I’m not like them. It wasn’t a disease the dead bird gave me it was a curse. Just like the mummy in that film – Disturb the ancient burial place of the sacred Egyptian Bird of Death and blah, blah, blah. Think of something quick. Stare at the bird. It’s either that or get out the limp. I mean, who would beat the shite out of a cripple? They would.

If I look at the bird it might attract their attention. They might want to know what it is I’m so interested in. Then they’ll probably shove it down my back. Quick! If I don’t look at them they’ll think I’m a coward and they’ll get me – if I do look at them then they’ll know I’m a coward and they’ll get me. Think! Just as they reach me I turn and put on the limp and walk past them like I didn’t see them. A double bluff. Two tactics for the price of one and no boot up the hole for me. Yee-ha!

I wonder if in America people have to say hello to each other when they pass. I hate it. Why do boys do it especially? It’s like some secret code was exchanged somewhere along the line to allow them to pass each other and I don’t have it. Either I wasn’t at school that day or their Das told them it and mine didn’t tell me cuz he’s useless. It means people like me, who aren’t in any gangs and can’t walk and talk like they do, get their shit kicked in. I want to live in America. I bet you people are different in America.

At the top of the Bray I stand and survey. The whole city is right in front of me or it looks like that anyway. Over to the right on the mountain there are white houses and I remember when I was a kid I argued Danny Carville that over there was America. He said it wasn’t but he never knew shit so I only had to say it enough times to convince him. But then again I believed it. Stupid kid. I’ve never been to America. Apparently on a clear day you can see America from Donegal. But I’ve never even been to Donegal.

I run down to my aunt’s house. She always gives me biscuits and coke. She’s great but her house always smells. Then again all houses smell except mine. I knock for ages before they come to the big door and let me in. It’s Teresa, my cousin. She lives here and she’s older than me and I love her. Not in a kissin’ cousins kinda way. She’s always nice to me. Like a big sister only she doesn’t hit me.

“Were you knocking long? It’s so noisy in here.”

As I walk up the hall I look through the wee door and see loads of people. All cousins and uncles I only sort-of recognise and mostly not aunts. Men are too noisy – like they think they’re great and everything they say is brilliant. Danger Mickey Donnelly. Danger! When people are in groups and they’re making lots of noise having fun somehow it always ends up that they turn on me.

I walk in when I what I want to do is walk out. They talk at me. I say nothing, just take a redner and smile, wishing someone would pour a pot of acid over me and let me disintegrate into nothing. They’re passing out a tin of biscuits. I hate ‘biscuits from a tin’. There’s only one or two I actually like out of them all, the rest are disgusting. Why do they make biscuits that people don’t like? I mean, people only eat the horrible ones cuz the nice ones are all gone. Why don’t they make a tin of biscuits with only has the nice ones? The world is so bloody stupid sometimes. Anyway, it’s because they can’t afford a packet of chocolate biscuits in this house I bet ye.

“Take your hands out of there, you dirty wee shite,” says Uncle Tommy.

I look to see who he’s talking too.

“He’s lookin’ about him. I’m talking to you,” he points at me. “Get your hands out of your shorts.” Everybody is laughing.

I look down and my hand is down my shorts playing with my dick. With lightning-speed, I pull my hand out of there.

“Ye dirty wee cunt ye! What are ye looking for down there anyway?” he says. “Do you even have anything to play with?”

They all think this is hysterical. Even my allies are joining in. The women normally protect me against the men. Aunt Margaret, why are you laughing? Even Teresa.

“Leave him alone, Da.”

Thanks Teresa but I saw you laughin’, you’ve already betrayed me.

“Sure, he’s sitting there playing with himself the whole time,” says Uncle Tommy.

So I must have been. I always have my hand down there but no-one has ever said anything about it to me before. I must do it without thinking. That will never happen again. You see, there’s all these things I don’t know. It’s things like this that make me different. It’s to do with my dick and it makes me different and everybody knows it. What is it?

Your mission: to destroy all things that make them pick on you. Never do anything without thinking.

“You like playin’ ‘sissy with the wee girls’, don’t you?” Uncle Tommy winks at his audience like he’s in a pantomime. They laugh.

I look to the door.

“I bet if you looked down there he wouldn’t have a willy at all. Wha’d’ye’reckon?”

“Leave him alone. Look at the poor child, he’s distracted.”

Thanks Aunt Margaret and for the crisps and Coke you always give me. But what kept you so long? I’m dying here.

“Let’s have a look shall we? Come here till we pull your shorts down.”

*

The big door. Locked. I can’t open it. Someone’s coming.

“Leave me alone.” Please God! I’ll do anything you want. I won’t play with the girls anymore.

I turn. It’s Teresa. “Come back in. I won’t let them touch you.”

“Let me out of here. I hate this house. It smells and you smell – and your Ma.”

“Ok, Mickey, I’ll open the door, don’t go out there crying.”

“I’m not cryin’. Let me out.”

If she hadn’t have come I wouldn’t have cried. I can’t hide from her. Women always look at me like they can see inside me. Like they know me. Like they feel sorry for me.

The door opens and I run and I run. Double speed. Triple speed. 400 billion, trillion miles per hour, per minute, per second. I run like fuck. I get to the top of the Bray and it’s a gigantic slope down. Will you do the run of certain pain? I will. I accept the challenge laid down by you in my head. OK Billy Big Bollocks let’s see you try.

I run down that friggin’ hill. Like a big bastard, I run. I run and I can’t keep up with my legs. Legs. I can’t keep up with them. I can’t control them. You’re breaking up, you’re breaking up… my legs are saying to my head. They can’t quite get the message my brain is sending them.

“Slow down!” They won’t respond. “Come in legs, are you receiving me?”

You’re breaking up say my legs. I lose control and slow motion kicks in, like on telly. We’ve lost him says Mind Control HQ.

Crash!

Mickey Donnelly. A boy barely alive. But we can rebuild him. We have the technology to make the world’s first Bionic Boy.

I hit the ground. I feel nothing. I hit it again. I feel nothing. I’m like the bouncing bomb in that war movie. Shit, I forget my force field. Too late to employ it now. Here we go. I hit the ground again and this time it connects with my face. I hear something crunch and I get a tingling all over my body. My lip stings. Not too bad. Then a dead stop.

I don’t open my eyes. If anyone saw they’d be laughin’. If can’t see people looking at me then no-one saw me. But if they did get away with it and no one saw, then the longer I lie here the more likely it is I’ll get caught on. I look up and no one’s here. My T-shirt is ripped and my shorts are piggin’ dirty. My elbows and knees are scratched to frig and bleedin’. I can’t feel my lips and my right eye bone hurts. But all I feel is like I got off a ride at the fair – dizzy and a bit sick but wouldn’t mind doin’ it again.

A woman walks round the corner and I jump up but I can’t hold my knees straight. Things start to really hurt. From she’s lookin’ at me it must be bad. I try to run but my knees won’t let me, they keep giving way so I’m running like Igor. You rang, master?

I’m in the estate and people are starin’ at me. No wonder, the way I’m running. They’re pointing and laughin’. Why do people want to laugh all the time? Not nice laughin’. Laughin’ when someone’s hurt. Laughin’ to make them hurt. I try to laugh, as if I think it’s funny too. I can’t.

I want to go home. I want my Ma. “Mammy! Mammy!” There’s no way she could hear me from across the street, but I call her anyway. I want to call her. “Mammy.”

Hot tears are on my face and they can all see me cry because I want my Mammy. I won’t live that down but I can’t help myself. Ma won’t hit me for earlier if see’s I’m hurt, will she?

“Mammy!” I bang the big door open. “Mammy!” I scream going into the hall. I open the wee door into the living room. They’re all watching telly.

“Oh Holy Mother of God! Oh Holy Christ! Look at him. John get up,” says Ma.

“What do you want me to do?” My big brother just stares at me.

I fall onto the floor and cry like a big baby. “Mammy.” My Mammy holds me. All she keeps saying is “What happened?” What happened?”.

I just about get it out.

“I told you about a hundred times about that friggin’ Bray. Look at your good T-shirt.”

I’m really crying now cuz she’s shouting at me.

“Shush, don’t wake up your Da. John, close that door. Shush now, Mickey, don’t let your Da hear.”

She holds me into her chest to cover the sound of my cryin’. I just can’t stop. Just like the running. I can’t control it. Ma’s smothering me and I can’t breathe. I don’t tell her about what happened at Aunt Margaret’s. I know she’ll find out but she won’t say anything to me, she looks after me that way.

*

I’m lying on the sofa eating crisps and drinking Coke and even have a bar of chocolate. I’ve got plasters on my knees and my elbows and my lip is swollen. I look brilliant. Bending things hurts but I quite like it. Everybody’d gone out except m’Ma who’s in the kitchen. I’m in the living room watchin’ whatever I want.

“Who’s down there?” It’s him from upstairs. What does he want? He always spoils everything.

“Was that your Da?” Ma asks.

“No, it was the telly.”

She turns off the TV.

“Who’s there?” he calls.

She looks at me. I won’t look at her.

“Mickey? Mickey is that you?”

Ma walks out to the hall and looks up the stairs. “They’re all away out playing.”

I tiptoe to the door and go to the hall.

“Tell Mickey I want him,” he says.

“He’s long gone.” She pushes me round her and out to the path.

“Send him up when he comes in.”

“Right.”

I see the girls playing across the street. “Mickey, you playing?” one asks.

All the boys must be playin’ on the waste ground today.

“Nah, I’m going up the field.”

“What’s the matter with you? We not good enough for you anymore?”

I head to the field and go to my hiding place for my jam jar. After some serious bee-catching I might pass by the waste ground and watch the boys for a while.

This was first published in the anthology, New Century, New Writing, edited by P-P Hartnett (Millivres Press)

Throughout July, we shall explore The Good Son from many angles, not just with its author but also with contributions by several other well-known writers, including Lisa McInerney, winner of the Baileys and Desmond Elliott Prize; Laura van den Berg, whom Salon.com called “the best young writer in America”; Alison Moore, Booker-shortlisted author of The Lighthouse; Lucy Caldwell, winner of the Dylan Thomas & Rooney Prize; Danielle McLaughlin; Paul Burston, author of seven novels and founder of The Polari Salon & Prize; as well as Sarah Hutchings of City Reads Brighton; the author’s agent, Carrie Kania; and his British and German publishers, Jen Emery-Hamilton and Lena Luczak. The month will culminate in a podcast in which the author will discuss his novel with Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times. This will be published on July 31st and recorded at a public event in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Tuesday, July 19th, at 7.30pm.

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