Authors: Gerard Brennan
Her own son, flinching away from her. How could things have gotten so out of hand?
"Maybe I should go," Stephen said.
"I don't want you to."
"It's okay, Louise. I can understand why Joe's upset." He turned to Joe. "I'm a friend of you ma's, but I don't want to rock the boat. If you want me to, I'll leave. It's up to you."
Joe looked at Stephen, then Louise. He pushed out his lower lip. A childish expression Louise hadn't seen on him in years. "Do what you want."
Joe stomped up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door shut.
"I'm sorry about that," she said.
"You're so nice. Thank you."
"Ach, wise up. I'll be okay here for a bit if you want to go talk to him. You probably should."
Louise almost welled up. She nodded and followed her son up the stairs.
She found Joe lying on his bed with his duvet pulled up over his head. His Nike Airs poked out at the end of his bed. The smell of dirty socks and cigarette smoke filled the room. Louise opened a window then knelt by the side of Joe's bed.
"We have to talk, son."
"Come on, Joe. I don't want to fight. I want us to get on."
Louise gently pulled the duvet away from Joe's face. He looked at her with brown puppy-dog eyes.
"I'm sorry for losing the bap with you yesterday, son. But you're not completely blameless yourself. What you said... it really hurt me."
Joe nodded. "I know mum. It just slipped out. I don't really think you're a... you know... one of those."
"I appreciate that, love. I'll work on my temper." She should have said she would never hit him again, but she didn't want to say it out loud. It still felt too raw.
Joe sat up in the bed and Louise gave him an awkward hug. He squeezed back for a second then patted her back to let her know he'd finished. She kissed his cheek and stood up.
"So why is McVeigh here, then?"
"I met him last night. He seems nice, so we're watching a DVD and having a wee drink. You can join us if you like."
Joe shook his head.
"You sure? We were about to get a takeaway. You're probably starving."
He shook his head again.
There was no point pushing the topic. Judging by his glazed eyes and silence, he was off somewhere in his head. He'd left the conversation to have a think.
"Okay, son. But if you get bored later, come on down."
The doorbell ding-donged.
Joe snapped out of his daze and looked at Louise.
"Are you expecting someone?" Louise asked.
"Could be Karen, I suppose. Better go see."
As she stepped out onto the landing she heard Stephen answer the door. What sounded like a pleasant greeting got a sharp return. Stephen raised his voice.
"Why? Who the fuck are
Louise stalled at the top of the stairs, afraid of what she might walk into. Joe stood on the landing with his head cocked, concentrating on the rising voices below.
"No, you tell me yours." Stephen said.
The mystery caller mumbled something.
"Like fuck you will. You may dander on now while your legs still work."
The anger in Stephen's voice broke her paralysis. She bolted down the stairs. Joe called her back, but she couldn't stand by.
She found Stephen blocking the door. The back of his neck burned bright red. "Stephen. What's going on?"
Stephen didn't turn around. "There's a wanker at the door saying he lives here. Won't believe me that he's got the wrong house and he's getting close to an awful hiding."
Louise couldn't see past Stephen's wide shoulders. But she heard the mystery man's voice. She took a dizzy spell at the sound of it.
"Louise, tell this ginger cunt to get out of my way."
The familiar voice set her heart into overdrive. "Oh my God. No."
Stephen turned and looked at her, angry and confused. "Do you know him?"
The visitor took advantage of Stephen's divided attention. Louise heard a hollow thump. Stephen yelped and went down. His hands went to his lower back. Kidney punch. She winced for him. The tall, dark, kind of good looking man stepped over Stephen's writhing body and smiled at Louise. Familiar smile, fatter face. She couldn't speak. Couldn't move.
She sensed Joe standing behind her. "What's going on?"
"Joe? Is that you? Jesus Christ, you've fairly grown."
"Who are you?"
Shit, shit, shit. Don't you dare tell him. Not now.
"I'm Dermot. Your dad. How the hell are you, Joe?"
Pain thrummed in Stephen's lower back.
The sneaky fucker stabbed me,
he thought, panicking. He held his hands up to his eyes when he could bear to open them. No blood.
His hands went back to his kidney to massage the agony. He concentrated on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. He didn't want to risk standing. Not yet. Better to wait. Wait until he was ready to hit the fucker who'd floored him. He rested his head on the laminate flooring. Dust and the ghostly scent of chemical floor cleaner tickled his nose.
He could hear Louise.
"... come waltzing back here whenever you feel like it? What's wrong with your head? All these years and not so much as a birthday card for your own son. You're a useless..."
So he'd just been sucker-punched by Joe's da. Afraid to face him like a man. Sleeked bastard.
"Louise, please," Joe's da said. His voice had a spoilt child whine to it. "Just listen to me for two minutes. Then I'll leave. Okay?"
"Then I don't have time to go into why I left and where I was. Just know that I had no choice. It was for the best. But that's not what I'm here for. I'm not after forgiveness. You've moved on, and I expected that. But I'm back in Belfast, probably for good. I want to get to know my son."
"It's a bit late now," Louise said.
"I'm trying to put things right. Don't write me off straight away. Please. Just let me leave my number. Then you can think about it and let me know. I promise you, I've changed."
"You've changed? I just watched you force your way in here. You've been back in my life for a few seconds and already you've hurt one of my friends. You're poison, Dermot Kelly. I'd be a fool to let you near Joe."
I'm going to break your neck for you.
"I'm sorry I hurt your friend, but I needed to talk to you. What could I have done?"
"Tried later, you stupid bastard!"
Stephen almost smiled.
"Can I leave my number?"
Silence. Stephen looked up at Louise from the floor. Her blue eyes bulged wide and unforgiving as she glared at Dermot, hands on hips and chin raised. Two spots of red burned on her high cheekbones like geisha makeup. Joe twitched behind her, jaw hanging. Dermot held a scrap of paper out. Louise shook her head.
"Why don't you ask Joe? He can speak for himself, you know."
Joe blinked. He looked at the back of Louise's head then at his da again.
"What about it, Joe?" Dermot asked. "Will you give me a chance?"
"Um..." Joe's skin reddened. "Okay. Give me your number. But I... I'm not promising anything."
"That's fair enough, Joe." He handed his son the ragged strip of paper. "I'll go now and give you two some time to think."
"I've done my thinking, Dermot," Louise said. "Don't let the door hit your fat arse on the way out."
Dermot knelt down by Stephen. He caught a glimpse of Joe in twenty years time in the smirking bastard. "I'm sorry about hitting you, big man. I wish I could take it back." But Stephen could read the amusement in his dark eyes. And smell the onions on his breath.
"Fuck you." Stephen tried to inject venom into his voice. He sounded constipated.
Dermot nodded. "I deserved that." Then he left.
Louise went to Stephen's aid immediately.
"Are you okay?" She stroked his face and grasped one of his hands.
"I'll live." Talking hurt, but he tried to hide it. "Do you have any ice?"
"No, but there's a bag of frozen peas you can have. Joe, help me lift him onto the sofa."
They took an arm each and Stephen did his best to push himself up on rubbery legs. They lay him face down on the sofa. Joe went to the freezer for the peas.
"I'm so sorry, Stephen."
"You didn't do it."
"I know, but you were only trying to look out for me."
"I didn't do a great job though."
"You would have. I distracted you and that fly bastard hit you from behind. Typical. Afraid to go toe-to-toe with a real man."
It meant a lot more to him than he would have expected that Louise thought of him as a real man. It'd been quite a while since he'd made time for a girlfriend, and he'd actually been enjoying himself earlier. Maybe a little too much, in light of his intentions. But he was sure he could keep sight of his plan. He'd gotten into Joe's home and now she'd trust him more than ever. On the downside, he had another wanker to take care of. Louise would probably thank him for getting at Dermot. With Joe, he'd have to be more subtle.
Joe had found the peas and handed them to Louise. He hopped from foot to foot as if he needed to go for a piss. Louise planted the bag of peas on Stephen's lower back. He hissed then sighed as he got used to the chill. The pain numbed a little.
"You should probably drink a lot of vodka," Louise said. "To help with the pain."
"I'll maybe wait until I can sit up again."
"Just let me know when you want me to help you move."
Joe continued to do the need-a-piss shuffle. Louise turned to him.
"Son, say what you want to say and quit your dancing. I'm sure you've plenty of questions. Spit them out."
Joe stopped shifting his weight from side-to-side. He fiddled with the waistband of his hoodie instead. "Was that really my da?"
"Um... do you think I should phone him?"
"I think you need to decide that for yourself. Do you want to phone him?"
"I don't know."
"Well, sleep on it."
"Would you be mad if I did call him?"
Louise lit a cigarette, hesitated, then handed it to Joe. She lit another one for herself. Joe puffed like a chimney. Stephen bit his tongue, but watching kids smoke always bugged him. He couldn't believe a mother would encourage her own child to poison himself. Even an advertisement for contraception like Joe.
"I'd probably be a little mad, but I'd understand. If you do decide you want your father in your life, I'll still love you. But I won't sit in the same room as that shite."
Joe went quiet. He blew a series of smoke rings, his mouth working like a goldfish's.
"It's only half ten, son. Why don't you go see if Wee Danny is about? It'd do you good to talk to a mate."
He didn't wait around to be asked twice. As he walked out Louise called after him.
"Be home before twelve. I don't want to go to bed not knowing where you are tonight."
He nodded and left. Louise turned to Stephen.
"We have the place to ourselves for a while. Think you can sit up?"
Stephen moved a fraction. A sharp twinge warned him to stay still. "Maybe wait another wee minute, eh?"