Authors: Gerard Brennan
"There's nobody in here," Wee Paul said.
"Aye, thanks for that, mate. Just you keep me up to date."
The room seemed untouched. Bedclothes unruffled, the wardrobe and chest of drawers neatly shut, clock radio, TV and Xbox all present and accounted for. He checked the other bedroom and the bathroom. Nothing out of place.
"This is weird, mate. Why would someone break into your house and take nothing?"
Stephen shrugged. "Maybe they were looking for cash."
"Do you keep any in the house?"
"Just a few quid in the kitchen to pay the window cleaner and get milk. I use my Switch card for most things."
"Well, we may check the kitchen then."
Downstairs, all was in order. Even his jar of change on top of the fridge had been left alone.
"Are you sure I closed that front door properly?" Stephen asked.
"One hundred percent. I thought you were going to pull it through the frame, in fact."
"This is fucking weird."
He unlocked the backdoor and stepped into the yard. His gate sat open and the guttering from his kitchen extension lay on the ground by the wall. It looked like it'd been used as a handhold by an amateur scumbag. Squinting against the setting sun, he traced an alternative route into his home and tightened his lips. Somebody really had broken in. He hadn't noticed at first glance, but his bathroom window was opened much wider than usual. But why hadn't they taken anything?
"Stephen," Wee Paul peeped his head around the doorframe. "Come on back in and look at this."
He followed Wee Paul to the living room. Now that his adrenaline blinkers had faded he noticed it before his friend pointed it out. His mystery visitor had drawn a crude pair of breasts on his Bruce Lee picture. And across his stomach they'd scrawled one word.
Paul only allowed himself to smirk after he'd parked the Clio outside his own house. After all the shit McVeigh had given him, he didn't even feel one bit guilty about it. He'd left the big man trembling with rage in his living room, glare fixed on his defaced icon. After he explained the situation to Louise and advised her to give McVeigh some time to cool down, he took his own advice and sloped off.
Wee Owen waved out at him through the window. He gave his son the thumbs up and climbed out of the car. Sinead half-smiled up at him from the sofa as he dropped his kit bag at the bottom of the stairs.
"There's tea in the pot if you want one, babe," she said.
"Thanks. I quite fancy a coffee though."
He hesitated for a second, but she made no indication that she intended to get up and make him one. He rolled his eyes and went to the kitchen. On the countertop he found a plastic bag from
Wheels R Us
, the car accessory shop. He poked inside and found a large Playgirl Bunny decal. It looked as if it would fill a large portion of the Clio's rear window. Paul forgot about his coffee.
"What the fuck is this?"
"Paul! Watch your language. Owen's..."
"Get in here."
"Who the fuck do you think you...?"
Get in here, now!
The sofa springs creaked as Sinead dragged herself off the cushion. She trudged slowly into the kitchen, as if on her way to the gallows. Paul flexed the muscles in his jaw, all the more wound up that she seemed to possess no ability to rush. He wanted to charge and shake her until the teeth rattled in her head.
"What's wrong?" Her meek voice cracked and sprang up an octave.
"This." Paul held the plastic bag in front of him at arms length.
"What about it?"
"It's the last straw."
"But nothing. You've hijacked that fucking car from me. Bad enough that I bought the model you were wetting yourself over, now you're going to tart it up to make it look like even more of a girl's car? I can barely sit in it without taking a reddener as it is. But this bunny sticker? Fuck! Do you want to just stick a pair of tits on me now? Call me Paula?"
"Paul, you're acting like..."
"Shut up. Just shut up. Nothing you say right now is going to help."
Sinead's lower lip quivered. Her big brown eyes moistened and she sniffed, but she didn't speak. Paul took a deep breath.
"There are going to be some changes in this house, Sinead. Starting now." He dropped the plastic bag on the floor between them. "That's not going on the car. Get a refund, store credit or burn the fucking thing. But keep it away from
"I'm heading out for a few hours. You put Owen to bed, tidy the place up a bit and make me a sandwich to take to work tomorrow. It's time you started pulling your weight. And don't you dare yap about your sciatica. It never flares up in the club on Saturday night."
Sinead wiped her wrist across her wet cheeks. She nodded again, defeated before she realised they'd been fighting. Relief flushed through Paul's body. Too much had been left unsaid for too long. He knew what his family thought of his wife. It'd never been said out loud, but they picked their barbed questions with expertise.
Sinead looks tired this week. Have you her working too hard in that house? Does Wee Owen always ask you for his dinner before Sinead? Where's Sinead today? Cleaning the house? Oh, Sleeping? Well, I suppose Wee Owen is hard work, isn't he? I mean, look at you; you've lost more weight.
And it was all a polite way of saying,
Sinead's a lazy bitch.
He checked his pockets for cash and keys then swept past his wife and straight out the front door. Wee Owen raked back the vertical blinds and waved at him through the window again. Paul gave him another thumbs up and gunned the engine. He'd get the child some sweets to make up for leaving without spending any time with him.
Without admitting to himself where he was headed, he took the Falls Road into the city. Belfast opened late on Thursday night. He could have gone to Castlecourt Shopping Centre for a browse and a bite to eat. He could have strolled up and down Royal Avenue and rated the window-shopping women on a scale of one to ten. He could have gone to an internet café and played online pool until closing time. But he didn't. Instead, he navigated the city's one-way traffic system and found himself trundling up Linenhall Street, evaluating the Lycra-skirted goods.
After his first pass he looped the loop down Ormeau Avenue, onto Bedford Street and back onto the meat market stretch via Clarence Street. On his second ogle he spotted a girl that stood out from her contemporaries. Long leather jacket. Wavy blonde hair. Arrogant chin tilt. She looked like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wee Danny sometimes watched it. The show was stupid, but the wee blonde had plenty going for her. He pulled up to Buffy-a-like's stretch of kerb before the big brain could overrule the little one. Cold sweat trickled from his armpits to his floating ribs as he wound down the window.
"You looking for company, darling?" Her Cockney accent contradicted, yet highlighted, her American style.
"Um... what way...?"
"Do you want directions or a fuck?"
Paul blinked. "No... I'm looking for... um... you know?" He laughed at himself. She would hardly knock him back. "Look, I want a shag."
"That's the spirit. First time?"
"No. I mean, aye. Like..."
"Shall I just get into the car?"
"I'm not cheap."
"Okay. I have money."
"Good. So long as we both understand how this works, we'll both have a good night."
Paul held his breath as she slinked by the front of the car and slipped in the passenger side. The little car rocked slightly as she settled into her seat. She gave Paul a slow, sexy wink.
"Does your missus know you've got her car out?"
Liam studied Tommy's dead face. It didn't freak him out. It didn't even look like Tommy. No glasses. Pale skin pulled taut across reconstructed cheekbones. Freckles disappeared by makeup. He stepped back from the white coffin after what seemed like a respectable viewing time. He didn't force tears. His poker face would be construed as a mask of shock by the people gathered at Tommy's wake. The hushed chatter in the lamp-lit living room continued through Liam's performance. Drug-numb from his replenished grass stash, he kept guilt and grief at bay.
By the sandwich-laden sideboard, the Fegan twins shook his hand in turn. Liam approved and offered each of them a half-smile and a sigh. It seemed grown up and suitably serious behaviour in the presence of the white coffin. Tommy's box glowed against the backdrop of drawn curtains. A dead kid in his parents' living room. What a fucked up tradition. Liam nodded towards the front door and the twins stepped out of the house with him and into the summer twilight. He'd had better Fridays.
"Did you hear about the dipso at the Falls Road Library?" Matt Fegan asked.
Liam shook his head. Maybe a little too quickly. Matt didn't seem to notice. He licked his lips and smiled.
"Burnt to a fucking crisp. Set himself on fire with a fag or something. Too drunk to wake up and put himself out."
Liam's skin burned in a hot wave of guilt and relief.
Just another dead dipso
, he told himself. If it was written off as an accident, then he could rest easy over the whole thing. The story kept him out of trouble at least. And maybe in time he'd forget the smell of the burning sleeping bag... He swallowed hard and grasped for a distraction.
"You shouldn't be talking about that." Liam said. "We're here to remember Tommy, not think about some aul wino. Who's got a fag?"
"I need something stronger to smoke," Eddie Fegan said. "Have you any grass on you?"
"Not here, mate. It'd be disrespectful."
"Oh, right. Matt, give Liam a fag."
The younger twin tilted a half-empty pack towards Liam.
"Cheers." Liam lit up and pulled smoke into his cottony mouth. "I'm dying of thirst. Could murder a tin of Fanta."
"Sure we'll dander to the shop," Matt said.
Liam knew the twins were more interested in questioning him than smoking his grass or joining him in a quest for Fanta. He also knew he'd have to tell his version of the Tommy Tragedy sooner or later. He decided to tackle it head on as they walked.
"Go ahead and ask me."
"About what?" Eddie asked.
"About the other day. About getting chased by that peeler. About Tommy getting splattered all over the road."
"I heard they found bits of him in the grounds of City Hall," Matt said. "That has to be about fifty yards from those traffic lights."
Liam tried not to laugh. "Don't be so fucking stupid. Where'd you hear that?"
The twin frowned. "Don't know. I just heard."
Liam imagined one of the Goth kids sitting about the green outside City Hall casually flicking Tommy's ear off his shoulder. Then he remembered the screaming girl at the traffic lights, the beads of Tommy's blood on her face, and it wasn't funny anymore.
"Well it's shite. Don't let me hear you say that again, all right?"
Matt gave Liam a hard stare but kept his mouth shut.
"So what did happen?" Eddie asked, shaking his head at his brother.
"Well, me and Tommy ran like fuck to keep the heat off you lot. I've never ran so fast in my life. And fair play to our Tommy, he matched me step for step. I thought we were going to make it. The cop was falling behind, the wee green man was lit up, we could have disappeared into the crowd and everything would have been sweet. But then Tommy had one of his asthma attacks."
"Did he tell you to leave him behind?"
"No, Eddie, but he was really fighting to breathe. He couldn't say shit."
"Poor wee bastard."
Liam nodded. "Aye. It was desperate. I did what I could for him. The lights had changed and the traffic was picking up speed, but going full tilt I'd have made it. No sweat. I couldn't leave Tommy to get scooped though. I grabbed his arm and tried to give him an extra boost across the road. Tommy nodded like he was telling me we could make it."