Hen­nessy New Ir­ish Writ­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY NEIL BRIS­TOW

This month’s winning short story and po­ems

We matched on the morn­ing of my fa­ther’s fu­neral. I was just putting on my hired grief out­fit – black jacket, tie, trousers, shoes – when I heard the ping of my phone. I picked it up, swiped the screen, glanced at the photo and thought Yes, he’ll do. Hi, what’s up?, I wrote. Out­side the room my mother said some­thing to Shane about so­lic­i­tors and in­quests. In­side, I looped the tie round my neck, briefly imag­in­ing it as a piece of rope.

My phone pinged again. It was him: Hey. I’m good. You?

There seemed lit­tle rea­son to tell the truth, so I an­swered, Fine.

We got chat­ting. He was from Brazil, in Dublin visit­ing a friend. Just look­ing for fun. In sex he liked a, b, and c. And me? Also just visit­ing; fam­ily busi­ness. This didn’t seem to in­ter­est him. In­stead he pushed for my pref­er­ences. Sim­i­lar to his, I replied, though maybe not item c on his list (the hy­giene fac­tor). Fine, he could live with­out. Was I a smoker? No. HIV? Not the last time I got tested. And him? He also claimed to be clean; I chose to be­lieve him. Ac­cord­ing to the app we were eight kilo­me­tres apart. Was I free now?

I checked the time. Twenty-past nine. The fu­neral was at eleven. Not im­pos­si­ble, but it would be a tight fit, and not of the kinky kind. As one of my fa­ther’s sloshed golf bud­dies had slurred at last night’s wake, his phlegmy breath pol­lut­ing mine: Time’s pre­cious, young man, use

it wisely. So I wrote that right now wasn’t good, but maybe after lunch, if he was still around? He replied that he wasn’t sure, but prob­a­bly.

We agreed, com­mit­ment-free, to touch in later.

Soon af­ter­wards, my mother, brother and I drove down from Howth to the church in Sut­ton. A large crowd was wait­ing. A fine turn

out, I heard some­one say, for a fine man .Asea of leath­ery hands reached out, and from this sea rose count­less mur­murs of loss and sorry. Some­one even men­tioned press mem­bers lurk­ing.

In­side the church the same pro­ce­dure I dimly re­mem­bered from my grand­par­ents’ fu­ner­als many years ago. Back then, I’d been too young to feel much of any­thing; to­day that was pre­cisely the aim. On the flight over from Manch­ester, as pretty, teenage flight at­ten­dants screamed of­fers for creamy lat­tes and de­li­cious pani­nis over the plane’s PA, I’d won­dered if I’d cry. The death had, after all, been some­what sur­pris­ing, though more for the man­ner (car, pier) than the tim­ing. Now, sit­ting in the front row, I had my an­swer: my eyes stayed desert dry. Hard to say why. The man had helped house, clothe, feed me, paid for my school­ing, and never beat me, or only rarely, and then when jus­ti­fied. By all ac­counts a loyal friend, tem­per­ate drinker, pass­able golfer, dis­creet adul­terer (I spot­ted her there, alone in the back row, still re­called from that glimpse on South Anne Street); bit of a swine in other words, but no worse than most of his kind. Still it wasn’t enough. As the priest blath­ered on about grace, eter­nity and Christ, I felt no con­nec­tion to the sur­round­ings. Gaz­ing up at the arched stone ceil­ing, I imag­ined it col­laps­ing and bury­ing us alive.

After the six-grand cof­fin was lugged away – Shane and I shoul­der-to-shoul­der, a rare sight th­ese days (Dad dead come home, his four-word text had read, the first com­mu­ni­ca­tion we’d had in over half a year) – and placed in the ground, we gath­ered at the Marine Ho­tel, sur­rounded by the same free­loaders who’d as­cended to the house for the whiskey-soaked wake the pre­vi­ous night. Flame-cheeked, claw-fin­gered, they tossed drinks down while belch­ing out anec­dotes about horse-rac­ing and golf, and the fine work my fa­ther had done pro­vid­ing the stone for ex­ten­sions to their houses. At some point I stopped lis­ten­ing, looked at my own right hand clutch­ing a wine glass, and no­ticed grisly veins bulging be­neath the skin. It was as much as I could take, and I ex­cused my­self to visit the toi­let.

I shut my­self into a pris­tine white cu­bi­cle. Ad­ja­cent, a man low­ered his trousers. I lis­tened as he splat­ter­shat the bowl.

The world was awash with waste. You ei­ther swam in it or drowned.

I took out my phone. Break­ing news: A ter­ror­ist plot against Heathrow Air­port had been thwarted; a Trump tweet had not. Ig­nor­ing both sto­ries, I checked out where the Brazil­ian was now. Ac­cord­ing to the app, only six kilo­me­tres away, sug­gest­ing I’d come closer while he was in the same place.

Hey, I wrote. Hi, he wrote back, as next to me the toi­let flushed and my neigh­bour left the bath­room with­out wash­ing his hands. Did what you needed? A per­ti­nent ques­tion. Al­most, I wrote back. Still wanna meet?

Guess so. When? 20 min­utes? Okay. Where?

I named the spot. Back in the lounge, I told my mother that the oc­ca­sion was over­whelm­ing and I needed fresh air. Sure, honey, what­ever you feel is best, she purred, be­fore some ac­quain­tance of my fa­ther slith­ered up to se­duce or con­sole her. She was nearly sixty, but with her dyed blond hair and sub­tle surgery still more at­trac­tive than most of the lizards here. Part of her seemed to en­joy the day’s the­atri­cal­ity.

On my way out I made eye-con­tact, but no more, with my drunk brother.

I hailed a taxi and told the driver to head to­wards Clon­tarf. ‘Fu­neral?’ he asked as soon as we set off. ‘Yeah.’ ‘Fam­ily?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘No one close, I hope?’ I re­flected for a mo­ment. ‘No.’ ‘Still,’ he winked, ‘good to show up. Might land your­self a few bob.’ That inim­itable Dublin charm. ‘We’ll see.’ I re­mem­bered what Shane said he’d gleaned from our fa­ther’s ac­count­ing records: debts rapidly mount­ing, the busi­ness close to bank­ruptcy. That would be our prob­lem now. But not for the next few min­utes.

The Brazil­ian was wait­ing by the wooden bridge, as in­structed. He looked only slightly worse than his photo, the tight brown curls of his hair al­ready grey-flecked, though ac­cord­ing to his pro­file he wasn’t yet thirty. He wore jeans, run­ners, and a zip-up Nike top: Just do it.

I shook hands for what seemed like the hun­dredth time that day, but in this grip felt only cold in­ten­tion, no pity. ‘Where we wanna go?’ he asked. ‘Up here,’ I said, point­ing to the path be­yond

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY CLIODHNA DEMPSEY

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