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b y   N u a l a   N í    C h o n c h i r

 

I watched a black-as-tar crow, mincing like a rock-star on the path in front of us: he jumped forward two steps, then back, cocked his head, and leapt to the side. I smiled. My bum-bones were numb from sitting on the bench and Dara had been talking for ages, his voice pitching and keeling, the more he tried to convince.

‘He’s putting on a show for us.’ I looked at Dara, he made a face – I’d cut across him.
‘What?’ he said.

‘The crow.’ I pointed. ‘He’s dancing. Probably just looking for food.’

‘Brenda, are you even listening to me?’ He said it quietly, stared at his hands.

‘Did you know the Irish word for crow is ‘préachán’? It’s a great word, isn’t it? Préachán.’ I drew the sound of it out over my tongue. ‘It sounds exactly like what a crow sounds like. It’s onomatopoeic.’ I was babbling; I glanced at Dara again. ‘Better then caw-caw-caw, anyway.’

The bird bounced backwards, barked from its throat a couple of times, flicked a last look at us and flew off. I gazed down over the park: at the people walking dogs, at the mammies with their buggy-bound babies.

‘Well?’ he said.

‘I’m just not sure about it; it’s a bit weird.’ I took his arm, rubbed it through his coat with my gloved hand. ‘What’s it they call it – “a mercy fuck”?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so. Look, you don’t have to do it. I just thought, you know, like I said, you already know each other and Philip needs it, and you’re great, you’d be nice to him…well, anyway, think about it.’ He pulled me to him and cupped my chin in his hands. ‘I love you, Brenda, you know?’ He kissed me, a little kiss. We stood up, linked arms and walked down along the path. ‘Philip thinks you’re a ride – did I mention that already?’

I thumped him on the chest and laughed. ‘I’ll think about the whole thing. Look, don’t mention it again until I’ve made a decision. I’ll let you know.’

Philip’s illness fell on him. One day he was alright, the next he had multiple sclerosis. None of us could believe it. We tried to treat him the same as ever before – we slagged him about his lack of a girlfriend, his clumpy hair, his love of Johnny Cash and, later, about the blackthorn walking-stick his uncle gave him to help him get around. His endless tiredness. As his legs weakened, we wheeled him everywhere: to the pub, to gigs, into town; we accused him of being lazy. It was hard watching his muscles freeze up. Hardest of all for him.
Philip was given a wheelchair-friendly flat in a small housing-estate, and an independent living allowance, and he got on with life. I loved this new place: the ramps, the low-level furniture, the wide spaciness of it. The flat had a dirty-sweet, unlived-in smell, though, that swarmed like the stench over a rubbish dump. It seemed as if the air in the rooms didn’t circulate properly because it wasn’t moved through enough. But it was a clean-walled, bright space and I liked going there.
I sat in a tub chair, my hands bunched around a mug of tea. Philip sat opposite me in his wheelchair, silent as a painting, looking out the window. Heavy rain had made a turlough of the field below the housing-estate and seagulls were scattered across it like paper boats. We watched them lift and fall on the water, their heads held high.
‘It’s like being in the middle of the country here,’ I said.
‘Apart from the traffic-noise from the motorway. And the pylons.’ His words had started to slur more and more, but I could always understand him.
‘And the ambulance sirens and the wailing ice-cream van.’ I thought for a minute. ‘The mad dogs. The kids.’
‘And the junkies, don’t forget them. The dealers. Where would we be without our local, friendly drug lord?’ Philip sipped his tea. ‘Yeah, it’s an idyll alright.’ We looked at each other and laughed.
‘I brought my camera,’ I said, reaching into my bag. ‘Your Ma asked me to take a few photos of you. For the mantelpiece.’
‘For my memorial card, more like.’ He smiled. ‘Go on, then. But you’d better do something with my hair.’
I left the camera down and wet my hands at the sink. I ran my fingers over Philip’s hair, then through it, pulling it into shape. It felt springy and I watched the water change its colour from dirty-blonde to sedge brown.
‘That’s a bit better,’ I said, and stood back to look at him.
‘Only a bit?’
‘I’m using black and white film – you’ll look totally gorgeous, in spite of yourself.’ I took his tea-cup away and put the camera to my eye. ‘There’ll be two flashes, Phil, just keep looking at me.’
‘I’ll try.’ He giggled through the side of his mouth, not wanting to look up. ‘God, I hate getting my photo taken.’
I took several shots of his face, each one from a different angle. He smiled, then looked serious, then looked out the window. After a while, he seemed to forget about me. I dipped the camera and started to shoot his hands where they lay in his lap. The light from the window made shadows under his wrists and fingers; when I zoomed in I could see the pores, the hairs, the moles decorating his skin. He had beautiful hands.
‘So, I hear you want to fuck me?’ I smiled as I said it – the viewfinder still to my eye – but my stomach was hopping.
‘What? No, I…’ He dropped his chin to his chest; I could see a line of pink scalp through his hair. It made me imagine him as a baby, in his mother’s arms.
‘It’s OK, Philip, Dara told me about your conversation.’ I leaned towards him. ‘I don’t mind, I’m flattered.’
‘It was his idea. I mean, you were his idea. I just wanted anybody, you know, so that I wouldn’t die without ever having…’
He looked away. I put down my camera, onto the floor, and knelt in front of him. I placed my hands over his. ‘Don’t talk about dying.’
‘It’s going to happen, Brenda. I have to face it. We all do.’
I laid my cheek against his knees and pushed his hands into my hair. ‘Just let me know when you’re ready, Phil, and I’ll be here.’

Dara held me hard that night, his skin close on my skin, the length of his body tight to mine. He breathed in my ear, told me he’d love me forever, called me his gorgeous girl. I savoured his weight pressing down on me, as always, and the slide of our mixed sweat. I licked his ear-lobes, bit them lightly, pressed my hands into the drift of hair along the small of his back, and kissed the mushroom-cloud shapes left on his arm from childhood vaccinations. We bucked together, called each other’s names, and he stayed on top of me afterwards for a long time, his cock lying wet and soft inside me, like a flower.
‘You don’t have to go through with it, Bren, you know? This thing with Philip.’
Dara’s mouth was on my neck, making a muffle of his words. I levered his body away from mine, by pushing his chest up, and slid out from under him. I rolled to face him.
‘It was your idea.’
‘Well, I’ve changed my mind. We’ll think of someone else for him.’
I leaned over, trying to see his face in the grey light. ‘Dara, it’s too late, I’ve told Philip I’ll go ahead with it.’
‘I’ll tell him you’ve changed your mind.’
‘But I haven’t.’ I stroked his cheek. ‘You have.’
He stared at me. ‘Oh, I see. I get it. You actually want to have sex him.’ He turned to the wall, dragging most of the quilt with him. I poked his back with a fingernail.
‘Turn around. Turn around to me, Dara.’ He wouldn’t. I pulled at his arm, kissed the tattoo on his shoulder, tugged at the sweat-soaked ends of his hair. ‘I don’t particularly want to have sex with Philip.’ I paused. ‘But he’s our friend.’ He shrugged my hand off his skin. ‘Dara. Dara. Oh, just fuck off then. It seems to have slipped your mind that you were the one who came up with this. Not me.’ I turned my back to his and we lay, spine to cold spine.

Philip’s mouth tasted different to Dara’s: sweeter, softer, less urgent. I hadn’t been expecting to like his kisses. We’d decided to have a practice run – to ease the pressure on both of us – so that if it went wrong, we knew we could try again. He was in bed when I arrived; I let myself in with the key he’d had cut and called out that it was only me.
I could tell, when I slid in beside him, that his underwear was new – I could see loose, same-colour threads clinging to the fabric; I was touched. I’d worn a white vest and knickers set; nothing too clingy or obvious, I didn’t want to give him a fright. Philip lay on his back and I put my hand onto his bare stomach. He shivered.
‘Am I cold?’
‘No, not really.’
I cuddled in closer to him, laid my head on his chest. I liked the heft of him; Dara was slim, almost slight, and it was nice to feel Philip’s bulk under my arms.
‘Love the hairy chest, mister. What a man!’
He laughed, hugged me close to him and we kissed, deep and long.
‘Is this OK?’ he asked and I said that it was. I touched his cheeks and told him that we didn’t have to do anything this time, we’d take it as slow as he liked. The heat of his skin was heating mine and I leaned in and kissed him again, playing my tongue over his lips. ‘This feels mad,’ he said, his nose touching mine, his hands wrapped into my hair.
‘I know. But it’s kind of comfortable too. Strangely so.’
‘I was just thinking the same thing,’ he whispered.
I breathed deep on Philip’s smell – a mix of damp skin and something like chamomile – and slid my tongue slowly over his. My hands caressed his skin, up and down the length of his body, over his bum. His breathing changed. I asked him if he was alright and when he nodded, I peeled back his boxer-shorts and straddled him; he moaned from somewhere far down inside and I started to move.

I had collected the photographs of Philip from the developers on the way home. I sat at the kitchen table to open the package; I wanted to arrange them into an album for his mother. I heard a clicking noise and looked up: a magpie was doing a crazy polka on the windowsill outside. I watched it jump in taut circles – it seemed to be searching for something. I saluted it and said, ‘Good day, good day Mr. Magpie’, to keep away the bad luck it might bring. I took the photos from their pack. The door opened; Dara came in and stood at the kitchen counter, smoking.
‘I didn’t realise you were going to stay the whole night.’
‘Oh.’ I looked past him, not meeting his eyes. I noticed, for the first time, that the wall behind him was like a sweep of cellulited skin: the pale paint mottled and puckered all over. I yawned.
‘Tired?’ He flicked his ash into a yogurt pot.
‘No, just hungry. Smoke that in the garden, will you, Dara?’ He was staring at me.
‘So, how did it go?’
‘I’m not discussing it.’ I got up and opened the fridge, then looked up at him. ‘As agreed.’
‘Suit yourself.’
Dara began to clip his nails with his teeth, spitting the leavings into the air; his jumper was sprigged with dandruff. I looked at him and sighed.
‘You could do with a shower, sweetheart,’ I said, putting my hand on his belly and rubbing it.
‘I’m sure you could do with one yourself.’
Finishing his smoke, he rinsed the smelly fag-end under the tap before throwing it into the sink. He shrugged into his coat and left. The magpie jittered and hopped outside and I stared at it, then back down at the photos on the table. I spread them out and flicked through them, then stacked them in a thick heap in front of me. None of the ones of Philip’s face had come out properly: they were fogged and shaky. In every picture, he looked like a moving ghost, his features a surreal blur. The ones of his hands were perfect, though: sharp, with the shadows stark and deep. I spent ages peering closely at them and trailing my fingers over his.

 

 




notes:

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